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Dampier wins fans in Vicksburg

Daniel Kuchman, 8, of Vicksburg smiles after getting an autograph from Erick Dampier at a Vicksburg McDonald’s on Tuesday. (The Vicksburg Post/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[06/13/01] Erick Dampier hasn’t had as much success as he’d like winning games in the NBA, but Tuesday he tried to win over some fans in Vicksburg.

Dampier, the former Mississippi State star who led the Bulldogs to their only Final Four appearance in 1996 before becoming the Indiana Pacers’ first-round draft pick in 1997, signed autographs and met with fans at the Frontage Road McDonald’s during lunch.

“Things definitely haven’t gone the way I expected them to go, but it’s all a part of learning the game,” Dampier said of his pro career, which has been plagued by injuries and a trade from Indiana to lowly Golden State. The Warriors haven’t made the playoffs in nearly a decade. “I haven’t been to the playoffs or anything, and after a while, you get tired of losing games. Hopefully something will change, either players or personnel.”

Dampier said his season was also made tougher by playing in the Western Conference, where he routinely matches up against the likes of Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and fellow Mississippian Antonio McDyess.

“You only have three or four (good) centers in the East,” said Dampier, a Monticello native. “You can win 28 or 30 games in the East and make the playoffs. That definitely isn’t the case in the West.”

Dampier’s frustration is even greater this time of year, as division rival Los Angeles and Philadelphia battle for the NBA title.

Like many people, Dampier was surprised by the Sixers’ win in Game 1 of the finals but thought they still had a chance to come back and win the series.

“I think Philadelphia has a chance, it just depends on how these next two games go,” he said. “They surprised a lot of people that first game. They’re an underdog, and nobody expects an underdog to win.”

But Tuesday wasn’t all about business for Dampier. It was also a chance for him to relax and give something back to the fans who supported him through his college career, as well as the sponsors of his basketball camp.

“McDonald’s is just a big sponsor for my basketball camp, so this just gives something back to McDonald’s,” said Dampier, whose camp will be June 21-23 at Millsaps College in Jackson. “It’s always just fun to come back and see people who realize who you are and what you’ve accomplished. I was on the Mississippi State team that played in the Final Four, and I think that’s something people in this state will remember for a long time.”

Signs promoting Dampier’s appearance Tuesday were on the restaurant’s windows, and some fans came prepared with basketballs or hats to be signed. Others were surprised by the sight of the 6-foot-11 center and settled for autographed sheets of paper or paper bags.

“We came here and he just happened to be here,” said Vicksburg resident Allan Leese, who was eating lunch with his wife, Joan, and grandchild Blaire Thompson.

Dampier also left an impression on some young fans.

“I really like basketball, and he’s the first basketball player I ever met,” said 8-year-old Natalie Kuchman.

Melanie Roach, who along with husband Mike owns three McDonald’s in Vicksburg, was hopeful that Dampier would be the first of many athletes to visit the city for meet-and-greets with fans.

“We’re going to try to continue it,” Roach said. “We’re going to look at something with NASCAR next year, hopefully when Atwood (Chevrolet) does their thing with it.”