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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah basketball player Chris Hines.
Utah basketball: Even beat up, Chris Hines is Utes’ most important player
Utah hoops » Hines battles injuries, speech impediment to become a team leader.
First Published Feb 08 2012 04:10 pm • Last Updated Feb 09 2012 11:36 pm

From behind a door deep in a Los Angeles arena last month, Chris Hines emerged with black headphones wrapped around his neck, his fractured left thumb freed from its special sleeve and his right ankle wrapped in enough ice to ship fresh fish.

Coming off a 62-45 loss to USC — maybe Utah’s most discouraging of the season — Hines limped over to a small group of reporters, one of whom observed that one day someone would have to push him out of the locker room in a wheelchair.

At a glance

The Chris Hines file

Age » 22

Hometown » Houston

Position » Guard

Points per game » 8.9

Memorable moment » On Feb. 16, 2011, Hines banked in a 25-foot 3-pointer to beat New Mexico in The Pit. Utah hasn’t won on the road since.

Utah at Arizona State

At Wells Fargo Arena (Tempe, Ariz.)

Tipoff » Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

TV » None

Radio » 700 AM

Records » Utah 5-18 (2-9); ASU 7-16 (3-8)

Series » Utah, 26-18

Last meeting » Utah, 64-43 (Jan. 21)

About the Utes » Utah has lost four straight games since beating the Sun Devils at home Jan. 21. Cedric Martin led the Utes with 17 points in that game. … Center Jason Washburn leads the Utes with 10.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. The junior had a career-high eight blocks Saturday against Oregon State. … The Utes’ 18 losses have been by an average of 14.7 points.

About the Sun Devils » ASU is 1-5 in games without guard Trent Lockett, who is expected to return Thursday from an ankle injury. Lockett leads the team with 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. … Forward Carrick Felix scored 20 points Saturday in a win over Washington State.

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"I wish they did tonight," Hines said.

The junior guard, who will lead the Utes at Arizona State on Thursday, has been ravaged by injuries: to his ribs, his elbow, thumb and, during a practice between losses in L.A., his ankle. During a season of 18 losses and counting, the 22-year-old Hines has become an old man.

Once a reserve for Larry Krystkowiak, Hines is now the Utes’ second-leading scorer at 8.9 points per game and, perhaps, their most important player. Four of them remained after coach Jim Boylen was fired last spring, but that group has been cut to two. Through injuries and attrition, Hines’ role has expanded from volume shooter to the careful, wispy voice of a team.

"I think he’s a good influence on guys on how you go about your business," Krystkowiak said.

Maddeningly inconsistent, capable of scoring 20 points one game and missing every shot he takes in the next — as he did in two games last week — Hines’ leadership has little to do with his statistics.

Hines has missed just two games with his injuries. He insists on playing, even when hurting.

For that he credits his grandfather — a landscaper who worked through broken bones, so, one old man like the other, Hines has spent his life fighting back. It’s held true throughout a complicated journey, whether he was punching his way out of schoolyard confrontations over a debilitating stutter or blocking the pain of nagging basketball injuries.

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‘Don’t talk to that dude’

Lance Alexander looked out a window of Klein Forest High School into the dark and through the sleet of a rare Houston winter storm. He watched a figure slog through the field in front of the school on a bicycle.

Hours earlier, Chris Hines missed two free throws in a game that would have given the Golden Eagles first place in their district. Now Alexander, an assistant coach on the team, watched the 16-year-old Hines park his bicycle near the back door of the school. With a swift kick, Hines popped the door’s latch, and stepped into the building.

He retrieved from a closet the basketball he hid for nights like these, often three times a week. From a spot in the stands where they couldn’t be seen, Alexander and head coach Cary Black watched Hines shoot free throws for an hour and a half.

Dribble, dribble … swish. Dribble, dribble … swish.

"Every time he missed one," Alexander said, "he either did wind sprints or pushups. He wasn’t going to let that happen again."

When Alexander first started watching Hines as a sixth grader, the young guard was deeply affected by a stutter. As a result, he rarely spoke at all. Educators labeled him "special ed."

Before high school, Alexander told Hines and his mother, Wanda, that he could one day play in college, but not if he was in special ed for a speech impediment.

Hines went back to regular classes, where throughout high school he collected report cards filled with A’s and B’s.

"I’m not dumb," Hines remembered thinking as a child. "I know all the material that everybody else is doing, but I just can’t talk about it like they can."

And other kids noticed.

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