Blair's goal is to be a hometown hero

Blair proud of roots, wants to prove it

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DENVER -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo marveled yesterday at Pitt center DeJuan Blair's body, his long arms, his defensive lineman-sized trunk and that enormous fanny on which they could screen a drive-in movie. "I look at him, I say, 'My God, where do they grow those kind of guys?' " Izzo said. "I want to get one."

Others talk about Blair's production, which has been remarkable for a true freshman big man. In a lot of ways, he's having the best freshman season in Pitt history. The Panthers wouldn't be here, getting ready to play Izzo's bunch tonight in a second-round NCAA tournament game, without him.

But that's not the really neat thing about Blair.

It's that the kid is proud of where he comes from.

He talks up Pittsburgh every chance he gets. He talks up The Hill District. He talks up Schenley High School.

How refreshing is that?

Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato should put Blair on the payroll. Interest in Pitt from the national media has been growing steadily since the Panthers won the Big East Conference tournament, Barack Obama put them in his Final Four, Bobby Knight picked them to win the national championship, and they beat Oral Roberts in a first-round NCAA game Thursday. Blair never hesitates to brag about growing up on The Hill, about how playing ball with the older guys made him so tough, so physical, so unintimidated by anyone or any situation.

"I'm proud that I'm the first guy to come out of The Hill and go on to play college basketball" -- along with former Schenley teammate D.J. Kennedy at St. John's -- "in a long time," Blair said.

It's a nice story.

This makes it better:

"I want to be a hometown hero," Blair said, quietly. "I want people in my neighborhood to be able to look up to me."

That's a heck of a goal, if you ask me.

It led Blair to pick Pitt instead of Tennessee, Indiana or Kansas State. That decision has worked out better than anyone imagined.

"A man-child," Oral Roberts coach Scott Sutton called Blair.

"Big Fella" or just plain "Fella," the Pitt players call him.

The Big East co-rookie of the year, the league coaches called him.

"I didn't know I'd have such an impact on the team this soon," Blair said. "I prayed to God that I would, but I never dreamed He would answer me so quickly. I just prayed to have a healthy career and be able to bring everything I can to the table for my team and my school."

Blair isn't just averaging 11.6 points and 9.2 rebounds a game. His 10 rebounds against Oral Roberts gave him 330 for the season, breaking Sam Clancy's Pitt freshman record. His next double-double -- he has 14 -- will match Clancy's freshman record. And he's just 17 points from breaking Charles Smith's freshman season record of 435.

Pitt figures to need all of Blair's points and rebounds -- especially his rebounds -- against Michigan State. Izzo starts two 6-foot-10 guys -- Drew Naymick and Goran Suton. Naymick isn't much of a scorer, but he's a superb post defender and shot blocker. Suton is a big rebounder, the top reason Michigan State ranks eighth in Division I in rebounding. Everything Izzo likes to do -- notably his fastbreak offense -- is based on outrebounding the opposition.

"I'm not afraid of two 6-foot-10 dudes," Blair said, fairly sniffing.

"I've seen 7-foot-2 up close and personal."

That would be Georgetown center Roy Hibbert.

"I like playing against the taller guys," said Blair, who is 6-foot-7 and says he weighs 275 pounds. "Maybe the refs will feel sorry for me and let me bang a little bit."

This would be a wonderful game for Blair to stay out of foul trouble. That was a problem for him against Oral Roberts and in three of the four Big East tournament games. He had just two points against Cincinnati and played only nine minutes against Marquette. Pitt won because Tyrell Biggs came off the bench and gave the team quality minutes. But there's no question the Panthers are much better if Blair stays on the court.

"It's all about preparation and anticipation," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "He's still learning how to anticipate what the other team is looking to do with their sets and where they're trying to get the ball inside. He's got to be able to beat his man to that spot. It's defense before the catch.

"Fouls are going to happen. That's basketball. But he can eliminate a lot of his fouls if he's not late getting to a spot and then having to try to recover."

Said Blair, nodding, "If my man can't get the ball, I don't get the foul."

The good news for Pitt is that Blair thought he had a bad game against Oral Roberts, those 10 rebounds notwithstanding. In this postseason, he has followed his poor games with big ones. He had 16 points and eight rebounds against Louisville after the Cincinnati game. He went for 10 and 10 against Hibbert and Georgetown after the Marquette game.

That means ...

"It means I'm going to have a big game on Saturday," Blair said, grinning. "I can't wait. I plan on grabbing 15 or 20 rebounds."

That should be fun to watch.

It has been fun watching Blair all season, fun seeing his success, fun seeing him always smiling on the court and loving life ...

Is the man-child like Hines Ward or what?

Most of all, though, it has been fun watching Blair represent Pittsburgh so well, fun watching him make his hometown proud.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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