It’s 90 minutes before the game and the Chicago Bulls are scattered throughout MCI Center.

A few players sit in the trainer’s room, taping ankles and icing elbows. Others relax in the locker room, readying themselves for the battle that lies ahead. One chews on an apple, another laughs at a joke and another sings along to a catchy 50 Cent tune.

Others playfully scrimmage out on the court, taunting each other in a casual game of 1-on-1. A few older players sit behind the three-point line, working on their jumpers.

One player, though, stands out. He sets up on the block, a mere four or five feet from the basket, and takes pass after pass from a coach, going left and then going right to the basket. Sometimes he pretends to go around his defender, sometimes over the imaginary opponent. Always, he finishes by putting the ball in the basket, whether it takes one, two or three tries.

This hulking frame – surprisingly agile – belongs to none other than Mike Sweetney, a third-year forward for the Chicago Bulls, back in town to square off with the Wizards. Just 23, he is one of the most accomplished Hoyas in recent memory.

As he moves through the air towards the cylinder, the ball rolls off of his fingers, almost like what you’d expect from a flashy two-guard. His coach barks at him, and he simply nods his head. “Yes, coach. I got it coach.”

The sweat begins to roll down his face, his breathing picks up, and you can tell he is working hard. He continues though, until his coach is able to convince him that he’s done enough.

Though the uniform is a bit unfamiliar, the big body and tireless work ethic should be familiar to the most sincere fans in attendance. Just three seasons ago, this man suited up in this very arena for the Georgetown Hoyas.

While Sweetney’s stats may not have been otherworldly, it is safe to say that he established himself as a solid contributor right from the start. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound freshman led the team with 12.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest.

It was in that same year, the 2000-2001 season, that Georgetown reeled off 16 straight victories, finished the regular season 25-8, and last qualified for the NCAA tournament. In a second-round game against Arkansas, forward Nathaniel Burton (COL ’01) hit a game-winning lay-up as time expired, securing the victory for the Hoyas. With former Arkansas guard and current teammate Jannero Pargo laughing in the background, Sweetney fondly recalls this game as one of the most memorable moments in his Georgetown career.

Sweetney made a name for himself his sophomore season. After netting 19 points and 10 boards per game, Sweetney proved that his freshman campaign was no fluke. His team however, regressed, finishing 19-11 and failing to make the NCAA tournament.

Unfortunately for Sweetney, the Hoyas were just as mediocre his junior season, finishing 19-15. Georgetown’s lack of success, however, was no fault of Sweetney’s. Looking to make a favorable impression on NBA scouts, Sweetney averaged 22.8 points and 10.4 rebounds. He joined Boston College’s Troy Bell as one of only two unanimous all-Big East first team selections.

That 2002-03 season proved to be Sweetney’s last in Hoya blue and gray. Stating that it was simply “his time to go,” Sweetney decided to take his game to the next level. He declared for the NBA draft on April 10, 2003, though he left his option to return open by not hiring an agent. Ultimately, however, he forwent the opportunity to remove his name from the draft pool, and was selected ninth by the New York Knicks.

Always understated, Sweetney seemed to treat the draft more as an experiment that a life-altering experience. “It was pretty cool to get out there and go through that process,” he says. “[It was cool to] just kind of see what you’re going to do for yourself.”

Sweetney’s time in New York was short, and frankly, somewhat disappointing. Stuck on a team with its fair share of forwards and dogged by concerns that he wasn’t in good enough shape for the pros, Sweetney played just 11.8 minutes per game his rookie year. For a player used to being the go-to-guy, the transition was not without its adversity.

“It was OK, he says. “It was a tough two years, but other than that, it helped me mature.”

Sweetney improved in his second season in New York, netting 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds. Still, he wasn’t reaching his potential, and when he was traded to Chicago on Oct. 4, 2005, his reaction was a positive one.

“It was a good opportunity for me,” he reflected. “It gives me a chance to mature.”

This season has been better for Sweetney. A starter for 30 of the Bulls’ 43 games, Sweetney has averaged 9.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest. Still new to Chicago, Sweetney is bound to improve as he becomes more comfortable with his new surroundings and more familiar with the Bulls’ system. And, once his defense improves – he averages 3.4 fouls per game – he is likely to get more minutes and score more points. Unfortunately for Sweetney, that foul trouble – most likely caused by his lack of speed – has kept him on the bench for four straight games.

For Sweetney, improvement will come one step at a time. And the third-year forward is not rushing anything. “[I have to] keep working hard everyday, keep at my routine,” he says, “and I’ll get better.”

Still, Sweetney’s relatively new teammates are already singing his praises. Othella Harrington (COL ’96), also a former Georgetown star, is quick to compliment Sweetney. “[He] all around is a good guy,” says Harrington. “Every day he’s working hard. He’s a good player and he is going to be a really good player.”

Tyson Chandler, ceding minutes to Sweetney due to inconsistent play, readily gives Sweetney his due.

“He’s been our best post presence. He’s done the best job, scoring consistently down low for us. Without him, we’d be in some trouble right now,” says Chandler.

Though Sweetney’s defense and Chandler’s improvements have led Head Coach Scott Skiles to leave Sweetney on the bench recently, the coach still likes what he has seen of Sweetney.

“Mike’s been good, we like Mike. He’s a good guy, he works hard, and he’s still learning some of the stuff that we do. He can score in the low post, he’s got a soft touch, he’s got a big body, and we think he has a nice upside.”

While this was not his first return to MCI Center as a professional, Sweetney still relishes the opportunity to play close to home. He had a hefty packet of tickets to distribute to friends and family, and was eager to greet some of his supporters following the game.

On the court, the big man’s return home was not spectacular, though his team did pull off a come-from-behind 118-111 victory. Sweetney notched 10 points and three boards, but played just 19 minutes due to foul trouble.

Despite the recent troubles, Sweetney is on the road to success. He eventually plans to return to Georgetown to earn his degree, but he is focused on his career right now.

“I want to be a guy that worked hard every night and maximized my potential,” he says of his career goals.

Describing Sweetney’s relationship to Georgetown is difficult. He may not have embraced the Hilltop quite like the average student, as he was home most weekends that weren’t full of basketball commitments. Still, he does relish the impact his time on the Hilltop made on his life.

“It helped me a lot,” he says of his three years at Georgetown. “It was a good place to mature, it was a hard school, and it made me work hard on and off the court.” Sweetney still talks to senior forward Brandon Bowman from time to time, and returns during the summers, much like many other well known Georgetown alumni.

Right now, Sweetney has a long way to go to become the basketball player he is capable of being. He needs to develop more polish on offense and speed on the defensive end. But as obvious as his lack of foot speed may be, it is his commitment to hard work that endures. Starting even before his time at Georgetown, and exemplified by his work on the Hilltop, Sweetney is a man driven by a desire to improve.

What stands out about Sweetney is his tireless work ethic – the tireless practices before games. Those post moves he tried so many times, so many hours before the game against the Wizards, tweaking his footwork each and every time. The tireless nodding of his head, the eager agreement with his coaches. The sweat dripping down his face during pre-game warm-ups.

Hard work has been the signature of Sweetney’s career. It got him to Georgetown. It kept him here – both on the court and in the classroom. Now, he is hoping it will take him to the top of the NBA. Judging from that determined pre-game workout, there is no reason to doubt that, one day, he’ll get there.

CORRECTION: The article “Already a Hilltop Legend, Sweetney Moves on to the NBA” (THE HOYA, Jan. 31, 2006, B1) incorrectly stated that the first-round 2001 NCAA Tournament basketball game between Georgetown and the University of Arkansas was a second-round match-up.

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