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.'" ¤Josh 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."

¤Tyrone 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.

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."

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.

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.

"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?"

end part 2 of 2

"None of 'em will be rocket scientists, but neither will the president of this college," says Northland's president Vasher.

Tyrone Brannen is from a broken home in Savannah, Georgia. "I come up too hard to die of drugs," he says.

The coach pronounces it OH-dip-us, making the Greek sound like a point guard out of East Texas.

Welcome to the lowest of college basketball's minor leagues. Welcome to Northland Pioneer College.

There's no ivy growing on the double-wide trailers that serve as classrooms at the Holbrook campus.

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