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FUTURE AT A CROSSROADS : DAVIS GROWS UP QUICKLY FOLLOWING UCLA CONTROVERSY.

Byline: Jon Wilner Daily News Staff Writer

Baron Davis had it planned neat as hospital corners.

He'd become a star guard at Santa Monica Crossroads School, commit to his favorite hometown college, UCLA, and lead the Bruins to glory before embarking on a successful pro career.

Then his sister bought a car.

And a coach got fired.

Suddenly, Davis realized UCLA may not be the best place for him, after all, even with Steve Lavin as its permanent coach.

``Am I sorry it all happened? Not really, because things happen for a reason,'' Davis said. ``I rushed into my decision to attend UCLA. I thought it was the right place for me, because it was close to my family and I knew people there.

``I came to UCLA every day during the summer. I played (pick-up games) with the NBA guys at the Wooden Center. I listened to them. I listened to the UCLA players. All that stuff influenced me into a fast decision.

``All the things that have happened have given me a chance to do what I was going to do before - wait and explore my options.''

Now the senior point guard, hailed as the future of UCLA basketball by some and the lynchpin to a critical recruiting class by others, is adrift in a muddled future. To the question he is asked dozens of times each day - ``Hey Baron, where you gonna go?'' - his standard answer is this:

``I'm going to take everything slow. I have no thoughts on my mind whatsoever. I'll make a decision after the season.''

The Bruins believe they'll get Davis' autograph on a letter of intent in April - his sister Lisa Hodoh still works for UCLA's food service department - but the competition is closing fast. Davis says he'll choose among UCLA, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Michigan, Connecticut, Clemson, Georgetown and Duke, which plays at UCLA on Sunday.

``Baron made his decision based on factors like family and friends and everything seeming right with UCLA,'' said Crossroads coach Daryl Roper, whose team plays Village Christian tonight in a Southern Section Division IV-A playoff game at West L.A. College.

``I think he was just tired of being recruited. He was tired of trying to figure out where to go. But he didn't look at the places he needed to see to make a sound decision and get a better perspective. Now he knows he has to do what's best for Baron.''

When asked if there was truth to speculation he's considering a jump to the NBA, Davis laughed.

``No truth to it at all,'' he said. ``I need to go to college.''

Not only did Davis' future change when Hodoh purchased a 1991 Chevy Blazer from the son of former Bruins coach Jim Harrick, so did his present.

He is considered the top point guard in California, perhaps in the nation. He is 6-foot-2 and athletic, a gifted offensive player with a solid jumper and a knack for the spectacular. He knows how to run an offense. He knows how to make teammates better.

But the controversy, which broke in early October, and its indirect role in Harrick's Nov. 6 dismissal elevated Davis to legend in the eyes of many UCLA fans and officials. He became the savior of a program that could lose its entire starting lineup after this season. His skills weren't good, they were great. The best guard in L.A. this year? He was the best guard in L.A. in a decade.

UCLA's pursuit has become so intense that at a recent game the student section began chanting, ``We want Baron! We want Baron'' - and Davis wasn't in Pauley Pavilion at the time.

Ladies and gentlemen, Baron has left the building!

``No question, he has been put on an unfair pedestal because of all this,'' Roper said. ``He's a good guard, but he has a lot to learn. He's no Jason Kidd.''

He's no kid anymore, either. By all accounts, Davis is gregarious and affable, respectful of elders and a tireless worker. The Blazer incident was the end of his innocence, however. Today he drives a new Ford Explorer, the subject of a Pacific-10 Conference investigation (with no link to UCLA). And, along with a giant smile, he carries a real-world edge and sunglasses to deflect the intense media spotlight.

``It was all new to me, having the media at my house and cameras hiding at my school,'' he said. ``I was in awe. I was young, just a kid from 81st Street.

``It taught me who my friends are and that I can only trust a certain few. I've grown up a lot in the last few months. I take things more seriously. I look before I pass judgment on who to trust - on and off the court. But other than that, I try to be the same guy I was, a high school senior who likes to joke around.''

It's one of the few things in his life that hasn't changed.

NEXT YEAR'S LOOK

The Bruins have a slew of scholarships to give and may lose their entire starting lineup if underclassmen Toby Bailey, J.R. Henderson and Jelani McCoy bolt for the NBA.

On Board for '97-98:

Earl Watson: A 6-foot-1 combination guard from Kansas City (Kan.) who may be the Bruins' starting point guard.

Rico Hines: Originally committed to UCLA last year but couldn't enroll because of an eligibility glitch. He's been cleared and will matriculate in April.

Billy Knight: What the 6-foot-4 guard from Westchester High School lacks in athletic ability, he makes up for in smarts and shooting skills.

Still Waiting:

Baron Davis: The big one. He'll decide in April. UCLA and Kansas lead, but watch for Georgia Tech.

Kaspars Kambala: The 6-foot-8, 240-pounder from Homestead H.S. in Mequon, Wis., could be the Bruins' starting center next year.

CAPTION(S):

Photo, Box

Photo: (Color) no caption (Baron Davis)

David Sprague/Daily News

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: Daily News

Box: NEXT YEAR'S LOOK (See Text)
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 21, 1997
Words:1000
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