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"White Ears"

Tiger center Ivan Lopez is committed to a plan.


The U of M's Ivan Lopez had hoop dreams early on. They were spawned by watching two of his basketball-playing countrymen -- Edgar Padilla and Carmelo Travieso -- play for John Calipari's 1995-96 UMass Final Four squad. Lopez was 10.

Years later, as a prep basketball standout, Lopez would indelibly ingrain his commitment with a tattoo. In Japanese.

Surely you've seen his tat. Maybe you saw it Saturday night during his emphatic dunk in the second half of the Tigers' 74-64 late-collapsing loss to Illinois. Or perhaps when he slammed down, in equally aggressive fashion, his first career Tiger points against Austin Peay.

Translated, the first words of Lopez' tattoo are his name. The second phrase is one Tiger fans and Massachusetts fans have come to know well: Refuse To Lose. It's the title of Calipari's autobiography and his basketball mantra.

So, did Lopez even think about committing to another coach, after visiting the tattoo parlor?

"I still liked Connecticut," Lopez says.

Laser tattoo-removal surgery isn't cheap, though, and it could have been painful if Lopez had tattooed Dare To Dream (the title of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun's book) on his arm as well.

So Lopez, who moved from Miami Christian High School after two seasons to Ryan Academy in Norfolk, Virginia, for his senior year, came to Memphis and helped keep Calipari's Puerto Rican pipeline running.

Padilla and Travieso, backcourt captains of the famed Marcus Camby-led UMass team, were the first Puerto Ricans to step on the court for Calipari. The energetically aggressive pair exemplified the selfless hustle and desire Calipari preaches. That may be why the Tiger coach keeps recruiting players from the island known as "rich port" in Spanish.

"It's helped, having past connections [with Puerto Rican players]," Calipari says. "The kids in Puerto Rico and a lot of the Latin kids remember me as the coach who coached Edgar and Carmelo. So we do have an upper hand when we recruit a Latin-American player. And if they don't know, then I make sure they do."

Lopez knew. He played with and against Padilla and Travieso (who still play professionally in the Latin American Superior National Basketball League) in a Puerto Rican summer league.

"Basketball is the biggest sport in Puerto Rico," Lopez says. "Basketball and baseball are the same in popularity."

On the court, the bull-like Lopez is always active, battling for post position with elbows flailing and fouls accumulating. It wasn't enough at Illinois. The Illini held a 46-40 rebounding edge, and Lopez gathered only three rebounds in 24 minutes.

Off the court, Lopez, who has dubbed himself "White Ears," speaks softly with a moderate Spanish accent.

"That's the way I have been always," he says, alluding to his aggressiveness. "If the ball is in the air, I just want to go get it."

Lopez went and got it frequently last season at Ryan Academy, averaging 15 rebounds per game. The only reason he left the bright lights and better competition in Miami was to be with his older sister Jackeline. Her Naval officer husband was to be deployed overseas during what was to be Lopez's senior year in Miami.

But Lopez didn't hesitate when Jackeline asked him to help take care of her two young children while his brother-in-law was away for a year.

"I helped with everything while I was there," Lopez says. "It was like I was doing his job."

As for his future professional ambitions, Lopez is shooting for the NBA. "I would love to make the league," he says.

It would be the completion of his basketball dream, which includes helping his parents in Puerto Rico and his sister's family. Ivan Lopez makes it obvious that his commitment is more than skin-deep.

Under Their Skin

The Grizzlies probably lead the NBA in provoking fines. This is a good sign.


For half an hour after the New Jersey Nets' 47-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday night, point guard Jason Kidd held court in a closed visitor's locker room, his voice audible through the sturdy metal doors, as he excoriated teammates for what was the worst loss in his tenure with the Nets.

Kidd had plenty of time to stew over his embarrassment. He and the rest of the Nets starters spent the fourth quarter on the bench, watching the team's reserves take a 29-point deficit and turn it into 47, capped by a one-handed alley-oop jam by Stromile Swift that was probably the most astounding feat of dunkery this writer has ever seen.

Me? I spent the fourth quarter on press row watching Grizzlies media-relations folks scramble through the team's press book, looking up club records, which were falling faster than they could track them: Largest margin of victory in franchise history (47); largest lead (48), highest field-goal percentage (.620), fewest points allowed (63), turnovers forced (30, tying the record), and probably plenty more that still haven't been ferreted out.

Kidd, of course, is one of the NBA's very best, the kind of player who has traditionally feasted on the Grizzlies. But Saturday night the roles were reversed, and he just couldn't take it.

The best part is that this wasn't the first time this season that the Grizzlies flustered Kidd. Just a week before, Kidd's Nets lost to the Grizzlies in New Jersey, in a game that ended with a somewhat controversial non-call: Kidd drove to the basket and flung himself into Grizzlies center Swift in a desperate attempt to get to the foul line. Typically in the NBA, stars get the benefit of close calls, but the refs refused to take Kidd's bait, their non-call sealing a 96-93 victory and drawing Kidd's ire: His postgame tirade against the officials drew a $10,000 fine from the NBA.

But Kidd isn't the only member of the NBA's elite whose skin the new-look Grizzlies have gotten under. Consider:

During the Grizzlies' 88-80 victory over the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on November 3rd, Spurs coach Greg Popovich was ejected and later suspended one game by the league for bumping into an official.

After the Grizzlies' 105-95 defeat of the once-and-future champion Los Angeles Lakers on November 10th, future-Hall-of-Fame point guard Gary Payton lashed out at future-Hall-of-Fame coach Phil Jackson about his playing time.

Following a hard-fought 108-101 overtime win over the star-laden Dallas Mavericks, Mavs owner Mark Cuban went on a tirade against the referees, reportedly (according to the Dallas Morning News) drawing a $100,000 fine from the league.

Late in the Grizzlies' 93-79 come-from-behind victory over the Portland Trailblazers, Portland coach Maurice Cheeks went ballistic against the officials, getting ejected from the game and exchanging trash-talk with local fans. Cheeks was later charged $7,500 by the league.

The NBA doesn't keep such a statistic, but, if it did, one wonders whether the Grizzlies would lead the league in money generated through fines by the team's opponents. It's a good sign.

Long circled as a win on opponents' calendars, this year's Grizzlies, heading into Tuesday's game with the Sacramento Kings, have gone 6-6 against the league's 10 best teams from last season. The petulance of the league's elite seems a predictable response to seeing the formerly bullied fight back. But it also derives from how the Grizzlies are doing it.

Hubie Brown stressed on his first day as Grizzlies coach that the team needed to establish a style of play, and the story of the season thus far is that it's happening: a 10-man wave of pressure defense that has the team leading the league in steals, forced turnovers, and turnover differential. Because of this, the Grizzlies have become something more than just a tough out; they're an irritant, a fly constantly buzzing around the heads of the league's giants.

The meltdowns this team has provoked among the league's best is a sign of the Grizzlies putting their sorry past behind them. And when opponents stop going ballistic after losing to the Grizzlies, then we'll know the team has arrived.

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