Believe it or not, there was a time when Cal freshman Richard Solomon was too big to play basketball.

"Rich would play, and he was so much taller than the other kids, they would always call a foul on him," said his mother, Sheryl Solomon. "He was five years old, and I had to get his birth certificate because they thought he was eight."

The message Solomon was getting: Pick on someone your own size.

Now nearly 6-foot-9, Solomon had sprouted from a 221/2-inch newborn to a full head taller than his peers as a youngster.

Long before he was recruited to play basketball for the Golden Bears -- who take on streaking UCLA on Sunday night at Haas Pavilion -- Solomon found a refuge for his energy and competitive spirit in the sport of karate.

He loved it from the start, although there were some early obstacles. A couple of them were his older sisters, Am'ra and Ericka, who also studied karate when they were in grade school and were taller than their kid brother at the time.

"They got me a few times," Solomon said.

He won his first tournament at age 7, prompting him to give up piano lessons and devote himself to his new passion. "It was just like the best feeling in the world," he said of being handed that first trophy.

By 12, Solomon had earned his junior black belt. He also had grown to 6-1 and often found himself on the mat fighting much older kids.

It didn't much matter. Solomon's reach and his skills helped him earn more than 100 karate trophies.

"When I think about it, it was like the best memories I have as a kid," he said.

Even Solomon's mother was inspired to take up the sport. "I just got into it for the exercise," Sheryl Solomon said. "The next thing I knew I was a black belt."

It's not that simple, her son said.

"There is a discipline to it. It's something to get your mind straight, put your body in good physical condition," said Solomon, who became obsessed with advancing in the sport.

"You ever play a video game where you've got to go to the next level? The next level in karate was each belt," he said.

The hours-long test to earn his junior black belt involved demonstrating knowledge of every skill he had learned -- with multiple reps of all types of kicks, punches, blocks and other techniques -- then several rounds of sparring.

"After they give you your black belt, they hit you in the stomach. And there's like 40 or 50 of these dudes," he said. "If you move, they hit you again. It's kind of a tradition."

Solomon continued to study and compete through his first couple years of high school. By then, having reached 6-8, he sometimes was matched against grown-ups. Check out YouTube (type in: Jr. Blk. belt vs Blk. belt) to see him flatten an older opponent with a spinning kick to the chest.

"He was a beast," his mother said.

All the while, basketball was a side dish for Solomon, who rarely played organized ball until high school. When he was elevated to the varsity team at Bishop Montgomery High in Torrance at the end of his sophomore year, the sport became a priority.

A reserve forward for the Bears, Solomon averages 5.3 points and 4.2 rebounds and has a bright future, his coaches believe.

Solomon no longer trains for karate, but he is convinced it provided him the lasting benefits of self-control, confidence and the ability to listen to others, along with keeping him limber and coordinated.

"I think it helped him to become the person that he is," his mother said.

Sunday's game
UCLA (19-7, 10-3 Pac-10) at Cal (13-13, 6-8), 7 p.m. CSNBA