Pony Up

He was always talented, always smooth slashing to the goal or pulling up for a long jumper. Won back-to-back state championships at nearby Kimball High. Big-name schools like Arizona and USC tried to get his attention, did everything but wear hot-pink lipstick and stuff their bras. From there everyone knew it would be up, up, and NBA. It was only a matter of time.

Still is.

Last year, following his junior campaign at SMU, people waited for Jeryl Sasser to declare for the draft. Sasser was coming off a season that witnessed the silky guard pouring in team highs in points (17.3) and assists (4.6) per game, to go with 8.3 rebounds per contest. The year's performance added more honors to an inventory of accomplishments already longer than Mark Cuban's enemy-refs list.

Everything was in place: a 21-year-old, a young buck with skills and potential and the ability to parlay both into one of those crazy contracts you hear about on ESPN. Sasser was about to get paid. Until he pulled a 180 and withdrew his name from the sheet of potential pro ballers, choosing to return for his senior year (allowable by the NCAA since he didn't retain the services of an agent). Just that quickly, the Mustangs were being whispered about in hoops magazines as a team to watch, as a leading candidate to win the WAC conference, maybe make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.

Coach Mike Dement already knew nine players would return from a squad that went 21-9 with a National Invitation Tournament berth a year ago. Adding his best player, one of the nation's best players, to that group--well, "excited" is the word on that campus these days.

This happens from time to time, a kid deciding to stay in school, earn a diploma, hang with his teammates, yada yada. You've heard it before. Sasser's situation is a little different, though. Sure, all those things were factors; sure, he's looking forward to the season, to what may be. But, in truth, it's less about fuzzy feelings than it is about earning more green.

Unlike you and me, the slender, 6-foot-6 Sasser has limitless talent. And I'm not sure about you, but unlike me, he's also wise.

Where most guys his age would leap at whatever cash is thrown their way--if I were in his shoes, I would have left college (hell, or this gig) for 20 grand and a pack of Marlboro Mediums--Sasser is a businessman. Doesn't fit the stereotype, but he is. Wears a No. 5 jersey and baggy shorts instead of suits and paisley ties. Rocks sneaks rather than wingtips. Prefers cornrows to the Ross Perot Jr. cut. Still, Sasser is every bit in tune with his earning potential and the ways of the moneyed. Did his research. Heard he was slated to be chosen in the first round, but not in the top 20, which is where the big guaranteed contracts begin. Of course, there were plenty of skeptics who thought he'd slip to the second round. So why take a chance? Why devalue himself? Why not wait a year, add a little more polish to an already refined game, and then get the big payout?

"I have the determination to be a pro," he says, composed, before practice, a ball gripped in one hand. "We're expecting to be good this year, and I want to earn my degree, but, from my aspect, my point is pride. There are guys with degrees who I know who don't make one-third, who don't make one-twelfth what NBA players do. But I also didn't want to sell myself short. I know I could have turned pro and made it. I did feel I was ready, but the situation wasn't right."

So he did what most don't--he passed on the quick hit. He was like this from the get-go. Bucked all the trends. Zigged when most thought he would zag. Like going to SMU in the first place. At the time, the Mustangs had struggled to just eight wins. Six and seven victories, respectively, in the two years before that. Kind of hard to compare to Arizona, where Lute Olson's deal with the devil stipulates a never-ending slew of 20-win seasons.

"I wasn't concerned with names," he says. "I just wanted to play and win."

He's done both, helping Dement legitimize SMU's basketball program. Now he's back for another year, and the Mustangs are the better for it, regardless of the how and the why.

"He's an extremely talented player," Dement says. "If you don't have him, or have a freshman in there, we're not as good a team. He certainly helps our chances, so we're thrilled he came back. It's a win-win situation for everybody, really.

"I mean, look, Jeryl is a very intelligent person. He checked his options. He's a very worldly young man. It was an intelligent process he went through. That's his maturity level. He set a goal for himself. He said, 'If I can get into X position, I have to go, I want to go.' And I agreed with him. But it looked like he was gonna go 26th, which is the first round, but he wanted to go higher. Plus, it's a gamble; on draft night you never know. So he said, 'If I come back, I can get into the teens [in the next draft].' And there's a tremendous amount of difference in contracts and playing time if you get picked in the teens. I think he made a good business decision."

In a few months, he'll re-enter the NBA draft, and this time there will be no turning back. Some team, drooling over a player who can put it on the floor or kill you softly from the perimeter, will likely snatch him up in a more agreeable slot.

In the meantime, Sasser will attend to unfinished affairs, tie a neat bow on his days at SMU for all of you still looking for the fuzzy feelings angle to his story. He'll play the big man on campus, get plenty of media attention, kick around with buddies. Probably set plenty of school records before he's done too--Sasser is currently ninth in assists (347), seventh in scoring (1,500) and rebounds (734), sixth in three-pointers made (98), and fourth in steals (156). Then there's the matter of a postseason appearance for which all the 'Stangs have longed.

And the diploma. He's a little short on the credit hours, but that's also on his to-do list. Then he'll just about have it all.

Oh, and his major? Economics.