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LaVell Blanchard

January 15, 2003 Columns No Comments

A Humble Wolverine

by Michael Ermitage

If Lavell Blanchard met you on the street, he’d probably call you sir. He’d call your wife ma’am, and he’d flash a genuine smile at your toddler. Then he’d step onto the floor at Crisler Arena and bang his 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame all over the floor for 17 points, 10 boards and no apologies. After the game, the media contingent surrounding his Michigan blue locker wouldn’t get a spectacular interview, but never a surly one.

The gentle University of Michigan senior is a throwback. He grew up on the doorstep of Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, playing pick-up basketball with Division I talent when he was in high school. One day it’d be Michael Talley, a former Michigan point guard, and the next it’d be Andy Poppink, a former Stanford standout.

At the same time, Blanchard was hard at work in school, per his parents’ demands, and his own desires at the time to be a pediatrician. He was a four-year honor roll student and a member of the National Honors Society.

In between the blacktop and the textbooks, Blanchard worked on his physical attributes. One rumor in Ann Arbor said that Blanchard, as a high school freshman, wore ankle weights to school because he had long walks in between classes and he wanted to strengthen his leg muscles. Few knew who he was, and many lumped ridicule on the focused Blanchard.

In time, some natural talent and a lot of hard work landed Blanchard on his high school’s starting lineup as a freshman. Soon, to rival schools, he became “that freshman from Pioneer.” And soon after that, he became Lavell Blanchard – top Michigan recruit and McDonald’s All-American.

Blanchard arrived in Ann Arbor as the program’s savior. He was Brian Ellerbe’s prized recruit, ranked the best senior high school basketball player in the nation by Bob Gibbons. But he didn’t come with a Lebron James-like entourage or t-shirt campaign. Blanchard, however, did come with the heavy weight of expectations on his shoulders. After spurning Cal, Wisconsin, Virginia and a host of other schools, he decided to stay home, where the pressure would be its greatest. But he responded, winning the Big Ten Freshman of the Year award, logging nine double-doubles.

Blanchard has responded to every possible challenge presented before him. Undersized, he has played the majority of his career in the post, becoming one of the league’s premiere rebounders despite giving up as much as six inches and 70 pounds, in some cases. He has dealt with becoming a secondary option, as former Wolverine Jamal Crawford and current Wolverine Bernard Robinson took the majority of the scoring chances. He has endured a coaching change that saw the man that recruited him replaced by a coach known for bringing in top talent, that could potentially limit Blanchard’s opportunities.

For all of his effort, the Wolverines have had little results. Michigan made a one game appearance in the NIT Blanchard’s freshman year, a 75-65 loss at Notre Dame. In some cases, playing in the NIT is the first step to the Final Four. And there is no doubt that Blanchard entered Michigan’s campus as a bright-eyed kid dreaming of Big Ten titles and NCAA Final Fours. But it was not to be, in fact, Blanchard has not played in one NCAA tournament game. And he never will.

Thanks to the shady transgressions of previous Wolverine coaches, players and (ahem) boosters, Michigan has self-imposed a post-season ban for this season. Anyone with an Internet connection has seen that problems for Michigan basketball have been on the horizon for months, perhaps years. Yet, Blanchard never wavered in his commitment to the University. He never once uttered the nastiest of words – “transfer” – to anyone. Furthermore, he didn’t jump at the temptations of the NBA. Instead, he has quietly worked towards his degree in psychology and helped coach Tommy Amaker slowly bring along the latest freshmen class. A freshmen class that looks to Blanchard for leadership. A freshmen class that looks to Blanchard as an example of work ethic. And a freshmen class that certainly calls Blanchard sir.

Jacob Alles contributed to this column


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