As both a physical presence and a fish story, Dwight Stewart is a whopper.
Kelvin Sampson had him hooked, netted and in the boat - and still he got away.
In a station wagon. You might have figured a tractor trailer.
It is just another tormenting twist of fate that cost the Washington State Cougars the company of Dwight Stewart for the past four years. Company? Make that “crowd.” Company’s but two, and there’s room in Stewart’s Arkansas uniform for a family of three, at least.
But there would be less substance to this Final Four without the moon-faced, full-figured forward from Memphis. True, he cannot swap player-of-the-year resumes with Ed O’Bannon or Corliss Williamson or Jerry Stackhouse, nor does he fit easily into the folk hero boots of Big Country, the burr-headed Bryant Reeves.
Fact is, he does not fit easily into anything.
He has, however, captured the imagination of the city’s cabbies.
“He’s your story,” one told a fare to the Kingdome Sunday. “A man that big - why don’t he stay around and do some dunk shots? But you look at the first half (Saturday) and weren’t nobody doing nothing for Arkansas except Dwight Stewart.”
True enough. The Razorbacks were sty-high in hurt against North Carolina, down seven and lucky to be that close. Williamson and Scotty Thurman, the top Hogs, had but five points between them - half of what Dwight Stewart had en route to a 15-point, eightrebound night.
He also had one of the defining shots of this Final Four, an all-net fling at the buzzer from 55 feet that pulled the Hogs within four points. It belongs in a set with Reeves’ glass-shattering practice dunk and Tyus Edney’s Baryshnikovian layup.
“I had a good aim on it,” Stewart said. “I got a good look.”
A good look? From 55 feet?
“It went in,” he shrugged.
This, no doubt, has become Stewart’s standard line to coaches who wonder why this 6-foot-9, 265-pounder - that’s factual, not actual, weight - has such an affinity for long-distance dialing.
The Hogs are 3-shooting fools - 889 tries this season, compared to just 339 for tonight’s other survivor, UCLA. Stewart himself has tried more than 100; he was 7 of 10 in the NCAA Tournament opener against Texas Southern.
Is there a guard - or two? - trapped inside that body?
“When I first came to Arkansas, I was more of an inside player because I was the biggest guy on the team,” said Stewart. “As coach (Nolan) Richardson got to understand me better, he gave me an opportunity to show my skills.”
This is fairly amusing to Sampson, who in his previous coaching life at WSU could lay claim to “discovering” Stewart.
“We played Arkansas this year in Hawaii,” said Sampson, who picked up a couple of coach-of-the-year awards this weekend for his 23-9 debut at Oklahoma. “I told him, ‘Dwight, you shoot more 3s than my guards. There’s no way at 6-9, 290 I’d play you on the wing. I can’t see you getting by anybody on back cuts, son.’
“But Nolan’s no dummy. He has the best low-post scorer in the country in Corliss and that allows Dwight more freedom. You’ve got to double (Williamson) from somewhere and you notice Dwight’s 3s only come from one spot - the top of the circle. That’s the most difficult area to double-down from.”
Which brings us to the fish story.
Sampson actually signed Stewart to a letter-of-intent in the fall of 1989 - perhaps the centerpiece of a nine-player WSU recruiting class that included Eddie Hill, Terrence Lewis and Neil Derrick. But Stewart got snagged on the SAT.
“We were still going to bring him in somehow, some way,” Sampson recalled. “He qualified for $9,500-$10,000 worth of (nonathletic) aid. But then a JC in Texas (South Plains) recruited Corey Beck. They took a station wagon to Memphis to pick up Corey and guess who else they picked up?
“And when it came time to get him back, word was out. He’d slimmed down and people saw he could play. When I recruited Dwight, he was 6-9 and probably 350.”
Stewart’s signing with WSU was a shock to both Beck and another high school pal, Elmer Martin, who had signed with Arkansas. As Martin recalled, “We had a pact we’d go somewhere together.” And in the end, that bond was too strong.
“I think about that a lot,” Stewart said. “I liked WSU and coach Sampson, but I thank God every day because I made a great decision. I’ve won one national championship and I’ve got a chance to play for another one. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Well, you can always ask, “What if?”
“That recruiting class is why WSU basketball is where it is today,” Sampson said. “And can you imagine Dwight with Mark Hendrickson and Isaac Fontaine? He was the player we could never get - the true big-body low post. If he’d come, I’d probably still be there. I wouldn’t have gone to Oklahoma and Arkansas maybe wouldn’t be here.”
But here they are - and here he is - again. Dwight Stewart may be a perfect fit, after all.