Court of Last Resort

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

Northland's basketball players are not much different from those at most other colleges. This crew loves hoop, music and females¤although to a man they complain that Holbrook lacks adequate numbers of the latter. Unlike players at big-time basketball factories, the Eagles aren't spoiled. You'll hear no stories like the ones from Las Vegas about the fancy cars UNLV players drive. This team car-pools in a school van.

There's no ivy growing, either, on the double-wide trailers that serve as classrooms at the Holbrook campus. Instead of a school cafeteria, the players have the Hilltop Cafe, a 24-hour greasy spoon that's part of the 66 Motel. For meals, it's that or the microwave ovens many of Northland's players have in their rooms, and frequent dinners of Campbell's Soup and Doritos.

After the tough loss to Eastern, many of the players are regretting, just for the moment, that they ever came to the City of the Petrified Forest.

"Yeah, we got sucked into this hole," one unhappy player says ruefully. "Crowder told us it never gets below fifty degrees here. `Sounds great, Coach.'"

The player stops himself and stares out his window at windblown Navajo Street. The season's first big snowstorm is nearing town, and the temperature has dipped into the low teens. The Greyhound bus station, across the street from this lonely motel-dorm, looks inviting. But as down as the Northland players are, they know things could be worse.

"At least, the son of a bitch got us here," the malcontent continues. "We're Prop 48, we ain't got no choice. This is it for a lot of us. I-T. Where we gonna go? Home?"

For most, home was not as good as even this last-chance school. Players like Tyrone Brannen, who has "adopted" a local family as his own, have made a place for themselves here. Brannen, who grew up in Georgia, and Indiana's Cliff Cleveland are chatting quietly. Both have had subpar games tonight and have felt Crowder's wrath.

Brannen, a wiry, serious black from a broken home, is depressed over his recent shooting slump. "Never been through nothing like this," Brannen says. "Don't know what to do." He returned to Savannah during the Christmas holidays, but the two-week hiatus from basketball didn't help his shooting eye.

The slump hurts because Brannen enjoys Northland's run-and-gun style of play, and aims¤unrealistically¤for a professional career.

"That coach of ours let me do my thing. I like to come into the game and activate it¤throw up some crazy shit and get things goin'. Like anybody, I want to play pro ball¤CBA, NBA, six-four-and-under league, or go overseas. It's tax-free over there."

For Brannen, as for many of the others, a basketball slump is only one of his difficulties.

"I ain't that good a student, either," Brannen says. But he adds hopefully, "I ain't the type that's gonna give up. I'm gonna get me enough credits to transfer to a four-year. It good for me here."

He doesn't mean just basketball. Brannen returned to Holbrook last summer before the rest of the team. He says he was trying to stay away from trouble, and Northland was the only place he could turn.

"There is drugs everywhere where I grew up," Brannen says. "I come up too hard to die of drugs."

Cleveland, an articulate eighteen- year-old who made the school's honor roll last semester, picks up the thread of the conversation.

"I come from a city that's always on the go, where you can get into all the trouble you want," says the black Fort Wayne, Indiana, native.

Cleveland toys with a black patch he had stitched onto a shoulder of his game shirt in memory of his mother, who died last year. He narrowly missed qualifying academically for a four-year school, and Northland was one of his few options. It seems to have been a good move for the Eagles' team captain, but the adjustment has been difficult.

"Holbrook's got one traffic light, man," he says. "Not much happening."
But like Brannen, Cleveland has managed to carve a place for himself here. "I've surprised myself up here because I've become dedicated to the studies. You can't do nothin' else, you might as well hit the books and play ball. Clean living," he says.

Blacks in an overwhelmingly white and Indian town, team members find their support where they can. "I had this girl ask me, `How do you brothers do it, stuck up there in the mountains at some motel?'" Cleveland says. "I told her that we have one another, the team, and that should cover us."

Vince Osier, a center of Chippewa Indian and French descent from Windsor, Ontario, has found something else to hold onto. He stretches his six-eight frame on his neatly made bed, reaches carefully behind a stuffed teddy bear leaning against the headboard and gently pulls out a black-and-white rabbit¤a real one. He found it a few days ago by the roadside outside his motel home, and named it Thumper.

"He was somebody else's and got lost, but someone's got to take care of him." says Osier, who's struggling for playing time. "It gives you something to do."

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