Court of Last Resort

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

In Ontario, Osier excelled on the basketball court, if not in the classroom. "I never was much into studying. I was just gonna get a job, when I got the phone call from Northland," Osier says in a lilting Canadian accent. "Coach told me I'd be coming to a town like Mayberry. He's right. There isn't much of a social life here besides basketball. I had my bags packed twice to get out of here, but Josh Robertson"¤ a teammate¤"talked me out of it. I don't know what the hell I'll be doing next year. We'll see, eh?"

Few of these Eagles are good enough to play major college ball. One who might be, if he had the academic ability and better shooting range, is Willie Taylor, a hustling six-seven center out of roughneck East Chicago, Indiana. Taylor will do everything but disembowel an opponent to grab a rebound. And he's as tempestuous on the court as Brien Crowder. During a December game at Mesa, Taylor's teammates had to restrain him from going after the opponent's band, which was mimicking Crowder's frenzied sideline antics.

One of thirteen children from a single-parent household, Taylor's friendly attitude off the court belies his ferocity on it. But neither can make up for his lack of scholastic prowess. Taylor had only a B average in his Basic Skills classes this fall. Those weren't college-level skills, but the three R's most students master in elementary school. That was the best Willie Taylor could do.

"They say this is a last-chance school. The last place I was at was a last-chance school, believe me. At least, none of the guys here been in prison."

¤Hank Hare, guard from Bristol, Tennessee

Northland Pioneer College opened its doors in 1972. Sixteen years later, President Marv Vasher had the wherewithal to start an athletic program at the school. "With an operation like we have, branches all over the map," Vasher says from his office in the clump of trailers and buildings that make up the Holbrook campus, "it was important to build a school identity. Sports weren't a top priority. Then we decided to make a go of it."

An effusive man in his early fifties, Vasher is responsible for the surprising presence of street-basketball players in rural northern Arizona. He has run Northland pretty much the way he's wanted since he became president a few years after it opened. He wasn't about to let the school's faculty get in the way when he started his push for athletics.

"There were some real serious questions, but no one told me not to do it," Vasher recalls. "I didn't go to the faculty, and that got some of them really mad. I'm not much into votes."

Northland's lack of dormitories, cafeteria and gymnasium didn't stop Vasher. In the fall of 1988, the school started programs in golf, cross-country and men's and women's basketball. (A bond election this year will determine whether Northland gets sorely needed academic facilities.)

A search committee had hired Crowder in April 1988 as Northland's first basketball coach and athletic director. "I love the guy like a son," Vasher says of him, "but he's wild as you know what. Our first-year goal was to attract students to the games, to win more than we lost, and to attract a following in the community. We succeeded at all three, and Brien deserves a lot of credit."

One of Crowder's earlier stops had been at tiny Bristol College, where his 1984-85 team won the National Little College championship. Once in Holbrook, he used some imaginative trickery to lure people to Navajo County.

"I had a guy from Georgia who I wanted out here with me as an assistant," he says with a belly laugh. "He said, `Send me some pictures of Arizona.' I found some pictures of Tucson and sent them out. He comes out for an interview and he tells me, `You son of a bitch, I'm gonna kill you. Where's all this cactus and this beautiful stuff?' I tell him, `Oh, that's down south a-ways.'"

Crowder had to put together Northland's first team in a matter of months. His task was made somewhat easier because of Proposition 48. Because of the NCAA ruling, more and more players are being forced to attend junior colleges for a year or two in order to raise their academic averages.

The new coach combed the lists of high school seniors and first-year junior college players and "grabbed whoever we could." It happened so fast that, to this day, Mesa Community College doesn't even have Northland on a gymnasium wall that lists the conference's teams.

Everyone expected the Eagles to finish in the cellar of the rugged league, which annually sends several players on to four-year schools. (One notable alumnus is Arizona Western's Nate "Tiny" Archibald, a National Basketball Association all-star in the 1970s.)

But opponents learned that playing in Holbrook against the run-and-gun Eagles was like entering Public Enemy's "Terror Dome"--a trip to basketball hell. Crowder never had to worry that his team wouldn't shoot the ball before the 45-second clock ran out.

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