Put Josh Grant and Utah coach Rick Majerus together, and you're bound to have a few clashes. They are, after all, basketball's odd couple. It is pure understatement when Grant says, "We're opposites." Grant is laid back, Majerus invented intense. Grant is quiet and reserved, Majerus is loud and often profane. Grant is tall and thin, Majerus is short and fat.
Is it any wonder that Grant - Utah's 6-foot-9 junior forward - has been one of Majerus' favorite targets of criticism, both in the media and in his face."He just expects a lot from me," says Grant. "He wants me to play hard."
Still, the sharp criticism has been difficult for him to handle at times. Following a loss to Michigan on Dec. 1 - a game in which Grant fouled out after a poor 3-for-8, 10-point performance - Majerus lit into his star player again, punctuating his scolding with enough foul language to earn an R-rating.
"He ripped me bad and hard," says Grant. "He said I didn't take charge, that I didn't play hard. For the first time it really hurt my confidence. It was the first time I felt he talked to me like a little kid." Two days later Grant visited Majerus in his office and they settled matters, with the coach assuring Grant that he believed in him and had his interests at heart.
Since then, all has been well for Grant and the Utes, to say the least. Grant, with the Michigan game fresh on his mind, totaled 25 points and 9 rebounds in his next outing (against Utah State), which started the Utes on a 10-game winning streak that, one month after it began, has yet to end. Utah, a team picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Athletic Conference, is 13-1.
Grant - the December Deseret News Athlete of the Month - has been the Utes' leader in his quiet way. He plays so fluidly and with such versatility that much of the time the average fan doesn't notice him. Grant floats quietly and lithely about the court, making things happen - a subtle flick of the hand for a steal here, a blocked shot there, a long-armed rebound on the baseline, a slick pass in traffic, a pick at the top of the key, an effortless three-pointer from downtown. And just about the time you forget he's there, Grant delivers a reminder with a spectacular display of his athleticism.
Against Morehead State, he drove down the baseline for two layups - from behind the glass. He made a rebound dunk against Weber State that turned the game around and turned the fans on. "I hope we don't play against a better player than Josh Grant," said Weber coach Denny Huston. With the Utes trailing Utah State by eight points in the second half, Grant turned another game by scoring nine of his team's next 11 points, giving Utah a two-point lead. Against Hawaii, he sent the game into overtime with one score, then added five more points in overtime, all while playing with four fouls.
Versatile? Name another player who leads his team in scoring (17.4 points per game), rebounding (7.4), free-throw shooting (82.8 percent), blocked shots , steals and playing time (still only 27 minutes per game) and ranks second in assists.
"He always poses problems for the defense because of his size and shooting range," says assistant coach Joe Cravens. "He's 6-9 and he can go in the post or shoot from the perimeter. Do you put a big guy on him or a short guy?"
Weber tried a triangle-and-two defense designed to stop Grant. Other teams tried a box-and-one. San Diego State started one of its reserves - supposedly a better defender than the starter - for the sole purpose of stopping Grant, but the plan failed miserably.
"We call him The Franchise," says teammate Craig Rydalch.
Even Majerus, in his way, tips his hat to Grant. "I've been his biggest critic," he says. "But I've been very pleased with his play. Now I'm asking him to take it up to another level."
Majerus' biggest complaint with Grant has been the latter's lack of intensity. It doesn't come naturally to Grant, who says, "I'm a kick-back guy." Grant continues, "There's a 180-degree difference between us (he and Majerus). That's what gave him a heart attack last year. In a way his heart attack was a good thing. Last year I really struggled with it (Majerus' criticism). After his heart attack, he mellowed and we had some talks in which he wasn't so intense. I got to know where he was coming from. The thing about him is that he screams at you, and then he forgets about it. We (he and his teammates) sometimes forget that. He just says things in a very intense way."
For his part, Majerus also has struggled to adjust to Grant: "He's the biggest pacifist I've ever seen," he said earlier this year. "He's a nice kid. You want him for a son. You just don't want him if World World III breaks out." But Majerus has respect and great expectations for Grant's talent, all of which is printed for everyone to see in the team's media guide: "(Josh) is a multifaceted player and we are going to have to devise creative ways to use him best. We have to expect to use him in the low post, high post and out on the perimeter, and we expect him to look for baskets. One of Josh's faults is that he is not selfish enough. He is very, very gifted in terms of his ability to score . . . He will have to shoulder a lot of responsibility at both ends of the court and under the glass and realize that we are going to look to him for baskets."
It isn't true, however, that Majerus also expects Grant to sweep the Huntsman Center on Saturday nights, as well.
Joshua David Grant comes by his talent genetically. He is the third of seven basketball-playing brothers. Greg and Nathan played for Utah State (Greg, now an air traffic controller, is the all-time career scoring leader for the Aggies and the Big West Conference). Their father, Paul, played for Utah.
Still, Josh, perhaps responding to Majerus' pleas for harder work and more intensity, hasn't relied totally on nature. He trained diligently last summer, and just before school began he attended a basketball camp in Cincinnati. For 10 days he played and drilled with a handful of NBA players - Craig Ehlo and Danny Manning, among others.
"I worked a lot on rebounding," says Grant. "That was the only way to get the ball. They didn't give the ball to the pre-rookie very often."
For that matter, Grant might well be an employee of the NBA someday. At the moment, he is ranked as one of the best players in the WAC, but he is probably better than that. Dave Heeren, whose annual evaluations of NBA players are published in The Sporting News, last year evaluated and compared the nation's college basketball players and compiled them in Dave Heeren's Basketball Abstract. Grant ranked as the fifth best player in the country last year - ahead of Syracuse's Derrick Coleman, who was sixth (but the No. 1 pick of the NBA draft) and Oregon's Gary Payton, who was 10th (and No. 3 in the draft). The ratings take into account shooting percentage, points, assists, rebounds, steals, blocked shots, minutes played and opponents.
"Sometimes I can't see playing in the NBA as a reality," says Grant. "It's still just a dream for me. But Coach has told me I can make it in the NBA." And by now anything Majerus says is bound to get his attention.