Court of Last Resort

When there's no place else, here's where basketball players go

"When I got out of the army, I was working as a bouncer at a club back home. My family knows the Crowders, and I seen Crowder's dad at K mart. He told me about this place out here. We hooked up, and Crowder asked me if I wanted to come out. I said, `Hell, yeah. Ain't got nowhere else to go.'" ŌJosh Robertson, 22-year-old guard from Johnson City, Tennessee

The Northland Pioneer junior college basketball team slumps in despair as coach Brien Crowder snatches the final stats from an assistant.

Eastern Arizona College has come up to Holbrook and upset the home team by four points. The fans who packed the house in this bleak northeastern Arizona town aren't pleased with the team's play.

Neither is Coach Crowder, whose right foot is bloodied and swollen, the result of a kick to a folding chair during the tense Arizona Junior College Athletic Conference game. Everyone but Crowder is motionless in the cramped, sweaty locker room.

"Y'all know too much," Crowder begins with heavy sarcasm, the twang of his native Tennessee ricocheting off the walls. "That's why you're all propositions."

He lets that sink in.
It is the ultimate insult. Calling a college athlete a "proposition" is calling him dumb. And every member of the predominantly black Northland team does fall under Proposition 48, ineligible to play at NCAA schools because they don't meet minimum standardized test scores or high school grade point averages. If they could, none of them would be in this town of 6,000, four hours from Phoenix, getting reamed by a half-crazed coach nicknamed Bubba.

The loss seems to have aged Crowder, at least temporarily. This shaggy-haired white son of a Johnson City, Tennessee, firefighter looks 45 now instead of his usual 40. In fact, he's 31.

"Jesus!" the coach shrieks, shifting his weight off his bum foot. He talks as fast as Carl Lewis runs; his style is more waterfall than stream of consciousness.

"I get so tired of losing games like this. Curfew starts tonight, eleven o'clock, seven days a week. You're in the freakin' army from now on. We ain't nothin' but whale shit. You act like this, you ain't gonna get a college education, 'cause you can't get along in school or on the court."

His tirade hits close to home. "You can be drinkin' Ripple for the rest of your lives, or gettin' high on cocaine. Livin' in the projects. Go ahead! I come from there. I grew up three blocks from the projects. I made it. You can, too! Bunch of know-it-alls. If I'm your boss at the plant, and you don't do what you're told, they fire you. Honest to God, they fire you. I'm gonna fire y'all, y'all don't watch it."

Welcome to the lowest of college basketball's minor leagues. Welcome to Northland Pioneer College, where the players can only dream of playing with the big boys of the college hoop world, let alone pro ball.

The two-year school serves 6,000 students in eleven Navajo and Apache County communities from its main campus in Holbrook. It's a "last-chance" school for most of the twelve young men who make up this year's Eagles.

And the players know it. If they can't cut it here, the next basketball they play may be on their hometown playgrounds.

Nine blacks, two whites and one French-Indian from Canada make up this year's Eagles. They include several inner-city kids from predictably poor and splintered families: an army veteran who was working as a bouncer before coming here from Tennessee; another Tennessee native whose high school graduating class had 38 pregnant girls; and a 22-year-old freshman nicknamed "Old Man" because he looks it. Only Bryant Kennedy of Tempe is a native Arizonan.

What they have in common is basketball. They are living in this desolate dot of a town along Interstate 40 because it's the best they can do for themselves at the moment.

It does have its rewards. Holbrook fell in love with Northland basketball when the college's first-ever team hit the court last year. Several sellout crowds packed the 1,200-seat high school gym where the Eagles play most of their games. It's the best show in this not-so-scenic town, which was born more than a century ago as the railroad moved west and faded as the interstate came through.

Attendance is still excellent this year, even though Northland is struggling. The Eagles are fighting to make the league play-offs and have an overall record of 12-10.

"I don't know what the hell I'm gonna do with y'all," Brien Crowder concludes his locker-room tirade, "but you'd better hope I don't fire ya. What are y'all gonna do then? Y'all better think about that."

"Holbrook is a small town, but a lot of the people make me feel like family. I got this half-Mexican, half-white family where the lady is like my mom. My real mom died of booze and stuff. Dad was out there somewhere screwin' up. They put me in a children's home."

ŌTyrone Brannen, guard from Savannah, Georgia

An hour or so after the loss to Eastern, the players try to unwind at their "dormitory," a wing at Holbrook's rickety 66 Motel shared by members of Northland's women's basketball team.

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