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Casting a long shadow

As Stephen Willson taught his first class of physical chemistry last fall at Whitman, he had little difficulty spotting his top student. Towering head-and-shoulders over his classmates, both literally and figuratively, was Rob Bell, a 6-foot-8-inch junior who also plays on the men's varsity basketball team.

Willson, a visiting professor of chemistry, couldn't help but notice Bell's first test score. A near perfect 99, it cast a rather long shadow, dwarfing the class average of 71. By the time the second test rolled around, "I made sure there was one question that Rob would find challenging," Willson said.

Rob Bell, med school-bound basketball player.

That one question was challenging enough. Bell's test score dipped to 92, although it was still well above the class average of 75. "Given a little more time during the test, I think Rob could have answered that question correctly," Willson said. Of the 19 students in the class, only Bell finished the semester with an A-plus. "Giving any student an A-plus requires a genuine distinction, and Rob certainly earned that distinction," Willson said.

Bell's strong showing in chemistry was anything but a fluke. He began the spring semester with a 3.77 grade point average in classes related to his biology-chemistry major. And, as the starting center on Whitman's basketball squad, his numbers on the stat sheet are just as impressive. As the winter season neared its end, Bell was leading the Missionaries in blocked shots, scoring almost 11 points per game while shooting over 50 percent from the floor, and averaging about six rebounds a night.

Unlike some scholar-athletes, Bell brings as much pure intelligence to his sport as he does to his academic interests, notes Whitman basketball coach Skip Molitor. "Some athletes are very intelligent off the basketball floor and in the classroom, but their intelligence does not show itself in the way they play the game. Not only does Rob play with tremendous effort, he plays with tremendous floor intelligence."

Bell's understanding of the game makes a huge difference at the defensive end of the floor, Molitor says. "Anyone who enjoys watching basketball from a defensive standpoint loves to watch Rob play. Every time the other team moves the ball, Rob moves himself to the appropriate defensive spot with the correct defensive concept in mind. Everything is in front of him on defense, and he sees it all."

A year from now, after he plays his senior season and completes his Whitman degree, Bell plans to shift his attention to medical school and a future career as a practicing physician. Last spring, Bell flew to the Dominican Republic with a Walla Walla orthopedic surgeon who visits the island twice a year to minister health care to the needy. "It was a great opportunity for me to see exactly what orthopedic surgery is like," he says. "It isn't as gentle or subtle as you might think, and there is a lot of improvisation involved. It's a little tough to stomach the first time through."

While Bell has yet to decide what branch of medicine he might pursue, his resolve to heal the sick has solidified over the past few years. "It was something I started to think about after my father was diagnosed with colon cancer when I was a sophomore in high school," he says. "We spent a lot of time in hospitals and were exposed to the medical profession in ways that weren't always enjoyable."

The experience was essentially positive, however, especially as medical science eventually knocked his father's cancer into remission.

After spending part of last summer in Mexico, helping build low-income housing as part of a church-sponsored project, Bell has other plans for this summer. "There are a number of medical research internships out there," he says. "That's what I hope to do this summer."

In the meantime, Bell finds time for one hobby not related to chemistry, biology, or basketball. Squeezed into his spring schedule is a music theory class with professor Susan Pickett, and he continues to take weekly piano lessons. "My father plays the piano, and I started taking lessons when I was in the fourth grade," Bell says. He stopped the lessons during his first semester at Whitman, but soon discovered that he missed them.

He practices for at least an hour each day, and despite an interest in jazz, most of what he plays is classical. "Right now, I'm playing a Chopin ballade and a Prokofieff sonata, and I'm starting to work on Rachmani-noff's Second Concerto."

"Rob is going to work hard at whatever he does, whether it's academics, music, or basketball," Coach Molitor says. "He doesn't know how to not work hard. If you're looking for a student-athlete who represents everything that is good about NCAA Division III athletics, and who represents young people in sincere pursuit of excellence, then Rob is a great choice."

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