Sports

James Burns: Huddleston already driving Pacific fans wild

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

Allen Huddleston took his seat at a table dressed in black and orange balloons and his familiar No. 21 jersey.

The Merced senior smiled for the small gathering, grabbed a pen and then scribbled his name along the dotted line.

At last.

The 6-foot-1 guard was headed to college to play Division I ball, tying his future to the University of the Pacific during this November celebration.

Though he couldn't have possibly known it, that moment was celebrated across the Valley, the state and as far east as Arizona.

That's where Jon Ralston lives.

And when we look back at Huddleston's amateur career five, six, maybe seven years from now, we might find ourselves talking about Ralston -- the Pacific superfan who boldly called Huddleston the steal of the 2009 recruiting class.

Who is this Ralston fellow?

He's the desert's Renaissance Man -- a massage therapist, real estate investor and full-time college basketball geek.

His words. Not mine.

For the sake of this story, though, Ralston is a Pacific alum -- Class of 1996 -- and the owner/operator of an active Tiger message board since 1999.

In this age of multimedia and all-access, he is one of the true voices of UOP athletics.

Hoops, especially.

Ralston has seen the program reach unbelievable heights with players like Michael Olowokandi, Adam Jacobsen and Christian Maraker.

He's survived the busts and the flameouts.

But rarely, he says, has coach Bob Thomason's program landed a player with as much potential, raw skills and buzz as Huddleston.

It bears mentioning, though, that Ralston has never actually watched Huddleston play.

He wasn't in the building the night Huddleston dropped half a hundred on UCLA-bound blue-chipper Reeves Nelson and Modesto Christian.

Ralston wasn't there the weekend he strung together 32- and 35-point performances at the El Camino Shootout in Sacramento.

Ralston hasn't seen Allen split a double team, slip into the lane and flip a finger roll toward the rim.

Not with his own eyes, at least.

The forum Ralston runs is made up of roughly 25 cats as curious as their moderator.

Together, they canvas the UOP sports scene, the Big West and everything in between. They travel to games and tap insiders.

In short, this group of Striped Crazies have their finger on the pulse of Tiger athletics -- and right now, their collective BPM skyrockets every time Huddleston touches a ball.

"The more I find out about Allen, the more I like him," Ralston recently wrote.

Ironically, Huddleston -- the nation's third-leading scorer, according to MaxPreps -- is the type of player UOP has swung and missed on in the past.

He's projected as a combo guard. A kid with the right size, speed and skill set to be an impact player in the Big West. He can create his own shot, dial up 22-footers and distribute the ball.

Ralston can count on one hand how many players of that caliber have come to the Stockton university in the last 15 years.

Four.

Just four.

Two are in uniform now (Joe Ford and Terrell Smith), trying to find their way at the Division I level.

One is on the bench (Jacobsen), wearing a suit jacket, toting a clipboard as one of Thomason's top assistants.

And the other (Johnson), left UOP for Idaho after being linked to a sexual assault investigation.

The recruits that got away -- guys like NBA rookie Ryan Anderson (Cal) and D-Leaguer Philip Ricci (Oregon State) -- spurned Pacific's offers for bigger stages, more national exposure.

And that's OK.

"It's very rare that Pacific is able to seal the deal with a recruit like Allen," Ralston said. "We've gone after some pretty big guys and come away empty-handed.

"We've always been able to recruit well and get some interesting players, but when push comes to shove, we haven't been able to seal the deal with a big name like that."

Until now.

Huddleston picked UOP with a small ceremony back in November.

And when pen met paper, sealing the deal as Ralston likes to say...

Tigers roared.

From Stockton to Arizona.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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