When John Saintignon arrived UC Santa Cruz as a young basketball player in 1983, he was surprised by what he found. The campus looked like a state park, the squad seemed laid-back, and the basketball arena didn't have a single bleacher.
Three years later, it was national college basketball fans' turn to be surprised.
In 1986, the 5-foot-11 junior from a quirky college on the California coast became the NCAA's lead scorer. The kid with a mop of dark, curly hair averaged 31.2 points per game, beating out bigger and better known players like UCLA's Reggie Miller who went on to start for the Indiana Pacers, and All-American Len Bias who was second pick in the NBA draft that year. He edged out hundreds of Division I and Division II players, and became the only Banana Slug before or since to hold the title.
It was done, according to those who know Saintignon, by an inspiring combination of skill, discipline, persistence, and pure love of the game.
"The bottom line," said Tex Winter, a former coach for the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers and the owner of 10 national championship rings, "was that John put the ball in the basket if he was left open, and that was due to his discipline as a player and his proficiency, which was second to none."
Basically, according to Winter, Saintignon "outworked them all."
Winter met Saintignon through Seattle Supersonics coach Bob Kloppenburg. Later, the two did some clinics together at Oregon State.
Basketball has taken Saintignon (pronounced Saint-New) around the globe. The now 47-year-old played pro ball in Barcelona, Spain, and Durango, Mexico. He coached high school teams in Southern California and Arizona, was an assistant coach at Oregon State University, and led a pro team in the Kingdom of Bahrain until violent protests drove most Americans from the country.
Now CEO of Reebok's Interscholastic Licensing division, Saintignon marveled at the opportunities the lead-scoring title brought. Still, it's the years playing ball for UCSC (he played his last year for UC San Diego) that resonate with him. That's where his shots — and his life — were shaped.
Saintignon arrived at UCSC with a strong desire to get a college education and play basketball but his first glimpse of the then-Sea Lion basketball squad rattled him. Most of the older guys seemed too mellow, too relaxed. Luckily, said Saintignon, the freshman players carried the same competitive drive he possessed. Soon, they were not only hard-working teammates but also roommates and friends.
"He was a polite kid, quiet," said former UCSC-coach Joe Richardson of his outside guard. "He was the hardest worker in practice, and the hardest player in the game."
Although a Division III team, the Sea Lions managed to play squads like Stanford, Berkeley, and San Francisco State. A TV clip from the time shows Saintignon burying shots with only a whisper of net — and he did it against defenses designed to stop him, double-team him and foul him, Winter said.
Saintignon's smooth shooting style began to draw fans and the notice of local newspapers. The team nabbed the Bay Area Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title (and would go on to win two more). Still, Saintignon, who studied economics at Oakes College, wanted to be better.
During the off-season, he perfected his skills not only at camps run by basketball giant and mentor John Wooden but also during 5:30 a.m. workouts in the Los Angeles backyard of a coach known for his almost-scientific approach to accurate and aggressive shooting.
"John had both athleticism and a commitment to knowing the skills," said Luther Whitsitt, who drilled Saintignon on quickness and his trademark arcing shots. "He had the discipline, the will, and the desire to play."
"I wanted to be the best at something," Saintignon said simply. "I didn't want to be average."
In today's world of 24-hour news cycles, Saintignon's accomplishment would have flooded the airwaves. But his record — after a 46-point game that clinched the title — came and went with little fanfare.
Still Saintignon, who lives in Los Angeles, said he has no regrets about playing for a small school. His time at UCSC taught him lessons about working hard, adapting to circumstances, and not judging others.
"Have a purpose, be persistent and show passion," is what he tells the players he coaches.
It's good advice for basketball, he said, and also for life.