If the briefing books for NBA scouts accepted advertisements, Elmore Spencer, UNLV's 7-foot, 265-pound senior center, could write quite a persuasive one for himself: "I have the natural advantage of being lefthanded," he says. "I look for contact in the post. I can play any style, full court or half. I know how to cat right. I've moved around and been exposed to most of America. I have a supportive wife who understands me and how I operate. I don't talk to refs, so I doubt I'd ever get a technical. Plus, I fall asleep easily on airplanes.
"If I was an NBA general manager," he concludes, "I'd draft me."
Someone new to the world of Elmore Spencer might conclude from this brief speech that Spencer suffers from acute egomania. Not so. (Fact is, he neglected to mention his hands; they're terrific.) A return visitor to Spencer's world—someone who knows about his 1987 hospitalization for symptoms of manic depression and his 'grim do-si-do along college basketball's edge since then—might assume that he just went off on another jag. Not true either.
The truth is, Spencer loves using words to make various cases. Occasionally the case is for himself, but it might just as easily be, say, against the NCAA. "Even if I wasn't an athlete, I'd be appalled." he says. "From [executive director Dick] Schultz on down, they're a group of unaware people trying to follow the 1930s status quo. First, they don't acknowledge that college teams are really professional franchises. The universities recruit the players and push them through the system so fast that they have no chance to get their degree."
Having been pushed through the system himself—from Georgia to Connors State (Okla.) Junior College to Clark County (Nev.) Community College before UNLV—with absolutely no chance of graduating before his eligibility expires in the spring, Spencer speaks with some credibility. "And those damn bureaucrats mouth off about standards, but I don't see the billion dollars from the television contract go to the small schools to help them fight deficits. I see a new [NCAA] office complex go up in Kansas City with new everything, all the way down to the company stationery. They probably fly first class now instead of economy when they go to investigate schools. And a coach can't give a player dinner even if he might need it for nutritional reasons? I think I could swallow the vomit better if they weren't so hypocritical."
There are other cases he'll make, like this one against UNLV president Robert Maxson, who would like to raise the school's academic profile even at the expense of its athletic one: "Maxson's a rookie at the president's game. The out-of-state enrollment here is wholly the result of basketball success. The schools he wants to compete with have alumni who have been CEOs and in the White House, and he thinks he's gonna get the crème de la crème? This university's a baby. If you're the crème de la crème, you don't send your child to a town where prostitution is practically legal. That's what kills me about Maxson. He's got a marketing tool, and he wants to eliminate it."
And he makes a very good case for the city of Las Vegas: "One of those little college towns just isn't for me. At Georgia there were stories in the paper about how I wore my hair. I need to be somewhere where there are more important things than tedious stuff like that. It has been a real pleasure being here. One of the things that make this a likable, inhabitable place is that most of the people who are here want to be here."
Once upon a time, before joining the ranks of the contented, Spencer insisted on being the center of attention. Today he's content being a center and letting the attention fall where it may. He plays for a team that, because of NCAA probation, can't be seen on live television and won't be going to postseason play—despite its surprising 18-2 record, including 10 victories in 10 games in the Big West. He prefers not to speak to the press after games, even when the questions might imply approbation, as they certainly would have after he went for 20 points and 12 rebounds in a rout of LSU and Shaquille O'Neal earlier this season. Spencer is only 22, but he goes home to a wife, Gwendolyn, who's in her early 30's, and an 11-year-old stepdaughter, Sheritta. It may seem like rank paradox that a college basketball player could find serenity in Las Vegas, where video cameras are squirreled away in air vents and your next soak in a hot tub could be an incriminating one. But to spend time around Spencer is to see paradox made orthodox. "In my life," he says, "I look at the supernegative, the potentially negative, the middle way, the potentially positive and the superpositive. I look at all of them because they've all happened to me."
Why sound off? "To share the light, to make it right. Not to create hostility, but so people are challenged by what I say and there might arise a solution that helps student-athletes down the road. If anyone responds, it would be the first time athletes and administrators here have had a dialogue on these issues."
Someone tells UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian of Spencer's comments about the NCAA. Tarkanian, who believes his own problems with that organization began when he uttered similar remarks, smiles thinly. "As long as he doesn't have any unpaid hotel incidental charges," he says, "Elmore should be all right."