Originally created 03/12/98

Tigers' Iturbe wants different reputation



Antxon Iturbe is not your typical annoying little tagalong brother.

The George Washington freshman forward has his older sibling by a good three inches, a pretty sizable difference by basketball standards.

And he's stronger, much, much brawnier in the low post.

But with the territory that goes with being the younger sibling of Clemson's Iker Iturbe comes an even more unusual twist -- the responsibility of defending his brother's good name.

"Everywhere I go, I tell people all the time that Iker is not what they say he is," Antxon says. "It hurts our family and Iker because he does not feel he has done anything but played the game of basketball hard, the way he has been trained to play it."

And it's a given that, at some point during Clemson's trip to Chicago for the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional, Iker Iturbe will hear the label.

He's been hearing it ever since the now famous incident in 1995, when legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith hung it upon the Spaniard.

"When people say I am a dirty player I don't see myself as a dirty player," says the elder Iturbe, averaging 5.7 points and 2.6 rebounds per game for the sixth-seeded Tigers (18-13) who are going into Friday's first-round tilt with No. 11-seed Western Michigan (20-7) at the United Center (12:30 p.m., Channel 12). "I know I do play physical but I can honestly say I cannot see how they call me a dirty player.

"I have nothing personal with anybody," he said, with a laugh. "Except my brother."

Lauhing off the unwanted branding is something Iturbe has been forced to do with much regularity since the first round matchup between Clemson and North Carolina in the 1995 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

The former Tar Heels coach yelled at Iturbe, then a freshman, for a hard foul on Jerry Stackhouse. It erupted into the now infamous feud between Smith and Clemson coach Rick Barnes.

"Everything started when Dean Smith said those things," says Antxon, who is coming off a stress fracture in his foot and hopes to be ready when ninth-seeded George Washington (24-8) plays No. 8 Oklahoma State (21-6) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament South Regional on Friday.

"All the influence he has in the press and the comments about my brother made people think he is a dirty player. All the magazines in the preseason classified him as a dirty player. I don't think that's the way it really is. He plays hard and physical, yes. But dirty, no."

Barnes, one of Iturbe's biggest fans, would agree.

"I think his aggressive style of play is often misconstrued," says Barnes who, in one of his first acts as Clemson's coach in 1994, convinced Iturbe to sign with the Tigers instead of Minnesota. "It's a shame because he is such a versatile and talented player who can do so many things, and he usually is overlooked."

But the 6-foot-7 junior turned many heads his way last Saturday in the ACC tournament semifinal loss to Duke, when he scored a career-high 19 points.

That performance quickly made the media and fans forget about the latest incident, which occurred in Clemson's victory over Georgia Tech at home in the regular-season finale on March 1.

Georgia Tech freshman Alvin Jones claimed he was "sucker punched" in the stomach by Iturbe in the second half. Yellow Jackets Bobby Cremins flippantly and openly expressed his concern over the alleged punch in the post-game press conference, but the incident was resolved the following day when Iturbe called and apologized to Jones.

Still, the reputation lingers, as does Iturbe's disdain for his critics.

"It bothers me but it won't change the way I play the game," Iturbe says. "It's not just me. That's Clemson basketball. That's definitely our style. Physical, aggressive basketball. It has helped us in a lot of games and it will help us in the tournament."

And if it takes more lobbying by his little brother to clear the family name, so be it.

"We talk about it a lot, my whole family does, and it is difficult for Iker," says 18-year-old Antxon. "He isn't being recognized for the outstanding basketball player he is, so I hope he plays really well in the tournament and leads Clemson to the Final Four."

Maybe then, the respect will follow.