Way out on U.S. Highway 70, past Zeke's General Store and towns so small the post offices have dainty curtains in the windows, sit the adjoining southeastern Arizona towns of Thatcher and Safford. They are places where routine and tradition have a way of becoming the same thing, and neither goes down without a fight, whether it's the annual fiddle contest, breakfast-counter socializing at the local diner or winning basketball teams.
All by itself, Thatcher High School claimed eight state boys' basketball championship teams between 1980 and 1991. Just down the street, the unheralded Gila Monsters of Eastern Arizona College had never known a losing season in 24 years with coach Chuck LaVetter at the helm.
That is, until last year, when not even fans waving Horrible Gila Hankies could help. LaVetter's squad finished 14-16.
If there was any consolation, it was that Eastern's football team was doing far worse. In fact, the team's ineptitude was lurking dangerously close to becoming a tradition in itself. Before that could happen, Eastern, which also sports a vaunted volleyball program, opted to temporarily scrap the football program. That left LaVetter, the newly appointed athletic director, free to concentrate on making things right again in his own domain, and assistant basketball coach Bob Pruszynski was sent off to Maryland and Ohio to recruit like crazy.
The results were impressive.
"Now we're eight deep," says Las Vegas product Tyrell Jamerson, who started on last year's sub-.500 squad. "I guess they didn't want that to happen again."
This year's Gila Monsters are truly scary, the nation's only undefeated team, a status unmatched by either its fellow junior colleges or by any Division I team, the UCLAs and North Carolinas of the world. After chomping up petrified Pima Community College, 97-66, in their season finale, the Gila Monsters head into this week's state junior college tournament with a 30-0 record, ranked second in the country. (Spartanburg, South Carolina, is ranked first.) The winner of the state tourney will advance to the national championship finals in Hutchinson, Kansas.
"Monster Ball" has returned to Thatcher in a big way.
"Our season just kind of built, and everybody wants to be part of it," says Coach LaVetter in his office one late afternoon before the team takes on very brave Scottsdale Community College. His 1984 squad was also quite ferocious, going 26-4, but couldn't crack the national Top 10.
Now the phones are ringing like mad. People desire reserved tickets, and they want his help acquiring them. The last home game, people had to be turned away. Now folks are clamoring for the right to butcher the national anthem, and the band wants to occupy a whole bloc of bleachers for the entire game instead of escaping at halftime like it used to.
"This town has just gone nuts," says Anna Romney, a 19-year-old freshman who herself played high school hoops at Thatcher High. "The people that normally come still come--but there's more."
Many more. The games are selling out. A sign saying so has been made for such occasions. At the campus bookstore, Eastern Arizona College garment sales are up, particularly among adults. It should be noted that the Eastern logo features an upright Gila monster decked out as a grinning gunslinger.
Over at the Golden Corral, a Safford steak house, the marquee often bears messages in support of the team. The Golden Corral is where, not long ago, they held the "Meet the Monsters" breakfast. The Thatcher/Safford community came out and met the Monsters and the Monster coaches and the Monster families. The local paper took pictures.
A great part of the attraction is that a very large and unassuming local boy is a member of this year's team. Dennis Griffin is six-foot-nine, and he played for a Thatcher High team that won state championships both his junior and senior seasons, then played a year at Eastern before embarking on a two-year LDS mission. He returned this year. His timing was impeccable. Next year, he will attend the University of Colorado.
"We go to all the home games," says his mother, Zesta Griffin. "We have nine children of our own. We go en masse."
Along with Griffin, there is a 25-year-old freshman by the name of Jody Beck, whom Coach Pruszynski describes as the Magic Johnson of the team. For a period earlier in the season, Beck was averaging double figures in three categories, the much-admired triple-double. Coach Pruszynski convinced Beck to give school another try after he had withdrawn a few years ago from Northern Idaho.
There is Mohammed "Mo" Tijjani, a six-foot-eight Nigerian product whom Arizona State passed over after the coach who recruited him absconded to Brigham Young University. He already has committed to Southern Methodist University for next year. There is Marco Johnson, a mercurial shooting guard who convinced six-foot-four forward Harold Joiner, a buddy from his Dayton, Ohio, neighborhood, to give the desert experience a try. There is also Mike Coleman, and Asim Rose, and--well, this team is very deep.
The one quality people consistently refer to when describing the success of this bunch is teamwork, an ability to work well together, which, to see the team in action at its best, is vastly understating the case. Synchronicity would be more like it, what was once known in Lakerese as Showtime.
Naturally, there were hurdles to overcome.
Early in the season, when the makings of an undefeated record were already under way, it became necessary for several Gila Monsters to be kept out of a game against Northland Pioneer, one of Eastern's greatest rivals. The supposed incident involved a fight instigated by several military brutes, and so Eastern took on Northland Pioneer with only six players, one of them newly arrived Harold Joiner from Dayton.
Eastern won the game, 71-59, and Joiner says that is when he realized this team had real potential. "We just stepped up," he says now.
Next came the Mesa Rotary Shootout, a tournament the Gila Monsters crawled out of as champions, but not without scratches and bruises. One game, they were down 19 points in the first half, and came back to win. "The kids just seemed to think they were gonna win, anyway," LaVetter says. "From that point on, they said, 'Hey--we're pretty good.'"
"We had a couple of tough games," admits Jody Beck, who is capable of passes that defy physical logic.
And then they were nationally ranked, and then they kept winning, and then Coach LaVetter began to wonder if all this talent on the floor was playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Stretches of lackluster play followed; the Monsters weathered every one while giving their coaches ulcers.
"We were real flat," says Tyrell Jamerson. "I guess after winning so many games, you just want to get to the tournament."
Still, after escaping a furious comeback in the final minutes of a game at Central Arizona College in Coolidge, Beck and Joiner felt confident enough after that day's practice to predict they'd be back in form against Scottsdale Community College on a pleasant Wednesday night in Thatcher.
As always, in Coach LaVetter's home on the day of a home game, there is spaghetti. Dinner is served about 4 p.m., and the players file through the kitchen, dishing up healthy servings and retiring to the living room to watch Ricki Lake on a formidable Toshiba television.
The players banter and suck down pasta and sauce. Joiner asks Marco Johnson if he heard about Dallas Mavericks star Jimmy Jackson's 44-point game the night before. They rave about Reggie Miller's appearance on a recent television show. They rave about Miller's wife, who apparently is quite stunning.
As the players enter the packed gymnasium later that night, they encounter a festive and vibrant mood. Kids mob them for autographs. "The boys are back in town!" the announcer roars into the microphone as the music plays.
Very early in the game, it becomes apparent that the Artichokes--although armed with Brian Becker, the conference's leading scorer--lack the muscle to deal with the inside play of Tijjani and Joiner and Griffin and Beck, who slice through the forest of bodies like greyhounds. Johnson does his trademark pull-up jumper a few times, and Beck and Jamerson wear down the Artichokes with defense. The Gila Monsters have four of the conference's top five in the steals category, and it shows. Eastern leads at halftime, 45-24.
At the break, there is a drawing. A cap and a tee shirt and some money are given away.
The teams return to the court, and the Artichokes brave such student-section signs as "Undy-Feeted" and "We Want ESPN, Baby!" to fight their way to within ten points, 54-44, as the crowd grows restless and friendly interschool parent rivalries in the stands turn ugly. One of the referees threatens to whistle the SCC bench with a technical.
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The Gila Monsters finally get all the pistons pumping. Three-pointers from pals Johnson and Joiner, then a Tijjani dunk off a Joiner feed, and all of a sudden, it's 67-50. But there are still nine minutes left, and the Artichokes are feisty and raging. This is when Jody Beck and Tyrell Jamerson put the game away for good without even scoring a basket.
After one of the Monsters misses a shot, Beck snags the rebound, toys with the idea of going back up but reconsiders. He dribbles, almost casually, out toward the foul line, time seeming to pass slowly. Then, with absolutely no indication at all that he has any idea what he's doing, he whips around like a turret, firing the ball through a field of Artichokes to a surprised Jamerson, who like the rest of the crowd is probably wondering how Beck knew he was under the hoop.
Jamerson proceeds to miss the lay-up, Beck wincing in disappointment, but it is right then that the game is over, because the Gila Monsters have demonstrated their utter dominance for all to see. A few minutes later, with Eastern leading by 25, Jamerson steals the ball and executes a spectacular windmill slam that Beck jokes about later. "Did you see my main man?" he says. "He let me down on that assist. But he made up for it with that windmill."
The final is 93-68. Two days later, Pima Community College falls by 31 points. The Monsters are back to true form, which is very scary indeed.