Feb. 25, 2002
By Herb Benenson
BERKELEY - Well before the first games in November rolled around, Solomon Hughes dedicated himself to having a strong and productive senior season.
After leading the Pac-10 in field goal shooting during Cal's NCAA Tournament run last year, Hughes committed himself to increasing both his physical and mental well-being in preparation for his last year in a Golden Bear uniform - a journey that started nearly half a world away.
In June, Hughes traveled with a summer Athletes in Action team for a tour of the West African country of Ivory Coast. The experience taught him to be grateful for the opportunities he has in life.
"That was probably the most intense thing I've ever participated in," Hughes said of the 10-day trip. "It gave me a totally different perspective. You see other parts of the country in the news, but for me it never really was real. Being able to talk to people and touch things really makes you appreciate what you have. Just being able to appreciate clean water, that's a luxury we have as Americans. In basketball, they play on cement courts. A lot of people tell me it's all relative, that's just how it works out. I don't believe that at all. I could just have easily been born over there."
Upon returning home, Hughes trained harder than ever for his final campaign, increasing his stamina and adding 15 pounds to his frame. As a result, the 6-11 post player got off to the strongest start of his career. Through 10 games, Hughes was averaging more than 11 points per outing and shooting 69.6 percent from the floor.
"I really focused on strengthening my body and my endurance," Hughes said. "I felt pretty confident in practice. I think practice gives a direct implication of what will happen in a game."
Practice clearly paid off as Hughes had some of the best games of his career in the early part of the year. He poured in 17 points in a win over New Mexico and added 16 more against Saint Louis. Then in late December at the Golden Bear Classic, Hughes totaled 14 points vs. Harvard and set a career high with 19 points in the championship game against Penn State. That performance earned him tournament Most Valuable Player honors.
"I'd never won MVP of anything before," Hughes admitted. "That was pretty cool."
Unfortunately, the effort against the Nittany Lions would be his last on the court for a couple of weeks. On the Monday before Cal's Pac-10 opener at Stanford, Hughes fell in practice and suffered a strained right knee, an injury that kept him out of four contests. A bout with a stomach virus and a bruised thigh limited his effectiveness after his return in mid-January, and it wasn't until Hughes put in 11 points against Arizona State Feb. 2 did he seem to be back to full health.
Despite the setback, the stint on the sidelines gave Hughes another way to look at both the team and his career.
"I think there's a blessing in every storm," Hughes said. "That was hard sitting out those four games. The fact of the matter is, I think I learned a little bit about basketball. It made me appreciate it so much more. I'll never get to play against Stanford again, but that's fine. It's just a blessing to be on this team, to be surrounded by these guys. I think it helped me grow up a little bit."
Now that March is just around the corner and Cal is heading toward another postseason tournament berth, Hughes believes he is back to his pre-injury form. He's lifting the same amount of weight he was before he was hurt and he isn't hampered at all running up and down the court.
"I think with any team, you want to be the best at the last," Hughes said. "I think we're putting ourselves in that position. We'll be at full strength at the key time of the season."
Once the year comes to a close, Hughes has a solid foundation for his post-collegiate career. He will graduate this May with a degree in sociology and has little fear if a professional playing career doesn't happen to pan out.
"I'm going to miss Cal," Hughes said. "I was thinking before the Oregon game that the second half of my senior season went by so quickly. All the experiences, all the people I've met, it's been phenomenal. But I'm excited about the future."
And if that future includes another shot at Stanford in the Pac-10 Tournament?
"Yeah," said Hughes, "that would be cool."
It's just about having the right perspective.