Officials at Utah Valley State College used to call sports writers, trying to lure them to Orem to see one of their basketball players in action. Someone named Ronnie Price.
In those days, Price was playing in small gyms around the country, some of them in old churches. There might be 200 people watching on a given night. There might 3,000 on a good night. Price was scoring 24 points a game, and nobody knew it. He was the best-kept secret in the state.
"You should see this kid," the PR guys would tell sports writers on the phone, but most of them didn't.
They're seeing him now. We interrupt the NBA playoff series between the Utah Jazz and L.A. Lakers to bring you the Ronnie Price coming-out party.
The young point guard's role is to hold down the fort while superstar Deron Williams rests, but against the Lakers he has done more than that, putting on a clinic in hustle and big plays.
In Game 3, he laid out in the air while diving to the floor for a loose ball, then rolled over and passed it to teammate Matt Harpring in stride for a layup. In Game 4, he made a double-clutch layup in heavy traffic. Then he produced the Play of the Game and perhaps the series. After Price missed a 3-point shot, the ball was rebounded and heaved the length of the court to Luke Walton for what appeared to be an easy breakaway layup. Price, who has a 41-inch vertical leap, flew down the court and leaped up around the rim to swat away the shot, without drawing a foul. The play has been showed repeatedly on TV.
In nine minutes of action, he collected four points, two steals and two assists.
After watching the game on Sunday, UVSC coach Dick Hunsaker, who coached Price for three years, put it best: "He's doing the same thing you tell fifth- and sixth-graders to do hustle. He's influencing the ballgame without making a parade of baskets.
"Ronnie's such a great, unspoiled athlete, such a breath of fresh air. He's plays with such zest and energy every game."
How well has he played? So well that even Jerry Sloan, who hands out compliments as if they were $100 bills, has been gushing about him this week.
"The last two games he's made plays that are over and above what you expect from players," said Sloan, who expects a lot from players. "He's played with tremendous energy."
Sloan has tried to find more playing time for Price this season, even sometimes trying him at the off-guard spot. "He deserves more playing time, but he's stuck behind a second-team All-Pro," says the coach. "He gets a minute here and two minutes there, but he's never had an attitude about not playing more."
Price is used to this role by now. He was about 5 feet 7 inches tall when he graduated from high school in Friendswood, Texas. To this day, his family continues to refer to him as "Little Ronnie," not exactly the kind of name that would endear him to college recruiters. If his size wasn't reason enough to ignore him, Price broke his wrist during his senior season.
He had to walk on to play college ball at Nicholls State.
He stayed there a year and grew four inches. After a coaching change, he followed an assistant coach to UVSC, where he fell under the tutelage of Hunsaker. It was an unlikely proving ground for a future NBA player. The Wolverines played wherever they could get a game Bethany College, IU-Northwest in Indiana, Southern Virginia, College of Southern Idaho ...19 road games in all during one season.
"Ronnie was our third best player that first year," says Hunsaker.
A late bloomer, Price, who grew to 6 feet 2 inches, improved dramatically each season, and he played every game like a guy on 20 cups of coffee, hustling for steals, getting back on defense, his feet constantly moving. He averaged 20 points per game as a junior and 24 as a senior. In one game, with an NBA scout present to watch another player, he scored 30 points in the first half. "Best shooting performance I've seen," the scout told Hunsaker. He scored 36 points in his final home game, played in front of 3,500 fans and received a standing ovation.
Price went undrafted by an NBA team.
He was essentially a walk-on again.
"I was disappointed," he says, "because I thought I had had good workouts (for NBA teams)."
The Sacramento Kings offered him a two-year guaranteed contract, which is almost unheard of for undrafted free agents. After playing out his contract with the Kings, he signed with the Jazz last year.
"He made 50 percent leaps in improvement for three years," says Hunsaker. "He's still in the improvement mode, without question. He's in such a wonderful system now. I couldn't have scripted it better for his progression, from going to the Kings and then to the Jazz. I always said the best thing for him would be to sit on the bench in the NBA and watch and learn for a couple of years, and he's done that. We're just starting to see what he can do."For his part, Price remains patient, as always. "I've been really blessed that everything happened in the order it happened in," he says. "Everything happened for a reason. Everything fell into place. If I had been the height I am now in high school, I might not have gone to the schools I attended, and maybe I wouldn't have played for Coach Hunsaker. He's been the one who prepared me the most for this. Now I'm trying to enjoy my time in the league."