It’s his job to be excited.
But when Galen Center announcer Petros Papadakis calls out the starting lineup just before each USC men’s basketball home game, the name of senior guard Dwight Lewis garners a noticeably bigger — and louder — reaction from those in attendance.
“Big-time Dwight Lewis,” Papadakis proclaims, in that distinct Papadakis way.
Forgive him if he gets a little excited when Lewis comes onto the floor. He’s the only player Papadakis has seen progress from freshman to senior in the Trojans’ program.
On a team with just three seniors, Lewis stands alone as the only one to stay with the USC basketball program for four years.
Coming out of Taylor High School in Texas, he was recruited by big-name schools like Kansas, Florida and Wake Forest but eventually chose USC above the tradition and big names of the other programs.
“I was sold on the school and the program, and I always wanted to be a Trojan,” Lewis said.
As a freshman, Lewis played an important role off the bench, averaging nearly six points in 20 minutes per game. In his sophomore season, Lewis stepped into the starting lineup and ranked second on the team in points scored.
Despite being largely outshined by “one-and-done” prep star O.J. Mayo that year, Lewis put together a solid season and helped the Trojans earn their second consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
In his junior year, Lewis was once again overshadowed by a freshman. This time, it was highly recruited prep star DeMar DeRozan.
But quietly, Lewis was the leading scorer on the team. He helped the Trojans earn a Pac-10 tournament championship and an automatic bid to their third-straight NCAA tournament appearance.
After the season, former coach Tim Floyd resigned, DeRozan jumped to the NBA and Taj Gibson and Daniel Hackett passed over their final years of eligibility to play professionally as well.
But Lewis decided to buck the trend and return for his senior season, sticking to a promise he made his parents years before.
“I told my parents I’d graduate,” Lewis said. “But whatever happens after that, happens.”
With Lewis the only returning starter, however, the team struggled to find any consistency or chemistry early in the season.
The Trojans opened up the year by with a 2-4 record, losing two closely contested home games to Loyola Marymount and Nebraska. They also struggled on the road against then-No. 2 Texas and Georgia Tech.
Lewis was slow to embrace his new role as the number one scoring option. He’d been the number three — even the number four — option in past years, so being the primary target was a big change.
“It was harder than I expected it to be,” Lewis said.
But soon thereafter, redshirt senior point guard Mike Gerrity and sophomore forward Leonard Washington became eligible to play, and the Trojans started clicking. With another senior to help shoulder the weight of leading the team, the Trojans strung together an impressive run of eight straight victories, including a 22-point upset of then-No. 9 Tennessee.
Lewis played a key role in victories over Western Michigan and St. Mary’s. He and Gerrity then helped the Trojans take down then-No. 20 Nevada Las Vegas in the final game of the Diamond Head Classic to win the tournament.
The Trojans then carried their winning streak into conference play, opening up with victories at home against Arizona and Arizona State.
During the streak, the Trojans, led by Lewis, locked down on defense, limiting their opponents to a combined 32.5 field goal percentage and less than 50 points per contest.
“He’s done a really good job of stepping up and leading by example,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said of Lewis.
However, the upbeat feeling of the winning streak was struck down by some surprising news.
The Trojans’ season hit another rough patch when USC self-imposed sanctions on the basketball team for violating NCAA rules during the 2007-2008 basketball season, removing any possibility that the Trojans would be eligible for postseason play this year in a hit that cast a shadow on Lewis’ final season in Cardinal and Gold.
But Lewis believes there is still more than enough reason to play.
“We’re still in contention for the Pac-10 title, and it’s our goal to win that,” Lewis said. “We can’t just fold for our fans because they’ve been so loyal to us.”
Not surprisingly, the Trojans were slow to shake off the after-effects of the sanctions, losing their next two conference games at the hands of Stanford and California.
The sanctions put a damper on what had looked like a promising season for Lewis and the Trojans, but their next game against crosstown rival UCLA gave them a chance to prove that they weren’t down for the count.
Neither would disappoint.
The normally laid-back Lewis had a noticeable bounce in his step, pounding his chest, slashing to the basket and draining 3-pointers from all areas.
It looked like he had something to prove.
It looked like he wanted to make a statement.
“It was my last time at Pauley [Pavilion], and I just wanted to leave it all out on the floor,” Lewis said. “I didn’t want to hold anything back.”
Lewis finished with a game-high 24 points, helping the Trojans end their losing streak. He and the team refused to fold.
“He played really, really hard,” O’Neill said. “He played with positive emotion and he hyped our team up the way he played.”
And now, despite getting off to a rocky start, the Trojans have won 10 of their last 13 games and are currently tied with four other teams for second place in the Pac-10 standings.
“I’ve been very proud of how we’ve played through a lot of distractions,” O’Neill said. “Even with the sanctions, we had to overcome a lot of obstacles in the beginning … guys being ineligible, guys getting hurt … So I’ve admired the way our guys have stuck together this season.”
Lewis’ leadership and experience will surely be counted on and needed for the 11 games that comprise the rest of the season, especially in light of the self-imposed sanctions and the distractions on and off the court.
The coaching staff, Lewis’ teammates and Trojan fans alike will all be looking for him to step up.