It's Been A Hard Road Home For Lawrence Funderburke

Posted: March 29, 1992

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Early in Friday night's Southeast Regional semifinal, with Ohio State trailing by a bunch, Mark Baker, the Ohio State point guard, threw the ball straight up toward the Rupp Arena rafters.

Suddenly, as if shot from a cannon, Lawrence Funderburke leapt, caught the ball at its apex, and slammed it through for a dunk.

It was just one great play in a game of many, just two of the 21 big points he would score to lead Ohio State past North Carolina. But for Lawrence Funderburke, the play was symbolic of a soaring basketball rebirth.

It has been a long, hard climb back for Funderburke, a dynamically talented 6-foot-9 sophomore center. Today, as Ohio State takes on Michigan in the Southeast Regional final (Channel 10, 4 p.m.), he is a central figure in the Buckeyes' quest to win a national championship. Two years ago, his college career was in jeopardy, tangled up in attitude problems, school changes and coaches' grudges.

"It's been a difficult time for me, and I'm just now getting my feet wet," Funderburke said. "But being here makes me feel like the wait was worth it."

Funderburke, out of Wehrle High in Columbus, Ohio, was one of the top five scholastic players in the nation in 1989, even though a run-in with his high school coach caused him to sit out almost his entire senior year.

His first choice of colleges was Kentucky, but that dream was destroyed when the school's recruiting of Funderburke and other athletes sparked an NCAA investigation that resulted in probation for the Wildcats. He grudgingly accepted a scholarship to Indiana but left the team on Christmas Eve 1989 after a clash with Bob Knight. Then Knight refused to grant him permission to transfer to another school.

For Funderburke, the most difficult part has not been the resumption of his basketball career. His 21-point, seven-rebound effort in the 80-73 Southeast semifinal win over North Carolina was probably only a preview of the greatness that is to come. The most difficult part, he says, was "learning to be a normal person again."

After the blowup with Knight, Funderburke had to return to Indiana for the fall term of 1990 so he'd be eligible for a transfer. His exit from the campus a year before had not exactly been quiet.

"It was the toughest three months of my life," Funderburke said. "People in class would look at me funny, and I'd hear them talking about me. It got to a point where I had to stop playing basketball recreationally - because I knew people were going to try and start something with me.

"But it was an experience, I think, that made me a stronger person."

As a high school senior, he wanted nothing to do with Ohio State. Part of the reason was that he just wanted to get away. Part of the reason was that he didn't feel he could co-exist with then head coach Gary Williams. But in Randy Ayers, he saw a man who could be the father he never had.

"Coach Ayers laid it on the line to me," Funderburke said. "That this would be a final chance for me to pull my life together. He was willing to go the extra mile for me, and that meant a lot."

Ayers set up some ground rules for Funderburke.

"When we sat down and talked, Lawrence convinced me that he had accepted some of the responsibility for what had happened in his life," Ayers said.

"Last winter, when he enrolled, we required him to come into our office three times per week, just to talk about the future. We've tried to constantly talk to him about accepting challenges. And he's done a terrific job with that so far."

Off the court and on, Funderburke is expressionless to the point of appearing sullen. But he can be charming.

Asked for an opening statement at yesterday's off-day news conference, Funderburke shook his head as if to decline. Then, a moment later, he reconsidered and delivered an eloquent analysis of Michigan. He didn't talk much for the next 10 minutes, then broke up the room in laughter with a quip to teammate Chris Jent.

"You can never tell what Lawrence is going to do," Jent said. "He's a very intelligent guy and he likes to speak his mind.

"Most people who get served cold food in a restaurant are afraid to complain about it. Lawrence will put it right back in the waitress' face without saying a word. He's not afraid to say what's on his mind and a lot of times, that's taken the wrong way."

The perceptions about his personality and his past troubles, Funderburke knows, will be with him for a while. It took him only two games this season to reacquire the bad-guy label. This after a collision with Indiana's favorite son, Hoosier guard Damon Bailey, that many commentators - Bailey not included - called a cheap shot.

"The only thing I can do to help that is just to keep carrying on," said Funderburke.

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