Andy Toolson is just finishing up a family video/autograph/snapshot session with a group of fans, when the teasing begins. Hey Andy!" one teammate mocks. "A-a-a-andy! Howya doin? Can we take your picture?"
Toolson, the Jazz rookie from BYU, grins sheepishly. He may not be big everywhere, but at Salt Lake International, he's very big. Virtually every time he flies out of Salt Lake, someone is there to meet family, send off, or welcome home a Mormon missionary. To them, Andy Toolson is a friendly, familiar face; the local kid that made good despite being - supposedly - too limited to play inthe high-speed world of the NBA.
Nobody hesitates to ask for his autograph. He signs them all. Getting Toolson's autograph is about as hard as getting junk mail.
As his first professional season rolls along, Toolson remains a hero to those who followed his career at BYU. But he has also become increasingly important to Utah Jazz fans and their hopes of seeing them win the Midwest Division. If he isn't a household name among NBA fans, the World Champion Detroit Pistons know him. And the Jazz know him. It has little to do with his college days at BYU, either. To them, he is a rookie making his place in a league where talent counts plenty, but, as Larry Bird has shown, is a long way from being the whole story.That Toolson is the first BYU player to become truly well-liked among Jazz fans is hardly a surprise. What's not to like? He doesn't whine, pout or take tantrums. He goes about his job with an unwavering air of sincerity that can only be compared to another sports star who attended BYU: Philadelphia baseball player Dale Murphy.
During high school in Twin Falls, Idaho, he was a student leader, star basketball player, ranking member of a local band. Everyone liked him. It's just that he was so . . . nice. His basketball coach called him "The Senator" because he tried so hard to please everyone.
However, in Toolson's case, confusing niceness and a lack of toughness can be a drastic mistake. In college he played the final half of a season with a broken thumb that was supposed to keep him out for the year. Against the original Blue Meanies themselves, the Detroit Pistons, Toolson gave no quarter whatsoever in last Friday's win. When the game got inside the final three minutes, it was a Toolson three-pointer that put the Jazz ahead for the first time since the early going.
"He's a tough kid - well, I shouldn't even call him a kid; he isn't that much younger than I am - he's just a mentally tough guy," says Jazz guard John Stockton. "For a rookie to come into the world champs' barn and hit a big three-point shot like that . . . that's tough."
Nevertheless, Toolson is a soft touch for friends of friends and missionaries heading for faraway lands. He is careful to wait long after games at the Salt Palace to sign autographs. He inquires about people's interests and backgrounds.
"I've always tried to be myself," he says. "Even when people maybe think of us as the goody-goody, meek missionaries . . . I don't mind that image. But I don't think that necessarily reflects on how tough you are.
"I have no problem with being a nice guy. People should be nice guys. But that doesn't mean you're not competitive."
Certainly Toolson has proven his competitiveness. After beating the odds and making the team at last fall's training camp, he stuck long enough to get a contract through this year. When injuries beset the team, Toolson got the call. He has started 14 games in his rookie season, filling in for Blue Edwards and Jeff Malone when they were injured. And if Malone's aching back doesn't improve by today, he will get his 15th start, when the Jazz meet the Philadelphia 76ers at 11 a.m. (MST).
"I think we're fortunate to be able to come up with a player like that," says Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan. "He's paid his dues and he's really made a contribution. What he's done tells you how much concentration is a part of your game. We never had any question about how tough he was."
Toolson has survived in the NBA thus far on brains, concentration, and a textbook outside jump-shot. In 55 games he is averaging 3.5 points a game and making 42 percent of his shots. Those aren't eye-popping figures. But Toolson's strength isn't something that shows up in the box scores. He plays solid defense. He boxes out on rebounds. He protects the basketball.
Last weekend at Golden State, with the Jazz holding a narrow lead, the Warriors tried to trap the rookie into making turnovers down the stretch. But he calmly ran the plays, not once losing the ball in the final minutes. He also held All-Star Chris Mullin to one field goal in the last quarter.
Against the Pistons he played equally well, finishing with seven points and four rebounds. More important, he played 26 minutes without a turnover.
"He doesn't try to take shots that aren't there," says Sloan. "He takes what is given to him. He doesn't over-handle the ball. He just stays within himself. As long as he does that, he's very good."
If anyone has a perspective on his own abilities, Toolson does. After finishing up at BYU last spring, he only distantly entertained thoughts of making the NBA. As a back-up he prepared himself for other eventualities, including taking a law school admissions exam and the LSAT-GMAT test to get into MBA school. He also got his life and disability insurance license.
Not exactly the actions of someone planning to make a living playing basketball.
"Last year I never really expected or planned on being in the NBA. I tried to prepare myself for other things," he says.
Despite making it to the big leagues, Toolson remains genuinely conservative. In Seattle he walked four blocks to a fast food restaurant because he considered the hotel dining prices exorbitant. (Players earn $55 a day meal money.) He bought a CD player but considered taking it back because he felt owning one was too extravagant. Despite being guaranteed the NBA minimum $120,000 a year, he drives a conservative Toyota car. He and his wife and infant daughter rent an apartment in a middle-class Murray area, rather than buying into a more fashionable neighborhood. "If I get another contract next year, I'll probably think about getting into a home," he says.
Through all the attention and good fortune Toolson has enjoyed so far, he seems slightly embarrassed that he is being paid to play basketball. "I think (the money) is outrageous, honestly," he says. "I would be lying if I said I didn't want to enjoy the material things money can buy. But I realize it won't make you happy. You've got to keep a good perspective."
Proper perspective has also kept Toolson employed. He holds no illusions about remaining in the starting lineup when Jeff Malone and Blue Edwards return. He'll return to the bench and await his next assignment. If that means simply working hard at practice, so be it. As he puts it, "I just feel fortunate to be here."PREGAME NOTES: The Jazz's win over Detroit Friday was their second road win over a plus-.500 team all year . . . The Jazz-Sixers game will not be televised in Salt Lake. It was originally set to be aired on NBC, but the network decided not to show the contest in favor of the Portland-Boston showdown . . . Utah beat the Sixers 102-99 in Salt Lake, but they have won their last seven games . . . Philly's Jayson Williams, a rookie, just had six stitches removed from his right hand. He missed five games after being hurt in an auto accident last week.