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Originally published March 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 19, 2005 at 12:40 PM

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Blaine Newnham

Rollins solid from hardwood to classroom

The light in Hakeem Rollins' hotel room finally went out at 5 a.m. The mid-morning final for "The History of Christianity" was offered in an upstairs conference room at the Huskies' hotel yesterday.

Special to The Seattle Times

BOISE, Idaho — The light in Hakeem Rollins' hotel room finally went out at 5 a.m. You know those college basketball players.

I mean, who could have blamed him for staying up so late after Washington had won its first game in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, beating Montana?

"The breadth of the time the class covers demands you know a lot of information," said Rollins, explaining his late-night escapade, "from 30 years after Christ died until the present."

The mid-morning final for "The History of Christianity" was offered in an upstairs conference room at the Huskies' hotel yesterday.

In the room, observing Rollins answer 90 minutes of essay questions, was Pam Robenolt, the director of student athletic and academic services.

Earlier in the week, Rollins took a final in biology. Another time of the year it was organic chemistry. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound senior majors in biochemistry.

"I think," said Robenolt, the proctor, "that people would be shocked at the demands put on the college athlete. The University of Washington doesn't have easy majors where athletes hide."

Rollins has never been accused of hiding. He speaks eloquently by day, and holds down the middle for the Huskies by night. He might be the smartest player on the team, but there is no question he is the strongest.

In fact, he will be integral to Washington's success today in the second round of the tournament against a Pacific team with taller and, for the most part, European-schooled players.

"He is the closest thing we have to an inside defensive presence," said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. "Mike Jensen does a good job denying his man the ball, but Hakeem Rollins is the one there on the weak side blocking and altering shots.

"He's the only guy we have like that. I don't see how we can advance without him doing well."

Rollins was relaxed, if not drowsy, following Washington's practice yesterday, the cramming for finals behind him, the pure joy of concentrating on basketball at the highest level ahead of him.

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"I'm just very, very happy," he said. "The burden of finals has been lifted from my shoulders."

His fellow students back home might celebrate the feeling with a few brews. Rollins went over a game plan of how to slow down Pacific.

"Anyone who plays basketball knows how much easier it would be if I didn't have the academic demands on me," he said.

"But this is what I wanted, to be a student and a basketball player, and what we're involved in right now is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You wouldn't trade that for anything."

Rollins was always a good student. His parents pushed him in that direction.

"My dad always told me in most cases, you can make more money with your brains than your physical gifts," he said.

Rollins' dad is a correctional worker. His mom, a nurse, runs an adult day-care center.

After graduating from high school, Arizona offered Rollins a scholarship, not to play basketball, but to study.

"The summer after I graduated from high school I got the urge to play basketball and just didn't want to give it up," he said. "I thought there might be a route to doing both."

He could have walked on at Arizona, but he wasn't sure he could even make the team. So he went to community college in his hometown of Mesa, Ariz.

"There was a huge transition for me," he said. "I grew almost three inches and put on 30 pounds."

He also seemed to benefit from the coaching of Alton Lister, the former Sonics center. Rollins averaged 24 points and almost nine rebounds a game his last year at Mesa.

Minnesota, Connecticut, Southern Illinois, Washington and Santa Barbara offered him scholarships, this time based on his ability to play basketball. He liked Romar, but he also liked the director of the UW medical school, whom he asked to meet on a recruiting visit.

"He's a perfect example of what a student-athlete is," said his teammate, Bobby Jones. "I feel like I'm giving it my all in school and on the court, and then I see Dream and realize he is doing work that is 10 times harder than what I do. I'm just amazed by him."

Rollins isn't sure what his immediate future beyond this tournament holds. He has options, and that pleases him.

"With options, you don't have too many decisions made for you," said Rollins. "I'm definitely excited about the future."

He said that if he can't shake the basketball bug, he might explore the possibility of taking a few years off from school to play in Europe. The prospect of travel appeals as well.

But his long-term goal is medicine.

He said his fellow students in organic chemistry recognize him for his stature and athletic accomplishments but treat him no differently than others.

"They hear stories about athletes and academics that aren't all good," he said, "but if you know me and what I do, then you know what the situation is."

So as the pressure of finals ends, the pressure to get to the Final Four begins.

"For us to win that game," said Rollins of today's matchup with Pacific, "our interior defense has to be pretty exceptional."

Like Hakeem Rollins.

Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com

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