By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"I like the kids this year," she says, "though almost all of them lack some basic skills, to put it mildly. With the exception of Cleveland, Arrington, and the guy they call Old Man [Greg McMath], the ability to put together a coherent thought on paper is almost nonexistent. I got frustrated with them because they're absent a lot. Like most kids, they get away with whatever they can get away with."
Brien Crowder shrugs off the seriousness of Gary Arrington's calling his instructor a "motherfucker." "Gary shouldn't have used those words, but he just wrote it down in the wrong place," he says, clutching at any excuse for his player. "He was talking about Oedipus Rex." The coach pronounces it OH-dip-us, making the Greek who killed his father and married his mother sound like a point guard out of East Texas.
Even instructor Jeff Heath, the recipient of Arrington's frustration, has become resigned to such situations. "If he had used the F-word with the question about Oedipus," says Heath, half-joking, "I would have given him half-credit for accuracy.
"The first time I saw Holbrook I said, `You can't be serious. Where is the school? Where is everything?' I knew it wasn't big, but I didn't think it was this."
--Greg "Old Man" McMath, guard from Saginaw, Michigan.
Brien Crowder knocks on the door of Cliff Cleveland and Tyrone Brannen's room. The players aren't surprised to see their coach. He often shows up unannounced at the motel to see what's up.
Crowder takes a pull on a Dr. Pepper, then comments lewdly about a glossy poster of a buxom young lady. "I love my guys, and most of them love me," he says, almost softly. "On the other hand, most of these guys come from a background where you don't say please."
After the coach has turned to jive with Brannen, Cliff Cleveland talks about the man who brought him to Holbrook.
"He's like a dad to me, and I'm not just saying that," says Cleveland. If all goes well, he plans to join his girlfriend at the University of Arizona after his sophomore year. "When my mom was dying, he came to see her. He said he'd take care of me and he has. Crowder is why I'm here."
Crowder perks up when he hears Cleveland mention his name.
"I give these kids a hard time, but I also give them a chance," the coach says. "You think about that word, chance. It's a big word."
That chance, which Cleveland is taking advantage of, could also mean the difference to another player, Greg McMath--"Old Man," as everyone in Holbrook calls him. Crowder dubbed him that after the stocky Saginaw, Michigan, point guard sent a photograph in which he looks far more ancient than his 22 years. Although McMath appears menacing at first blush, at heart he is an amiable young man.
"I grew up in a tough neighborhood in a tough town," he says matter-of- factly. "I come from an average black family."
An "average" black family, by McMath's account, doesn't have it easy: "My dad died when I was real young. We had gangs and dope all around us, but my mom always told us we could beat the streets if we worked at it."
Old Man hung around Saginaw for a few years after he graduated from high school. He worked some, took a few classes, played street ball and fathered a son--now a year old. Then he heard about Northland.
"I had a cousin in Winslow who told me this coach likes to run," Old Man recalls. "I called Crowder, but he never sent me anything. So I called him back, told him my height and high school stats, and he said he'd give me a shot."
In his eagerness to get out of Saginaw, Old Man exaggerated his height. He's five eight, not the six feet he told Crowder he was. And he probably won't be playing ball at any higher level. Lately, his Bible has been of much more solace than his jump shot.
"I've been nervous because I'm not getting to play much," he says, "and I called my mom. She's really religious. She told me, `Don't be so tense. Relax. Pick a verse every day and read it for five minutes.' I been doing just that."
McMath, unlike some of Northland's other players, can see a world beyond basketball, and he knows that college can help him get there.
"I want to run a Boys Club someday," he says, "a little club where kids can go to have fun. I got to get my degree. I got to have discipline. I got to. I got a chance here to do something."
McMath walks out of his room and into the chill of a winter evening. He's heading for the pay phone to call his mother, and he repeats a variation of something heard often at the 66 Motel.
"I'm happy here," he says. "Ain't nothin' but good things gonna happen to me. I'm in school for free, playin' ball, off the streets. What more could I want?"