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Alexander Wolff
February 10, 1992
Available to NBA: Elmore Spencer, 7-foot center. Well traveled, now settled at UNLV. Immensely talented. Very talkative
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February 10, 1992

Spencer For Hire

Available to NBA: Elmore Spencer, 7-foot center. Well traveled, now settled at UNLV. Immensely talented. Very talkative

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He spent 36 days in Grady. Bradley spoke with him for two hours shortly after he was released. Spencer was still taking lithium and the tranquilizer Haldol, and his hands shook uncontrollably as he clutched a glass of water. At one point he tried in vain to express himself. "They're trying to take my words away from me," he said. "Words are my life."

Spencer continued taking medication after enrolling at Georgia. But because of his size, doctors had prescribed a heavy dosage, which further tricked up his sleeping habits. One morning during his first month in Athens, headed for an 8 a.m. class, Spencer boarded the bus that circumnavigates the campus and took a seat in the back. The Haldol, the humming of the engine and the warmth inside the bus all conspired to put him to sleep. He didn't wake up until 3:00 that afternoon, by which time half the student body had seen him. His dosage was adjusted, but by now preseason workouts had begun and the ordeal had taken its toll. Logy and dispirited, Spencer took a medical redshirt.

Off the medication and seemingly right again, Spencer came back for the 1988-89 season. In January, when he broke his foot against Alabama, Georgia was 9-2, partly because of Spencer's efforts—12 points and five rebounds a game. But he had played erratically and comported himself even more so, getting into a fight with a student in a dormitory and drawing probation for an incident in which he bullied the same student out of his groceries outside a store in Athens. The Georgia staff suggested he spend the second semester focusing on academics. "So I did," he says. "I focused on academics to the point where I decided I had to catch up."

Georgia, in the wake of the Jan Kemp affair that rocked the campus in the mid-'80s, was a university divided against itself as it struggled to reconcile academics and athletics. Spencer remembers a counselor showing him two lists before the start of his freshman-year season: one of courses taught by faculty who could be counted on to be sympathetic to athletes, another of courses to avoid. Something about this struck him as very wrong. Virtually all his credit hours to that point were for remedial courses and therefore useless toward a degree. Suddenly, he felt like a playing piece on the board of the Eligibility Game. "It would have taken me seven years to graduate," Spencer says. "I decided that's too long, unless you're studying to be a doctor."

In February, Spencer made what he calls "the pilgrimage," lighting out for Connors State, a junior college famous for putting credits on a transcript in a hurry. "Warner, Oklahoma," he says. "More cattle in town than people." He lasted the spring semester, then enrolled in summer school. But soon his thoughts turned to home and his sister. It was July. He had no friends, no car, no means.

One day Spencer lugged a bag stuffed with his belongings out to the truck stop on the main highway. "Hitchhiking was definitely out," he says. "It was my first rural experience, and I could have been picked up by a Klansman." Spencer knew the nearest jail was 17 miles north in Muskogee, a town that at least had bus service, so he began his trek by walking into a nearby store. Making sure he took something valuable enough to force the store clerk to summon the police, but also making sure he didn't frighten anyone ("Here I am, a seven-foot black guy, and a lot of these folks packed guns," he says), he opened a quart bottle of beer, took a long and flamboyant draw and said, courteously, "Maybe you'd better call the cops."

The clerk obliged. The police did, too, transporting him to Muskogee. A sympathetic lawyer got him released on his own recognizance. Spencer spent three days at the Salvation Army shelter in Muskogee while hustling bus fare to Atlanta.

He returned to Connors State that fall and led the talented Cowboys to the 1990 national juco title. But the self-esteem he had known in high school had long since gotten lost in transit. He gave his tournament MVP trophy to school officials. "If I keep it," he told them, "it'll either get lost or stolen."

Then he blew off classes. "Mentally." he says, "I kind of went to Disneyland."

Thus Spencer, who arrived in Las Vegas in the fall of 1990, couldn't, play for the Rebels until January of last season. By then he had done B-plus work at Clark County Community College in Las Vegas and been named the school's Student of the Month for December. "I picked UNLV even though I knew I'd come off the bench my first year," he says. "That should show you that I don't BS. I knew that balancing my life would dictate success. Balance is the essence. Moderation is the key."

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