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Pride of the Panama pipeline

Imported players like Rolando Frazer have made Briar Cliff an NAIA power

The four-piece band at the Sioux City Hilton was singing, "We're goin' to Kansas City, Kansas City here we come" not long ago, and for a very good reason. Every year the NAIA holds its championship tournament in Kansas City, and Sioux City's tiny Briar Cliff College had already thumped the team that denied it a chance to go last season. An even better reason for the high hopes is Rolando Frazer, a lissome 6'7" senior forward from Panama City whose 32.1-point average leads the NAIA in scoring and whose 36.4-point mark last season was tops for all college players. Frazer is the best of 11 Panamanians to find their way to Briar Cliff since 1974. No wonder pro scouts are finding their way to the Sioux City Auditorium.

"The word is out that this kid should be seen," said the 76ers' Bob Lukstra after watching a fairly typical Frazer half against Grand View College, the team that kept Briar Cliff out of Kansas City last season. The circumstances weren't typical, however. Despite having the flu, Frazer not only started the game but also started it with a bang—a slam dunk—twice scored 10 straight Briar Cliff points and cast a spell on the crowd that bewitched the officials' whistles when he flagrantly goaltended a Grand View shot. "I guess they're surprised I go so high, so they don't call it," Frazer said later in his heavily accented English. With 27 points on 12-for-15 shooting (he's a career 61.5% shooter) and Briar Cliff up 46-27, Frazer left the court at halftime and vomited. So much for the idea that Panamanian athletes can't perform with weak stomachs. Then in the second half he picked up 17 more points as the Chargers coasted, 94-73.

Frazer isn't one of those body-by-Fisher, mind-by-Mattel attitude cases who tend to appear on small-college top-10-scorers lists. He's aware that weaknesses in his defense and foul-shooting (64.7% this year) may keep him from becoming a first-round pro draft pick.

Some scouts are also skeptical about the strength of the teams against whom Frazer has run up his scoring totals. But with international experience against a Soviet national team and in the Pan Am Games, a durable, 205-pound body and a more team-oriented playing style this season than last, he's making a good case for himself.

That Frazer stands out on the court isn't actually so surprising; he comes from an athletic family. His brother Alfonso was the world junior welterweight boxing champion in 1972. A sister, Julie, was on Panama's national women's basketball team, while Rolando was on the men's. Another brother, Enrique, was the family's best basketball player, says Rolando, until he defied doctor's orders and played with a dunk-induced shoulder separation. The aggravated injury ended Enrique's career.

Rolando's anticipation and ball-handling ability—essentials for a small forward or big guard in the pros—are impressive for someone who has been playing ball only since ninth grade, as is his favorite two-handed backspin bank shot after taking a pass in the post and wheeling to face the basket. He was a soccer player as a ninth-grader, but his size—he was 6'5" then—attracted a covetous coach named Cecilio Williams. Coincidentally, it was also about this time that Briar Cliff's Panamanian pipeline began to operate.

"Eight years ago we played Doane College in Nebraska and they had three starters from Panama," says Coach Ray Nacke. "They blocked three of our first five shots. Our trainer was from Peru and spoke Spanish, so I asked him to find out how those guys got up here." The pump in Panama City turned out to be manned by Williams, a former coach of the national team. He and Nacke began corresponding, and Briar Cliff's first Panamanian, Eddie Warren, arrived three years later. Over the years Cecilio has sent players to nine other schools in the States.

Frazer had no plans to go to college after leaving Panama City's Professional High School. "I studied accounting and could have started a good job right away," he says. "But Tito and Mario [two former players from Panama] helped me decide to come to Briar Cliff. After I met Pete Noonan [a current student], I decided to stay."

Noonan, a Sioux City native, has been Frazer's roommate since they were freshmen, and his family has eased Frazer's adaptation to life in Middle America. Ernesto (Tito) Malcolm and Mario Butler are other former Briar Cliff Panamanians and NBA draft picks who, like Warren, didn't make the pros. Frazer started with Warren, Malcolm, Butler and current Charger Guard Reggie Grenald on Panama's 1979 Pan Am Games team, which lost to the U.S., the eventual champions, 88-83. Frazer, with 19 points, was the game's leading scorer.

"In Panama they play a different style," says Frazer. "They don't believe in open jump shots. It's penetration. Here you play more disciplined, run the plays, work for shots." Only boxing is more popular than basketball in Panama, and both Frazer's parents work for Roberto Duran's manager, Carlos Eleta. Frazer's father, Alfonso, has been Eleta's chauffeur for 30 years, and his mother, Marion, is a supervisor in Eleta's cigarette factory.

"I like America, the new things, the big buildings, the big businesses," says Frazer. "But you can't live here in Sioux City. It's too cold. It's a good place to study, though. It's so cold you have to study." He has a B average as a business major at the Franciscan school, which was founded by nuns during the Depression to educate women. The college first began admitting men in 1966, and in the last five seasons Briar Cliff (currently 14-2) has gone 126-33 and seen its enrollment (now 1,272) soar by 39%. School officials say the two upswings aren't coincidental.

Briar Cliffs two fiercest rivals—Morningside College, also in Sioux City, and Northwestern College, of Orange City, Iowa—haven't taken the Chargers' success gracefully. Northwestern fans have shown up at Briar Cliff games in loose-fitting plantation clothing and straw hats, wielding flyswatters, and in December several Morningside students threw a banana and a fish onto the court as cuts at Briar Cliffs Panamanian and Catholic connections. "It just makes me play harder, want to beat them more," says Frazer.

He finds a more convivial atmosphere at the home of a local Panamanian woman who treated all the Briar Cliff Panamanians to a chicken-and-rice dinner on New Year's Eve. In his dorm he'll strike a pose as incongruous as it is languorous, listening to salsa in a DOWNTOWN PONCA, NEBRASKA—WHERE IT'S AT T shirt.

Frazer wants to work in the U.S. as a resident alien after graduation, and cites Dallas and Miami as cities with agreeable climates. "I like business because a businessman sits by air conditioning at a big desk," he says. "That's what I want to do—sit at a big desk and be my own boss." That is, if certain other vocational plans—which would take him to the NBA or to a European pro team—fall through. But for now, Frazer and his team have another destination in mind. Hit it, Wilbert. "I'm goin' to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come...."