by HOWIE STALWICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & asketball is unique in that players essentially run around in undergarments in front of spectators seated close enough to hear sweat hit the floor. It's a 5-on-5 game often reduced to 1-on-1. A team sport in which the strengths and weaknesses of individuals are exposed for all to see.
In the inner city, basketball often provides a rare beacon of hope. African-Americans from humble backgrounds dominate the sport at the college and professional levels for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that basketball can serve as a means to a better life for players and their families.
And then we have Taylor Rochestie, the rock-solid point guard of the Washington State Cougars. He's a little white dude who grew up with loads of money in ritzy Santa Barbara, Calif., but he plays basketball with the passion and determination of the most desperate of souls.
"He's a very competitive kid," WSU coach Tony Bennett says. "He's got a strong inner confidence. He's not afraid to take big shots at the end of games."
Not that he always makes those shots -- witness the layup that rimmed out at the end of last Saturday's overtime loss to Stanford -- but count on Rochestie (RAW-chess-tee) to keep comin' at ya.
"When you're a point guard," Rochestie explains, "you love having the ball in your hands."
"He just has a knack for coming up with big plays," Bennett says. "I love his competitiveness."
No matter what Rochestie accomplishes at WSU -- and he's accomplished plenty while leading the Pacific-10 Conference in assists (5.2 per game) and ranking among the national leaders in assist-turnover ratio -- he'll be remembered most for an act of uncommon generosity that he made prior to the season.
Rochestie, realizing the Cougars were out of scholarships for 2008-09 and could use another guard, gave up his scholarship for next season so that WSU can bring in Florida prep standout Marcus Capers.
"Wow," says teammate and senior wing Kyle Weaver. "To do that tells you what kind of guy he is. It's pretty amazing."
"He called me at my apartment," recalls junior forward Daven Harmeling, "and he came by and told me he was thinking of doing it. I was just silent for about 20 seconds. I wasn't crying, but it was emotional. I told him, 'That's the ultimate act of unselfishness.'"
The unassuming Rochestie almost makes it sound like WSU is doing him a favor by letting him and his family fork out perhaps $30,000 for his senior year.
"After I talked with my dad about it, I knew it was a no-brainer," Rochestie says. "The recruits that I've met are exciting, athletic and are special kids. To be able to set something up for the future and to continue what we've got going means the world to me."
Rochestie remains grateful to Bennett for bringing him aboard two years ago when Rochestie was sitting out the 2005-06 season with a major knee injury after starting for Tulane as a freshman. When Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of New Orleans and the Tulane campus -- "It really flipped my world around," he says -- Rochestie sought a school closer to home.
Last season, Rochestie played an increasingly key role as a reserve or occasional starter when the Cougars shocked the college basketball world after 10 straight losing seasons by winning 26 games and advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. This season, Rochestie is a full-time starter on a team that spent all year in the national top 10 before losing twice last week.
"He kind of keeps us together," says Weaver, an NBA prospect who played the point most of last season.
"He's an unbelievable teammate," Harmeling says. "He's very selfless."
Rochestie, whose listed height and weight (6-foot-1 and 186 pounds) appear to be more fiction than fact, is surprisingly effective on drives to the basket against much bigger foes. He leads the Cougars with 32.7 minutes played per game and 45.8 percent shooting on 3-pointers. Rochestie nails 50 percent of his field goals and 80 percent of his free throws and averages 9.2 points and a mere 1.6 turnovers.
"When you've got a leader like that on the floor," Weaver says, "it makes it a lot easier for everyone else."
The 17th-ranked Washington State Cougars (17-4 overall, 5-4 Pacific-10 Conference) take on fifth-ranked UCLA (20-2, 8-1) on Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7:30 pm and USC (14-7, 5-4) on Saturday, Feb. 9, at 12:30 pm at Friel Court in Pullman. Both games are sold out but will be televised on FSN and KXLY 4, respectively, and broadcast on KXLY 920 and other stations on the Cougar Basketball Radio Network.