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The Juco Express

Junior college players are on the fast track to the big time, with St. John's Michael Porter (4) and Boo Harvey leading the way

Perhaps you have heard the stories from Jucoland. You know the place—that world limned in parentheses where one set of brackets accommodates a player's funky nickname and another pinpoints his school's remote whereabouts: Charles (Big Time) Jones of McLennan (Texas) junior college. A juco man is naked without a nickname and his school is lost without the parenthetical help—Jacksonville, Dixie and Cleveland State junior colleges are located in (Texas), (Utah) and (Tenn.), respectively. Jucoland is basketball between the cracks.

It's where John (Slammer Jammer) Luster of Amarillo (Texas) junior college is recruited out of prison by a coach who signs his parole papers; where Sean (Cadillac) Alvarado of Hutchinson (Kans.) C.C. breaks his hand by slipping and falling on his freshly peeled-off warmup. Jucoland is where Don (Dancer) Gandy verbally commits to Amarillo (Texas) J.C. only to have an assistant coach from Barton County (Kans.) Community College show up at his home and spirit him away to the Barton campus, which is fine by the kid, though when his mama finds out at Thanksgiving, she raises one big stink.

Even if you haven't heard the stories, Bob Knight has. Time was when Knight would sooner appear at the Feinstein family picnic than scour the junior college badlands for a quick fix. But times change, and last spring a junior college player (Keith Smart) sank a junior college shot (a cinder-block-and-tumble-weed number from the baseline with the clock ticking down) to give Knight and Indiana a national title. Says Ronnie Arrow, who coached for 10 years at San Jacinto (Texas) J.C., "Bob Knight may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night."

Poke around Jucoland these days and you'll find that just about every other clipboard-toting hombre in major college basketball has joined Knight. Most have concluded that a juco transfer may not be a future rocket scientist, or even a Rotarian-to-be, but neither is he someone today's coach can afford to do without. Even North Carolina's pious Dean Smith confesses to leaving the door open to recruiting junior college players. Says Wyoming coach Benny Dees, "Anytime Bob Knight does something, it becomes a trend. Keith Smart hits that shot, and it's like a damn gold rush."

Among the more industrious prospectors is the University of Oklahoma, which took in a player at each position this season, including guard Daron (Mookie) Blaylock of Midland (Texas) J.C. Not to be outdone, Seton Hall signed Leland (Pookie) Wigington from Ventura (Calif.) Junior College. St. John's, once again demonstrating that juco recruiting is more than a west-of-the-Appalachians phenomenon, bagged San Jacinto's starting back-court of Greg (Boo) Harvey and Michael (Freak) Porter. Arizona State plucked Joey (Dennis Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother) Johnson and his 50-inch vertical leap from the College of Southern Idaho while the University of Houston nabbed Richard Hollis, who spent part of last season at New Mexico J.C. with his forehead swaddled in Band-Aids, the result of banging into the rim. Says Montana assistant Bob Niehl, "Hollis can jump as high as you ask him to."

No wonder folks who had never before ventured into Jucoland can be found foraging about in Kansas and Texas—traditionally the two strongest juco states—and diving into the talent pools of California and Florida. The Colonial Athletic Association is rapidly filling up with first-year juniors and second-year seniors after one of its members, James Madison, went from five wins to 20 last season, relying heavily on juco talent. "I'm at Dixie J.C. recruiting Clint Rossum, and Northwestern is there," says Mark Warkentien, who got his man for UNLV. "When UNLV is going against Northwestern on a J.C. kid, I'd say that's a change."

Even Ivy-covered Cornell signed a juco transfer, though it should be noted that 6'4" guard Patrick Homer—Hollis's teammate at N.M.J.C.—arrived in Ithaca with a 3.9 GPA and a strong interest in microbiology. It seems the only colleges not booking trips to burgs like Tullahoma, Tenn., and Ina, Ill., are the handful—North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse—that simply don't need the jucos. Says Warkentien: "After Kentucky and Carolina hold their 'drafts,' six of the nation's top nine [high-school seniors] are gone. Then Illinois and DePaul carve up Chicago, the SEC takes everybody in the South—except for the Mississippi kids, who go to Louisville—and the elite high school players are basically spoken for. Guys who can't recruit them and won't recruit the junior colleges are selling insurance now."

For many coaches, Rick Ball is insurance against having to sell the stuff. Ball, 37, scouts and rates junior college players, and refers to the world they inhabit as Jucoland, as if it were some sort of theme park. Ballplayers, his scouting-service newsletter, is underwritten by 125 colleges and counting. Nine seasons ago only the Canisiuses and Arkansas States made up his charter subscribers; in the past year he has signed up such schools as Villanova, Wyoming, Minnesota and Southern Cal.

Over one weekend every fall, Ball stages two daylong scrimmages at which coaches can ogle scads of juco players. In October his Juco Jamborees drew more than 250 coaches, who checked out 26 juco teams within 30 hours. Even Ball is astonished: "Five years ago these schools couldn't even spell J.C. This juco thing is getting out of hand."

The coaches were from Oklahoma and Ohio State, from Purdue and Providence. They came looking for:

•Immediate help. Just as every coach wants to fill that gap in his lineup quickly, every juco transfer wants to play right away. "It's been a route for coaches who felt they had to win immediately," says Temple coach John Chaney. "Those pressures have increased because of the money involved in the NCAA tournament."

•More refined players. Free of the NCAA's rinky-dink rules governing practice periods and off-season rec leagues, the jucos play serious ball virtually year-round. "I'm out at Garden City [Community College in Kansas] in September and they've already got their whole offense in," UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian says enviously. Adds Craig Impelman, an assistant at Weber State, "Jucos traditionally have the great 6'3" athlete who played center in high school. He plays forward in junior college so he can be a Division I guard." A classic example: K-State's 6'5" Mitch (the Bitch) Richmond, late of Moberly (Mo.) J.C.

•More mature people. If indeed the best thing about a freshman is that he'll become a sophomore, the best thing about a juco transfer is that he has already been both. Only 20% of all junior colleges offer scholarships, and even fewer attract doting media coverage, so a juco kid is in little danger of being coddled. "There's nothing in town but books and basketball," says Ball. "A lot of these kids are eating three meals a day for the first time in their lives. They miss a class, the dorm's across the street, and someone's knocking on their door before that class is over."

•A way around Proposition 48. Many Division I coaches would rather sign a juco graduate for two seasons than take a chance on using up a scholarship on a high school senior who might not score the requisite 700 on his college boards, as the NCAA rule properly known as Bylaw 5-1-(j) requires. When a player doesn't "predict"—a word now common in the coaching vernacular, meaning "to break 700"—the coach gets burned. "It's tough," says Lee Hunt, coach at upstart Missouri-Kansas City, which begins its program this season with nine juco transfers. "If you sign two players who don't predict, you're short two. It becomes a game of Russian roulette."

Indeed, nothing has so altered the face of Jucoland as Prop. 48. Ball guesses that half of the high school seniors who come up short on 5-1-(j) are choosing jucos, where they can play right away, instead of a major college, where they can't even practice and will have only three years of eligibility left after that first nonplaying season. "A lot of players were confused last year," says Wake Forest coach Bob Staak. "They went to their Division I first choices, then had frustrating experiences not being able to practice and not feeling part of the team."

High school seniors are starting to wise up—to see how depressing not playing can be and how their options can open up two years later, provided they excel on the juco court and get their associate of arts degree at the same time. Meanwhile the major colleges are more and more loath to wait on students whose board scores might, as Pepperdine coach Jim Harrick says, "embarrass the university."

On the other hand, if a Division I coach is terrified by the possibility that he won't get a player back after his juco stint—that the kid might listen to the whisperings of another recruiter and jump to a different school—he won't take the chance of placing him in a junior college. He'll want the player on campus as a freshman, even if it means the youngster will get depressed and fat and sloppy from playing intramurals. Hutchinson (Kans.) C.C. sorely wanted Nick Anderson and Ervin Small, two of Illinois's 5-1-(j) casualties last year. But Illini coach Lou Henson had gone through so much to get them in the first place that he put the kibosh on the idea.

If the NCAA doesn't change the no-practice rule for 5-1-(j) victims, working agreements between jucos and major college "parent clubs" will proliferate beyond those that already exist. Not that the star at Allegheny (Pa.) C.C. is indentured to Pitt, or the best player at Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) J.C. is fated to become a UNLV Runnin' Rebel. But, as Southern Cal coach George Raveling says, "If you don't get your guy back, you're probably not going to send that juco coach any more players."

Inevitably, Bylaw 5-1-(j) is stocking the Jucoland pond with more studfish. "Every day I pick up USA Today and read where some guy didn't qualify and is going to junior college," says Miami coach Bill Foster. "Georgia lost three. Before Prop. 48, those guys would have all gone to Georgia." Compare the 1983 All-Juco Team, led by such forgettables as Ed Smith, Alton Gipson and Dexter Shouse, with the best of the juco transfers who turned up last season: Indiana's Smart and Dean Garrett, Kansas State's Richmond, New Orleans's Ledell Eackles, UNLV's Gerald (Furniture) Paddio and Oklahoma's Harvey (the General) Grant. Indeed, both Ronnie Arrow, who left San Jacinto to take the head job at Division I South Alabama, and Jerry Stone, late of Midland J.C. and now the new coach at Division I Texas-Arlington, have said that the teams they left behind could whup the putative big-time teams they have inherited.

Juco players aren't ipso facto bad kids. In fact, many high school seniors who predict academically choose junior college purely for basketball reasons. Oklahoma's Grant, Arizona's Tom Tolbert and UNLV's Mark Wade, the Rebels' floor leader last season, all had uneven first experiences in the major college wilderness, then returned as more mature players after polishing their games at jucos.

Other players, academic predictors out of high school, may go straight to a juco to take their games up a notch. Ricky (Amazin') Grace used two seasons at Midland to add an inch and 15 pounds, and now directs Oklahoma's offense. Coming out of high school in Lubbock, Todd Duncan wasn't given a second glance by the Texas Tech staff up the street. But a two-year apprenticeship at Midland, in one of the nation's toughest juco leagues, launched Duncan from being a Division III maybe to a sharp-shooting point guard—and the Red Raiders had to fight off Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Missouri to get him.

More extraordinary is the case of Tony Dawson, a 6'7" newcomer at Florida State, who, while growing up, had the same leg run over three separate times in three freak accidents. He was just beginning to figure out how to go to the basket when he graduated from high school. If not for his two seasons at Gulf Coast (Fla.) C.C., Dawson might never have played major college ball.

"People who aren't associated with juco players think of them as misfits,' says Texas-Arlington's Stone. "It's not good for anyone to make a blanket judgment." There are enough examples of self-described academic goof-offs—Tarkanian, Oklahoma's Billy Tubbs and Morehead State's Tommy Gaither, for three—who, via junior college, became productive members of society. Or, at least, basketball coaches.

In fact, some coaches think the juco transfer may even be the better kid. "He's just happy to be here when he comes in," says Tubbs. "He knows he has only two years. And he hasn't been around long enough to bitch and gripe."

When juco gunner Kenny Drummond nearly sank North Carolina State last season with his selfish play, Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano vowed never to recruit in Jucoland again. It seemed an irrational pledge, particularly because Valvano had dipped into the jucos for Nate McMillan and Anthony (Spud) Webb, fine citizens both and NBA guards today. "If Valvano sticks by that," says Eastern Kentucky coach Max Good, "he'll be out of business."

Care to guess what coach just subscribed to Ballplayers'?


After polishing his game at New Mexico J.C., Hollis is ready to sparkle at Houston.


With his amazing 50-inch vertical leap, Johnson should light it up at Arizona State.


Texas Tech barely noticed Duncan before he played juco ball; now he's the talk of the town.