Court of Last Resort

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

Not overly concerned with defense, and not the kind of coach who maps plays with x's and o's on a blackboard, Crowder let Northland play helter- skelter style. It's heavy on urban flash and light on fundamentals. Northland basketball is the kind of exciting, undisciplined street game the Eagles had learned back home. Often, the high-scoring games came down to which team had the ball last.

That's what happened in the league's season-ending tournament championship game last March, in which the Eagles earned an unlikely trip to the nationals--where they lost in the first round.

The team brought joy to Holbrook's basketball fans, and probably created some new ones. Whites, Indians, Hispanics and especially blacks from this melting-pot town fervently backed the mostly black team. The 589 blacks in Navajo County listed in the 1980 census make up less than 1 percent of the population. But more than half of them live in Holbrook, and they came out in force for the games.

"We took on NPC as our own up here," says Roy Roberts, who owns Holbrook's KOJI-AM and handles Northland's play-by-play chores for the radio station. "The basketball program is a positive entity that's building our community."

But even Brien Crowder admits there was a flip side to the Eagles' instant success.

"Crime went up in Holbrook because of a few of our guys," the coach says. "We got some hellacious ballplayers, but some of them turned out to be thieves and punks. Nothing violent--we didn't have anyone shooting anybody with Uzis or anything like that."

Only three of last year's players-- Tyrone Brannen, David Cruse, and Chuckie Smith--returned to Holbrook this year. A few went on to other small schools. Some live on in memory, like six-ten center Olukorede "Alex" Soyebo from Lagos, Nigeria, who has returned to his homeland after trying out this fall for a professional team in Jerusalem. ("That's Jerusalem, Israel," Crowder says.)

"We're playing at South Mountain down in Phoenix," Brien Crowder recalls, "and we had a few hours before game time. Alex hops on a city bus that says `Metrocenter' and goes to some clothing shop for tall people. We had no idea where he is. He gets back ten minutes after the game is on, wearing this new red blazer with a plastic flower on it. Looks like a damned chocolate tomato. That was Alex. Three points, three rebounds and three surprises a game."

"I DON'T BELIEVE in recruiting functional illiterates, and that's what they've done," says Jeff Heath, who taught Western Civilization to several of the basketball players via a satellite television system from Northland's Show Low campus.

Heath raises a question faced by every college with an athletic program: How far should academic standards be compromised in order to build a winning team?

"I'm not thrilled with an athletic program," Heath says, "but I'll live with it if the students are students. But some of these people can barely read and write. And that's not all."

Heath pulls out an exam that Gary Arrington, a six-four player from Fort Wayne, Indiana, wrote in his class last October.

Next to a question about the Peloponnesian War, Arrington scrawled, "I didn't know shit about all this other stuff, motherfucker."

Jeff Heath responded on official Northland stationery: "Your use of the word motherfucker on an exam is not appropriate, particularly in reference to the instructor . . . "

Arrington's average last semester was in the low-B range, about the norm for this team. Although he dropped the class, he wasn't disciplined by the school. In fact, coach Crowder defends him. "That guy Heath doesn't know shit about these kids," he growls. "If we kick them back on the streets, most of them would be on welfare in the projects. They all got problems of some sort. Half of them don't have mothers and fathers--don't have nothing. I'm the only daddy some of them have. Got to give them a shot sometime in life. That idiot."

Not surprisingly, school president Marv Vasher sides with his coach.
"A lot of our kids come here poorly prepared," Vasher admits, "and we have to give them developmental courses, basic ed stuff. With some of them you have to debate whether they should be in a college setting or not, but we give them a try. This year, we've made changes--mandatory study hall, for one thing."

President Vasher gives another reason to defend the team: "Some of these kids will make it in life. Some won't. None of 'em will be rocket scientists, but neither will the president of this college or the coach, so we can relate to them."

Northland teacher Penny Albright had seven Eagles in her Public Speaking class last semester and has watched the basketball players provide Northland's other students with eye-opening culture shock.

"When you mix these inner-city kids with people who have grown up in [predominantly] Mormon Snowflake, for example," Albright says, "it's an interesting mix. These cultures usually never have to deal with each other."

Albright once was opposed to the basketball program, but has tempered her views somewhat. Still, she harbors no illusions about the academic capabilities of Northland's basketball players.

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