With the off-season blogging doldrums in full effect, I think now is the perfect time to bore you with the list of my 10 favorite Razorback basketball players of all time. More than 30 years of following Hog hoops left me with no shortage of worthy candidates, and whittling down the list of potential honorees to just 10 has been an emotionally draining process, one that has kept me up for nights on end and, at times, reduced me to a sobbing, incoherent mess of a man. OK - maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but it was difficult to craft the list that I will be unveiling over the course of the next several weeks.
One quick note before the party rolls on: I've limited the list to players that I've actually seen play in a Razorback uniform. I started watching the Hogs in the 1979-80 season, when I was seven years old. That was the year after Sidney Moncrief's senior season. With that bit of context, on to No. 8 (btw, here's nos. 9 and 10) ...
If I had compiled this oh-so-prestigious ranking 10 or 15 years ago, Corey Beck would have been No. 1 or No. 2 on the list. He was a true joy to watch on the court. Offensively, he was nothing special: he never averaged more than 8.8 points per game, a mark he achieved during his junior season. But he was a relentless, suffocating defender who dove for every loose ball within a 10-mile radius, crashed the boards with an intensity rarely seen in a point guard and seemingly drew a charge every time the opponent had possession of the ball. Moreover, he was the leader of the championship-era Hogs: for as talented and deep as those mid-90s Arkansas teams were, they often looked lost when foul trouble or an injury kept Beck off the floor.
But the past decade has seen way too many "Corey Beck Arrested" headlines. Alcohol and drug woes appear to be at the heart of Beck's problems, and anyone grappling with the grip of addiction deserves a decent amount of sympathy in my book. I'm not comfortable issuing thunderous judgments on the man - I'll leave that to Bill Bennett - but Beck's depressingly long rap sheet makes it impossible for me to feel rapturous about him, the way I did in 1995.
Still, a list of my favorite Hogs would be incomplete without Beck. The man was - cliché alert! - the heart and soul of the best team in Arkansas history.
If I had to point to one game that exemplifies what Corey meant to the Hogs, it would be the Razorbacks' victory over Arizona in the semifinal round of the 1994 Final Four. Beck's stats from the game are nothing to get terribly excited about: 9 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. In fact, one portion of his stat line - the six turnovers - is downright ghastly.
But anybody who watched that game should remember the effect Corey had on the Hogs in the latter stages of the second half. Beck notched his fourth foul just after halftime, and Nolan Richardson had no choice but to bench him. As they so often did with Corey on the sidelines, the Hogs struggled.
With the team in obvious need of their captain, Nolan took a big gamble and put Beck back in the game with just more than 12 minutes to play. "I bit the bullet," Richardson said after the game. Biting the bullet paid off: Beck's presence soon sparked the Hogs, and with 8 minutes to go, the team began an 11-1 run that helped turn a 2-point deficit into a 91-82 win. "Soon enough, Beck was bounding from end line to end line, firing the decisive run and making life miserable for the feckless fencers from Tuscon," wrote Sports Illustrated's Alexander Wolff about Beck's re-entry into the game.
"All Beck does is win," Richardson told CBS' Jim Nantz and Billy Packer in an amusingly churlish post-game television interview. A few moments earlier, Packer had told Nolan that he thought the turning point in the game was Beck's risky return in the second half. "A blind man could see that," Nolan growled. "I think that's a slam at me," Packer replied, to which Nolan quickly added, "I guarantee it was."
As the years have gone by, it's been sad to see a man who exerted so much control on the court be so out of control off of it. Corey turned 40 on the Friday before Memorial Day; at this point, one has to wonder if he can turn his life around. Here's hoping he can.