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Wednesday December 28, 2011A New Role: Once Viewed as Rutgers' Savior, Mike Rosario Returns with a New Outlook on Life

By Chris Harry

GatorZone Contributing Writer 

 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Back home, everyone knew him as “White Mike.” 

 

In the troubled and harrowing Duncan Projects of Jersey City, kids get nicknames and Mike Rosario’s half-hispanic heritage made his a natural. His basketball skills, though, added something extra to the label. To Rosario’s street cred, also.

 

Take the time the traveling hoops minstrel Randy Gill, a.k.a. “White Chocolate and winner of Magic Johnson’s MTV reality series “Who’s Got Game,” came to the local boys and girls club. White Chocolate, who captured the $100,000 first prize for winning Magic’s competition was doing his tricks and putting on a show when he asked for a volunteer from the audience to be schooled. The crowd chanted their choice. 

 

White Mike! White Mike! White Mike! 

 

Rosario hopped down from the bleachers. White Chocolate promptly jabbed, juked, dribbled, drove and basically teased the local playground prodigy on his way to an easy basket. 

 

Then the kid asked for the ball. 

 

White Mike! White Mike! White Mike! 

 

Rosario faced up his defender, showed off his handle, gave a shoulder here, a crossover there, then put the ball between White Chocolate’s legs, kept the dribble on the back end and laid the ball in the basket. 

 

The place went nuts. 

 

White Mike! White Mike! White Mike!  

 

White Mike was 11 years old. 

 

“I’ve always been able to play and everybody knew I could play,” Rosario said. “And I’ve always been able to score the ball.” 

 

He still can play, still score and everybody still knows it. Rosario’s homegrown circumstances, however, have changed. 

 

Once a Jersey whiz kid and local legend who became the first McDonald’s All-American to sign with nearby Rutgers University, Rosario is in the midst of a makeover that many back home may not understand. He was the face of the Scarlet Knights program, garnering All-Big East freshman honors, averaging 16.4 points and scoring 1,000 points in two seasons. 

 

Rosario was the man. 

 

But Thursday night, when 10th-ranked Florida (10-2) visits Rutgers (7-5), Rosario will be the eighth or ninth man for the Gators -- if he plays at all. 

 

“I have a new role now,” he said. 

 

Rosario returns to the Rutgers roost he once ruled as one of a handful of gifted offensive players on one of the best teams (in one of the best backcourts) in the country. And he comes back having missed the previous two games with a back strain and with relatively modest statistics compared to those he compiled during two years in Piscataway. 

 

The 6-foot-3 junior is averaging 9.4 points and 17 minutes per game while shooting 46.6 percent from the floor. After tweaking his back at practice Dec. 18 and missing wins against Mississippi Valley State and Florida State, Rosario was cleared by the team’s medical staff for contact Monday and has had just one full-contact practice in more than two weeks.

 

Yet, now comes one of the most scrutinized scenarios of his college basketball career.

 

“Mike’s been in big games before and I understand the emotions that he’s feeling. Of course, he’s going to want to play well,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “But he’s also got to understand that it’s about our team and what we need to do in the game.”

 

No one, not even Donovan, knows how much playing time (if any) Rosario will get Thursday, but one thing is for certain: his Rutgers Athletic Center homecoming will be nothing like the old days there when Rosario arrived at the gym with a green light to shoot whenever he wanted. 

 

And oftentimes did whatever he wanted. 

 

“I felt like I had the world by the hand,” Rosario said of his time with Scarlet Knights. “I was the go-to guy. I was the star. I was probably the most popular guy on campus. I was living in my own little world. But it was hurting me more than helping because I wasn’t taking a lot of things I should have more seriously. I didn’t have a structured system around me.” 

 

If Rosario was late for a meeting, he didn’t have to answer for it. If he talked back to a coach, there were no ramifications. If he cut class, he still started the game.

 

There were no consequences for bad decisions.  

 

When it came time to shop his services, Rosario had one criteria. 

 

“I needed someone to put a foot up my butt,” he said. 

 

Mike Rosario, meet Billy Donovan. 

 

The conversation was very direct on the front end. 

 

Donovan: “You will be held accountable.” 

 

Rosario: “I want that.” 

 

That’s why Rosario, averaging nearly 20 minutes a game early in the season, barely broke a sweat in six minutes at Syracuse. Donovan didn’t like his body language at the Carrier Dome, much less his defense, and back to the bench he went for the rest of the game. It’s those momentary lapses back to old habits that make Donovan ride Rosario maybe a tad harder in practice than others.

 

“I really like Mike. I think he’s a good kid with a good heart,” Donovan said. “The biggest thing for him is that he’s relied so much on scoring his whole life, but now he’s being asked to be a complete player. He’s already proven he can score. So defending, playing with other guys, lifting people up and emotionally coming in every day and working hard and understanding what he has to do, it’s all new to him. ... He’s always been the best player on the team. Now, for the first time in his life, he has to come off the bench. Yeah, it’s different.” 

 

No more shortcuts. No more skating by. What Rosario gets, he now must earn.  

 

There is a standard that is expected in the Florida program and Rosario, especially with his track record, has to prove every day he’s willing to meet it and do so within a team-first philosophy he hasn’t been a part of since his high school days at prep power St. Anthony’s, which went 32-0 and won the mythical national championship his 2007-08 senior year. 

 

The tradeoff is being part of something special. At Rutgers, which has been absent from NCAA Tournament play since 1991, Rosario won 26 games in two seasons, including just seven in Big East play. 

 

Now, he has a chance to be a valuable component in a program that’s been to 14 straight postseasons (12 NCAAs, two NITs), has won national championships and has legitimate Final Four aspirations this season. 

 

“I wanted to go somewhere and win,” said Rosario, who also sent out transfer probes to Kansas State, Michigan State and Arizona before deciding on UF. “I came from a winning high school and played for a winning coach, so going two years [at Rutgers] without winning was hard.” 

 

Hard, in his case, is relative term. Remember where Rosario grew up. 

 

The kid came to Rosario with some built-in toughness. 

 

“I’m from New Jersey,” said UF basketball video coordinator Oliver Winterbone, who held the same post at Rutgers during Rosario’s two seasons there. “The Duncan Projects are a neighborhood that I would not go into -- ever.” 

 

Think Rosario lacked structure at Rutgers? He grew up in the projects minus a father-figure while his mother worked to make the best of it for Mike and his sister. All of this while living in one of the most crime-ridden and dangerous areas in the Northeast. 

 

Rosario recalls summer nights, as a young boy out shooting baskets at 2 and 3 in the morning, and hearing the sound of gunfire give way to police and ambulance sirens screeching through the neighborhood. 

 

“I saw a guy get killed once,” he said. “Saw it with my own two eyes.” 

 

Avery, 17, lived down the hall. His mother sometimes sent Rosario to Avery’s apartment to borrow sugar. He was a friendly enough kid. Avery, though, had a nice little street business and decided to see how sales would go on another guy’s corner. 

 

There was a confrontation. Then a fight. Avery got the upper hand. The other guy got a gun. 

 

“I stayed with him until his mother got there,” Rosario said. “I’ll never forgot that.” 

 

Or where he came from. 

 

On Rosario’s left bicep is a tattoo. It’s an image of a young man, cradling a basketball, with a building as a backdrop. The young man is Rosario. The building represents the projects where he was raised. 

 

Put together, the scene paints a picture of a kid who not only got out, but went to college, too. In the Duncans, that’s a two-horse parlay of the longest of shots. 

 

“The projects will always be a part of me, and everything about who am -- the good and the bad -- came from right there, in the heart of the beast,” Rosario said, tapping his arm. “This is basically me putting the projects on my back and carrying them with me where I go.”  

 

This week, it just so happens he’ll be carrying the load back to just up the road from where it all began. 

 

To the place he grew up, Rosario now gets to show how much he’s grown up.

 

“He’s a kid who’s got that ‘I’m-going-to-prove-you-wrong attitude. I think that drives him,” Winterbone said. “He’s always going to be better off when he’s challenged and the environment here [at Florida] has been a constant challenge. Coach Donovan pushes players to the limits, to the edge, and you’re forced to rise to the occasion.” 

 

So what’s gonna happen if Rosario gets the call to rise from the bench and face his former team in front an arena that used to adore him? Will there be cheers or will there be jeers?

 

“I think there will be some of both,” Rosario said. “I still have people there who love me and still have people there who don’t understand why I left. But it’s been a hard a bumpy road for me, and it’s been a transition, but the goal was to go somewhere and play on the big stage.” 

 

He paused. 

 

“I’m on the big stage now.” 

 

He may not be the “White Mike” everyone remembers. Just a more well-rounded, more mature Mike Rosario.  

 

And he’s good with that. 

 

================================= 

 

 

GATORS GAMEBOX

No. 10 Florida at Rutgers   

Tip-off: 7 p.m. (Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, N.J.) 

Records: Florida 10-2, Rutgers 7-5   

TV: ESPN2 (w/Bob Wischusen and Bill Raftery)

Radio: Gator Radio Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 220/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes; Rutgers notes  

Need to know: The Gators are playing the Scarlet Knights for sixth time. UF leads the all-time series 4-1, with all four wins during Coach Billy Donovan’s tenure, including a 73-58 win at Gainesville on Nov. 28, 2009 in Atlantic City that marked the last meeting – Mike Rosario scored 14 points and went 5-15 from the floor while still a member of the Scarlet Knights ... Rutgers’ lone win in the series came in 1972. ... This is the first time UF has faced Rutgers on its true home court, and also the first time Florida has played three true non-conference road games (Ohio State, Syracuse and Rutgers) since the 1993-94 Final Four season (Texas, Jacksonville and Villanova). ... The Gators are on a five-game winning streak, dating to a 78-72 overtime win against Arizona on Dec. 7 and their most recent outing, an impressive 82-64 blowout Dec. 22 of rival Florida State. ... Against the Seminoles, one of the best defensive teams in the country, Florida scored nearly 25 more points than FSU was allowing (57.8) per game this season. ... UF, which ranks sixth nationally at 85.8 points per game, has four starters averaging in double-figures, led by junior G Kenny Boynton (18.3 ppg, 44.3 percent from 3-pt range) and freshman G Bradley Beal (15.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg). The lone starter not in doubles is junior F Erik Murphy, who is at 9.6 ppg and is hitting 50 percent from the floor and 48.4 from the arc. ... Sophomore C Patric Young (11.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) went 7-for-7 against FSU and is shooting 63.3 percent from the floor. ... Rutgers has yet to beat a BCS-conference opponent this season, but has played some good teams close, falling by five to Richmond, an NCAA Elite Eight team last season, to LSU by five and Princeton, which lost in the final seconds to Kentucky in NCAA play last season, by a 59-57 count. ... The Scarlet Knights, who went 15-17 last year in their first season under Coach Mike Rice and are a physical bunch who have held opponents to 38.8 percent from the floor and 33.1 percent from the 3-point line. ... Rutgers is led by 6-8, 245-pound sophomore C Gilvydas Biruta (11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and freshman G Eli Carter (11.3 ppg). 

-end-

 

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