Toughness, Desire Fuels Fortson

Rob Evans wasn't heavily involved in recruiting freshman point guard Courtney Fortson. Sure, Arkansas' assistant coach had seen him on tape. He had heard the stories, the tales of Fortson's high school, AAU and prep school prowess.

But Evans didn't know what to expect when the Razorbacks started individual workouts before this season began. He needed only one session to determine the spunky, dreadlocked, 5-foot-11 lefty had a bright future — at Arkansas and beyond.

"After that first day of drills, I told friends of mine that Courtney was really special," Evans said. "He's the total package. He's unselfish. He's a leader. He has unbelievable vision. He can score from the perimeter. He can finish in the lane.

"And he's so tough. If he wants to get a rebound, he's going to get it."

The list of superlatives pertaining to Fortson could carry on and on. Evans' last point, however, speaks to the main influence Fortson has had at Arkansas.

In leading the Razorbacks to a 10-1 start, Fortson has instilled a physical mentality his teammates have embraced, a mentality they briefly lost when Patrick Beverley left the program.

The Montgomery, Ala., native leads the Southeastern Conference in assists and trails only junior Michael Washington for the team-high in scoring. But it's his constant intensity, ever-present toughness and endless desire to win that has suddenly turned the Hogs into an unexpected threat to claim the SEC Western Division.

Fierceness like Fortson's is rarely seen, Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said, especially for a point guard his size.

"You see a few guys like that," Pelphrey said. "There was a guy like that here once (Corey Beck) who won a national championship. You can remember me saying when we got (Courtney) that I didn't know if he's the biggest or the fastest or if he's the best ball handler in the country.

"But we always felt confident that there wouldn't be anybody tougher, and he had a bad habit of winning."

Hard-Nosed Style

Fortson's toughness — evident by his brutally intense defense, bruising in-the-lane psyche and mental strength — developed during his childhood, says Lorraine, his mother. Fortson's parents separated when he was only two years old.

And as Fortson grew up, his mother persevered through many hardships to raise him and his four siblings.

"He saw how tough his mom was through all that," Lorraine Fortson said. "I think that started to make him tough. He saw how being tough can help you through life."

Then came three years of football, a sport Fortson "still misses." He didn't begin playing organized basketball until junior high. Before then, Fortson starred as a quarterback in the Montgomery (Ala.) YMCA youth league.

Lorraine Fortson cheered as her son scored 22 rushing touchdowns in one season, "just like Michael Vick," she beamed.

"I loved the contact," Courtney said. "After I stopped playing football in junior high, I took the same way of playing to basketball. I always played hard and fearless, just like in football."

Fortson has only built on that way of thinking throughout the years.

It helped him earn Mr. Basketball honors in the state of Alabama. It aided him in making Southeast Elite one of the top AAU teams in the country. And it assisted coach Chris Chaney in taking The Patterson School to the quarterfinals of the national prep school tournament last year.

"He's like a pitbull," said Chaney, using a word many have uttered to describe Fortson. "He's always looking for that next fight, that next challenge. He plays better when someone says something to him in a game, or when someone gets on him in practice."

Pelphrey likes to call Fortson's unrelenting style "hard-nosed and nasty." Southeast Elite coach Mark Komara went a bit further in his description of Fortson, who has at least five rebounds in eight of his 11 games.

"He will whoop that ass, man," Komara said. "Put him in a room with one those football players there at Arkansas, and he'd whoop whoever. He's that tough, that strong. He's so intimidating, especially for other point guards. He doesn't go looking for fights or anything, but you better watch out if you're playing against him. He'll just overpower you."

Mentally Strong

Every step along his journey to Arkansas, Fortson has dealt with doubters. They'd call Fortson too small. They'd say Fortson couldn't handle the ball well enough. They'd insist his shot looked ugly.

They even looked beyond Fortson's intangibles, the characteristics raved about by those who know him.

"Courtney was always the underdog player," Lorraine Fortson said. "He always had something to prove. He was always underrated. It didn't bother him, though. He's always believed in himself."

That mental strength, and unshakable confidence, allowed Fortson to follow a basketball path that wasn't open to him initially. After his sophomore season at Jefferson Davis High in Montgomery, Komara was recruiting one of Fortson's best friends to play for Southeast Elite.

Fortson hoped to join him, but Komara already had committed to another point guard. Fortson knew what he wanted, though, and wouldn't leave a meeting without a positive answer.

"I told him that I couldn't over-recruit," Komara said. "Courtney just said, ‘Listen, I'll come off the bench. I just want to travel with you.' I couldn't turn that down."

By Southeast Elite's second game that AAU season, Fortson earned himself a spot in the starting lineup.

Those skeptical of Fortson didn't go away, however. In fact, they seemed to grow in size. Dave Telep,'s college basketball recruiting analyst, remembers being one of the "last on board" about Fortson. He recalled seeing Southeast Elite beat the Southern Cal All-Stars at a North Carolina tournament in May 2007.

In that game, Fortson dominated Brandon Jennings, the all-everything point guard who made headlines by playing in Europe this season instead of college.

"Courtney had about 35 points in that game," Komara said. "Jennings had nine and got thrown out of the gym. Courtney simply got in his head."

Fortson has continued to frustrate others in just his few months in Fayetteville, using his mental will to outlast opponents, as well as teammates in workouts. Chaney said Fortson "never took drills off" at The Patterson School, saying he "didn't want to get beat at any little thing."

That ability to treat practices just likes games quickly endeared Fortson to junior guard Stefan Welsh.

"I knew immediately that he was going to change our team," Welsh said. "It's amazing what kind of attitude he has. He goes so hard, he takes coaching and he's such a team player. We all love him."

The Razorbacks don't just care for Fortson, either. They follow him. Welsh and Washington still lead in ways for Arkansas, and Evans said Fortson has "done a great job of deferring to them in certain situations."

But even Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel could notice who fed off of who, saying "there's no question" that Fortson fuels the Hogs.

"This team is being led by Courtney in many ways," Evans said. "He's a born leader. He gets his point across in a nice way. He's smart enough to do all of this, and everyone else sees how hard he goes all the time.

"You just don't see young leaders like this."

Entertaining Winner

There's so much more to Fortson's game. That's the beauty of his impact for the Razorbacks. He isn't only Arkansas' floor general, its tenacious on-court leader averaging a team-high 31.9 minutes.

Fortson is the Hogs' modern-day Dominique Wilkins, their very own "Human Highlight Film" who already has taught Bud Walton Arena fans to think twice about in-game concession trips.

He feeds teammates with behind-the-back, no-look and tightly-threaded passes. He brushes off contact and converts reckless-appearing drives with ease. He dribbles with strength and confidence, saying he can now go "five or 10 minutes straight without looking at the ball."

"Courtney sees the game in slow motion basically," Chaney said. "Everyone else is seeing it in regular speed, but he sees it in slow motion. It's like he has a joystick and he's playing a video game."

His alley-oop abilities also lead to momentum-boosting dunks, such as the off-the-backboard, fast-break slam he set up for freshman Andre Clark against Texas Southern.

Just wait, though. Via his 38-inch vertical leap, Fortson figures to end up on the receiving end of a lob dunk one of these days. He almost threw down freshman Rotnei Clarke's 40-foot pass against Northwestern State, but he got fouled just before finishing the dunk.

"Ya'll ain't seen nothing yet at Arkansas," Komara said. "Some day, he's going to go down the lane, rise up high, cock that sucker back over his head and punch it on a big man. I've seen it. He's a freak like that. He plays way above the rim."

Still, Fortson's value stretches far beyond landing on SportsCenter's nightly Top 10 plays. Fortson's most endearing quality to coaches and teammates is this: he hates to lose.

Lorraine Fortson said that started at a young age with PlayStation games, when her son "was one of those little guys who was quiet and stayed to himself." He went on to win a state championship at Jefferson Davis. His last Southeast Elite team had a 51-5 record. He only lost four games at The Patterson School, and he obviously has suffered only one defeat thus far at Arkansas.

"At one point, we were 31-0, and we had won nine games where we were losing with two minutes left," Chaney said. "It got to the point where it was almost a joke, but Courtney was the one leading us back most times."

Usually, Fortson capped those rallies by snaring a rebound or outhustling foes for a loose ball or forcing a turnover. Back then, as Fortson made fools of the college coaches who didn't recruit him, Chaney could tell his star point guard already was ready for the next level.

Fortson's first 11 games have only validated his strong opinion.

"He's not your usual freshman," Chaney said. "I don't think he's one of the best freshmen in country. I think he's one of the best basketball players in the country."

Fortson's unquestionably one of the toughest, too.

Today's Ticket

North Texas vs. Arkansas

When: 2:05 p.m.

Where: Alltel Arena, North Little Rock

TV: KFTA (Cox Ch. 8)

Radio: KEZA-FM 107.9, KKEG-FM 92.1, KUOA-AM 1290, FM 105.3

Records: North Texas Mean Green, 8-5; Arkansas Razorbacks, 10-1

Coaches: North Texas, Johnny Jones (eighth season); Arkansas, John Pelphrey (second season)

Series: Arkansas leads 12-0

Courtney Fortson

Position: Point guard

Class: Freshman

Height: 5-foot-11

Weight: 180 pounds

Hometown: Montgomery, Ala.

High School: Jefferson Davis High

Prep School: The Patterson School (Lenoir, N.C.)

Notables: Ranks first in the Southeastern Conference in assists (7.1) and second on Arkansas in scoring (15.5), as well as third on the Razorbacks in rebounding (5.5). ... Recorded only the second triple-double in school history with 23 rebounds, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in Arkansas' 98-70 victory over North Carolina Central on Dec. 10. ... Averaged 25 points, seven assists and six steals in leading The Patterson School to the quarterfinals of the National Prep Tournament. ... Named Mr. Basketball for the state of Alabama after his senior season at Jefferson Davis High.

Courtney Fortson

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