Hernandez makes grade at Stanford
CW grad adjusts to pace of Cardinal men's basketball
Special to The Clovis Independent, Published 08/09/02
When he graduated from Clovis West High School in June 2001, Chris Hernandez probably looked back on his high school basketball career with the kind of fondness usually reserved for family. After all, by playing nearly year round with many of the same athletes and coaches for years, that's practically what basketball represented -- a family.
Chris Hernandez, a four-year player, led Clovis West to a CIF state runner-up finish in 2000, and he holds the Central Section record for career assists with 807.
As one of the most instrumental parts of Clovis West's basketball family since his freshman year, Hernandez had helped establish a prolific tradition in the Clovis and northeast Fresno areas.
Hitting clutch shots, frustrating opponents and orchestrating offense with uncanny efficiency -- Hernandez did it all, amassing school, section and state records while becoming one of the most recognized athletes on a team that summoned the kind of community support even a Hoosier would have to admire.
Three months after graduation, however, the Golden Eagles' 6-foot-2-inch guard was a world away from the warm familiarity of Fresno, taking part in orientation activities at Stanford University, a school that had nearly 110 years worth of its own tradition.
"It was a lot different," he said, "coming from a program I'd been in since I was six and where I knew all the players and coaches to a new system with new coaches and teammates."
Hernandez remembers being a little disoriented. "I didn't even know anyone in my dorm," he recalled.
Despite the new and unfamiliar surroundings, he adapted quickly.
"They did a good job helping to ease the transition," said his father, Jose Hernandez, remarking that he was particularly impressed by the number of welcoming students who lined Palm Drive, a long street leading to the heart of campus, as the incoming freshman arrived. He was also impressed that the resident staff at the dorm already knew the students' names and a little bit about them.
"He was in good hands," said Jan Hernandez, Chris' mom. "He really liked his RA's... plus, he had the basketball family. It tore my heart to see him go, but it was really exciting."
Chris enjoyed the first week of orientation activities and was delighted to find that, despite the academic load and the basketball workouts, he had time to enjoy the campus' social offerings.
"Socially, it was really surprising," he said. "It was more fun than I thought it would be. There is so much stuff here, and the people all have so much to offer. It was great just meeting everyone. The classes weren't as hard as you'd think. They were still challenging, but you could still make time. It definitely wasn't like I had no life."
While the social climate proved very inviting, Hernandez found the transition on the hardwood to be a little tougher in the beginning. Having been indoctrinated for years in Clovis West's trademark running style, his first impulse in early workouts was to push the ball, something that does not always fit into Stanford head coach Mike Montgomery's strategy.
"Learning the new system was the most difficult part," Hernandez said. "I kept trying to make something happen in practice and the coaches were always saying, 'Chris, back up, back up.' Even though the players were all faster, the pace was slower."
"Where Chris struggled a little, and where all freshmen usually struggle, is with learning the new system," said Russell Turner, a Stanford assistant coach who worked closely with Hernandez. "He's a very bright kid though, and he got a better and better grasp over everything each day."
Hernandez said that combinations were part of the reason the Cardinal didn't run more this season. With 7-foot center Curtis Borchardt, an all-PAC-10 pick and the league's leading rebounder, unable to run the floor at breakneck speed, pressing and pushing the ball were emphasized less than the half-court sets. Hernandez expects next year's Cardinal squad, which is much smaller and quicker than it has been in previous years, to play a more up-tempo game.
Despite the challenges of learning an entirely new offense, Hernandez began the season well, scoring nine points on 3-for-3 three-point shooting in an early exhibition against the Athletes in Action club team. Back spasms, however, forced him to sit out the next exhibition game and to begin the regular season at less than full strength. The nagging injury continued to plague Hernandez into the first part of the season, putting him about a month behind, he said.
"Injuries always set you back," Turner said. "It is especially tough with freshmen. Chris showed a lot of grit, though. I know that's one reason his teammates respect him so much."
Despite the slow start, Hernandez made rapid progress. He quickly earned a spot in the regular rotation, playing 13.6 minutes per game, while averaging three points and 1.6 assists, all solid numbers for a freshman. Even more impressive was the progression Hernandez made during the season; over the last 10 games, he averaged 16 minutes per game, playing more than 20 minutes on three occasions and sometimes earning more playing time than senior starter Tony Giovacchini. While Hernandez's 1.6 assists per game ranked only fifth highest on the squad, it was the highest among bench players, and his 4.6 assists per 40 minutes led the team.
"Chris brings a lot in terms of energy and defensive intensity," Turner said. "He really helps in the pace of the game. He's someone the other kids like to play with."
Eric Reveno, a Stanford assistant and former Cardinal player, said, "What is most impressive about Chris is his consistent grit. At this level, a lot of guys can be competitive in the spotlight. What sets Chris apart is his consistent fire, his enthusiasm to embrace what he needs to in order to become the best player he can."
Reveno recalled an instance, during the third week of practice, in which Hernandez stood up to Casey Jacobsen, arguably the most prolific scorer in school history.
"Casey was being humble, saying he didn't need to assert his role as leader too significantly," Reveno said. "Chris told Casey the team needed him to step up and lead and Casey responded positively. It is really something for a freshman to be so vocal and such a leader."
In addition to the new system, collegiate basketball differed from high school in another significant way -- the size of the crowd. Clovis West's gym was often filled to capacity during Hernandez's tenure, but college offered a whole new ballgame.
"You'd walk into these huge arenas you'd only heard about," said Jose Hernandez, describing the sense of awe that accompanied watching his son play on such a big stage. "When they played in Chicago, one of my relatives said, 'Wow, Chris is playing on the same floor Michael Jordan played on.'"
Clovis West High basketball coach Vance Walberg shared the same sense of wonder.
"It was a lot of fun to turn on the TV and see an ex-player playing. I remember going to the World Sports Café," said Walberg, who will begin his first season as Fresno City College's coach this year. "It was fun to see him play against Western Kentucky there, in the NCAA's."
For Hernandez, the bigger stage didn't change much.
"Sometimes we'd walk into an arena for a shoot-around, and you'd kinda look around then at how big it was and think, 'Wow,'" he said. "But I try to ignore that during the game. I just focus on the game. I think it makes me play better."
Hernandez cites some of the big games in which he played during high school as part of the reason he can relax; during his high school career, Clovis West defeated the likes of Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson, who are both in the NBA, and Wesley Stokes, Travon Bryant, Cedric Bozeman and Chuck Hayes, who all play for major Division 1 college programs.
However, when it came to college basketball's biggest stage, the NCAA Tournament, not even Hernandez could ignore the overwhelming atmosphere completely.
"Everything was a little more tense," he said. "But it was a really good time. It was a huge crowd and a good atmosphere. Still, I tried not to focus on it all."
Hernandez showed flashes of the clutch play that he'd displayed while at Clovis West. Highlights included 11 points against Western Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and 14 points against UCLA -- his best game of the year.
Stanford's season ended in a lopsided 86-63 loss to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, ending a 20-10 (12-6 PAC-10) season that Hernandez said wasn't the kind of season the team wanted.
"We all got along and nobody had any problems, but there wasn't a lot of chemistry," he said. "We didn't really hang out. Mostly, I just hung out with Josh Childress (a guard from Southern California) and Rob Little (a center from Virginia). We were all freshmen and we did the freshmen stuff."
Despite the less-than-spectacular team finish, Hernandez's individual play earned him honorable mention recognition on the PAC-10 All-Newcomer team. His competitive drive also gained him the team Toughness Award.
"Overall, I thought he did a great job," said Walberg, who coached Hernandez all four years at Clovis West. "For a true freshman to get 18 or 20 minutes in a game is great. I expected him to do well. I know how competitive he is, and I know what he expects of himself."
The offseason has seen the NBA take its toll on Stanford's plan for next season, with both Borchardt and Jacobsen leaving school early. The Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns, respectively, drafted them. Jacobsen's loss is particularly heavy, as the three-time All-PAC 10 and two-time All-America selection was the league's leading scorer at nearly 22 points per game. The Cardinal were ranked No. 1 nationally on 16 occasions during Jacobsen's stay, and Stanford relied heavily on him for scoring at times during the past year.
"You really wish they could be here," Hernandez said, "but you can't turn down [the chance to be a first-round pick in the NBA]. I'm really happy for them. I think they can both have successful careers."
With the two leading scorers gone, Hernandez anticipates the 2002-03 squad to be very balanced.
"I don't know where I'll fit yet," he said. "I'm gonna work and hopefully get to start. I don't think it's my time yet to try and hit for 25 every night.
"I'm going to focus on trying to gel the team, hit the open shot and create for others," said Hernandez, who holds the Central Section record for career assists with 807 (1998 to 2001).
"I think Chris is going to take on a true leadership role this season," Turner said. "He's one of the players we hope for a lot, and from whom we expect a lot."
With a roster absent of any high-profile names, the Cardinal is looking at an uphill climb. At least one early poll has the Cardinal picked to finish as low as ninth in the PAC-10, a severe hit for a program that, at the end of last season, had the second longest active streak, behind Duke, for consecutive Top-25 appearances in the Associated Press poll.
"We're gonna be the underdog," Hernandez said. "We'll have to battle all season to prove ourselves."