For Mark Lenoir, getting back home to Indiana wasn't that tough - just a three-hour plane ride from Utah. The difficult part was getting out of Indiana and landing in a Division I basketball program in Utah.
Lenoir is the starting point guard for the University of Utah basketball team, which meets Purdue tonight in West Lafayette. After a slow start, Lenoir has begun to show his reputed talents. A week ago against Utah State he scored a team-high 16 points and put the defensive clamps on USU's best player, Reid Newey. Thursday night, he again slowed down Newey and sank a couple of key three-pointers in the Utes' win over the Aggies.When the Utes meet the Boilermakers tonight, Lenoir, who grew up in nearby Indianapolis, will have several friends and family members on hand to watch him play. It will be their only chance to see him this year, unless they happen to make the long trek out to Utah later this season.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
When Lenoir finished an outstanding prep career at Broad Ripple High School, where he averaged 27.8 points and 11 rebounds and was second runnerup in Indiana's Mr. Basketball voting, he was all set to be playing where his friends and relatives could watch him regularly. He signed an early letter of intent to play for Louisville, which is about a two-hour drive from Indianapolis.
"I had a dream to play for Louisville," says Lenoir, a bit wistfully. The year Lenoir signed was the same year Louisville won the national championship.
But the dream never came true.
When Lenoir finished high school in 1986, he didn't have the proper grades to qualify at Louisville. And since Denny Crum has a policy of not taking junior college transfers, Lenoir had little hope of ever playing for the Cardinals.
"That was the year Proposition 48 came out and I either had to pay my own way (to Louisville) and sit out a year or go to a J.C.," said Lenoir.
So he enrolled at Vincennes J.C. in Indiana where he earned honorable mention all-American honors. But he didn't like it there and after one year went to work at a local hospital with the idea of enrolling at an NAIA school in Indianapolis to become eligible for major college play.
Several big-time programs were still interested in Lenoir, including Michigan, Iowa and even Purdue. But he got the most attention from Larry Eustachy, an assistant from Idaho who had seen him play while scouting another player from Vincennes. That summer (of 1987) Eustachy was hired by Utah as an assistant and he kept in touch with Lenoir.
"One day in August out of the blue, he called me and said he was interested in getting back into school," remembers Ute Coach Lynn Archibald.
Lenoir made a visit, liked what he saw and arrangements were made for him to enroll at Salt Lake Community College. In November, he signed an early letter of intent to play for Utah. He averaged 23 points and eight assists for SLCC and was named the most valuable player in the region.
Even then he wasn't home free. There was still the matter of getting eligible at Utah. Lenoir had to spend the whole summer in school to get his A.A. degree and become eligible to enroll at Utah.
"When I couldn't go to Louisville, my next dream was to play Division I," said Lenoir. "It's been a long road to get to Division I - extra long. Now that I'm up on my grades, I'm going to keep up. You learn from your mistakes."
Archibald isn't worried about Lenoir in the classroom now.
"He's a smart kid and he's getting some good grades," said Archibald. "A lot of these kids think they can get by with something and just play basketball in high school. That's what happened to Mark."
At 6-foot-4, Lenoir would seem more suited to the off-guard position, which he has played most of his life. But when Van Gray struggled early this year, Lenoir gradually made the switch to point guard, which he occasionally played at SLCC last year.
"I'm still learning the system, but I'm feeling more comfortable with it," says Lenoir. "Every day, I feel like I'm getting better (at point)."
"He's playing hard and getting more confident," says Archibald. "The players are getting a better feel for him at point. I hope he can become a leader on the court for us."
Although he's only averaging 7.8 points per game, Lenoir leads the team in assists with 34 and usually draws the opposing team's best player. He tops the Utes in minutes played with 33 per game.
On the court, Lenoir looks older than his 21 years and meaner than the gentle disposition he displays off the court. Although he wears a scowl when he plays, Lenoir has an easy smile when he's not dribbling the ball or hounding an opposing player.
With most of his time taken up by basketball and studies, Lenoir likes to spend his spare time with his girlfriend or playing chess with his girlfriend's father. And like most basketball players, he's an expert at various video games.
"He's hard getting to know, but he's really a fun, humorous guy off the court," said Archibald.
Lenoir is the youngest of five boys. All of his older brothers played college football. Mark, in fact, was the quarterback of the high school varsity as a freshman, but gave up the sport to concentrate on basketball.
Although it's still a long way off, Lenoir could make quite point guard in the NBA with his size. But he isn't planning his future around it.
"I want to be the best college player I can and then maybe think about it," he said of the pros. A sociology major, Lenoir would like to coach or work with kids in some capacity after college.
"I think Mark can really be a tremendous basketball player for us and get his degree from the U. of U," said Archibald.
After an unexpected collegiate start, that would be a dream ending for Mark Lenoir.