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Original Issue

Harlem in the Sagebrush

At Arizona's rustic Orme School, New York kids are hooping it up

The Orme school sits on a flat stretch of lowland amid the undulating desert hills of Arizona, 65 miles north of Phoenix and three miles by unpaved road from Interstate 17. The vast country's rich, red earth bears yucca, prickly pear and sagebrush, and on the boarding school's campus, dirt walkways weave past cottonwoods and sycamores.

The 163 boys and girls who attend the school, which runs from grade seven through grade 12, routinely stroke potbellied pigs, pat the brown flanks of mother cows and listen to the soft, wind-borne bleating of a herd of Angora goats on a neighboring ranch. In the hush of an early evening, it is hard to conceive of a place less like Orme than the cacophonous, crime-plagued streets of Harlem.

"When I got here I was like, Where are the sidewalks?" says Ronnell Rock, 18, Orme's student body president. "I'd never been anywhere so quiet and peaceful, where I could leave my door open and feel safe. Sometimes I'd see a cow out my window and think I was in a movie."

Ronnell is one of six Harlem youths attending Orme and one of four playing for the school's basketball team, which was 19-3 at the end of the regular season and preparing to make a strong run at the Arizona state title in Class IA. After years of playing blacktop ball near their homes in the bleak projects of Harlem's west side, the four have brought to this oasis a dose of city style.

"People are amazed by us," says Bobby Meredith, 17, a junior forward. "They've never seen some of the things we do on the court. And when I go around wearing one pant leg up and a tag on my cap, people stare. They like it, though. The way everybody walks by and says, 'Hi,' 'Hi,' I feel like I'm in Happy Country."

Ronnell and Bobby came to Orme as Mobil scholars, in 1991 and '92, respectively. This need-based academic program was established in 1977 by Orme alumnus and former Mobil executive Winston Marshall III to enable one Harlem teenager to come to the school each year. All the Mobil scholars—who are provided with room and board, tuition and airfare—have graduated from Orme, and all but one have gone to college.

The four other current Mobil scholars do not play basketball, but Ronnell helped bring two other players—his cousin Bernard Rock and their friend Joe Harris, 17—to Orme on standard financial aid. Now, away from the dangers of their inner city, they are thriving. Each year an admissions officer from Orme travels widely, talking up the school. Today Orme's student body includes Saudis, Koreans, Native Americans, Germans and even a crown prince from the north of Pakistan.

The Harlem group fits well into this astoundingly diverse mix. The boys and girls cast aside their differences and take easily to one another. Ronnell's closest friends on the school's basketball team are Scott Roberts, the son of a prosperous land developer in California, and Alvin Saenz, who is an Apache Indian. During school breaks, Ronnell likes to spend a few days with Alvin at his family's reservation in New Mexico.

"I think that when you live close to the earth like this, class and culture lines tend to disappear," says Charlie Orme Jr., who was the school's headmaster for 42 years, until 1987. "That's why we're able to have all kinds of kids here, and for the most part, they get along."

In 1929 Charlie Orme Sr., the owner of a 40,000-acre cattle ranch, started the school to educate his three young children and the four children of his ranchers. He hired an elementary school teacher to come to the ranch, and class was held in a rust-colored adobe hut that serves today as the schoolhouse for Orme's 14 middle schoolers, all of whom board.

Word of the school soon spread across the hills, and boys and girls began attending from nearby ranches and mining towns. In 1945 Charlie Jr., one of the school's original students, became the first headmaster. The following year he converted Orme into a coeducational boarding school; it had a graduating class of three in 1950.

The school's unusual location and its wide-ranging curriculum led to the student body's rapid growth. In 1962 the ranch and school separated officially into self-sustaining entities for business purposes. Still, they remain closely linked. Old ranch houses and frontier-style buildings stand throughout the campus. The ranch's cattle brand—the quarter circle V-bar—is also the school's symbol and is painted at center court of the gym. In addition to standard coursework, some students do chores or care for animals in a barn area overlooking the campus; others gallop around the mesas as part of the school's horsemanship program.

"My father would be pleased with the school," says Charlie Jr., who lives on the ranch. "He'd get a kick out of seeing these city kids with the cattle."

He might also get a kick out of watching them play hoops. Though Orme has traditionally had strong football teams, its basketball program was all but invisible until coach Todd Satter arrived four years ago from St. John's High in St. John's, Ariz. In Satter's second season, with Ronnell, Bernard and Bobby leading the way, the team went 6-6 in its conference. And last season, Satter's third, with Joe Harris added to the mix, the club went 10-2 in the conference and 19-6 overall before losing in the quarterfinals of the state tournament.

"I'm lucky," says Satter. "We may never again have a group like this."

They play the way they play back home in New York, and visitors from scattered desert towns (the post office nearest to Orme is a 20-minute drive away) show up for their games. Camera flashes pop as Orme warms up to the boom-box strains of Naughty By Nature. Fans stare as Joe shakes his minidreadlocks and Bernard flexes the bulldog tattoo that covers his right biceps. When the game begins and Ronnell gets off a bounce pass to Bernard, who races to the hoop, jukes and dishes the ball behind his back to Joe, who slams it home, the crowd murmurs in awe.

"We've been playing together for so long," Bernard says. "We know what we're going to do: Back home, this stuff isn't such a big deal. Out here it's like, Wow!"

Of the four, Bernard is the big-time talent, a former all-city junior high point guard who was named a Basketball Congress International All-America while playing for Riverside Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Known as Pee Wee at local playgrounds, Bernard has now earned Arizona all-state honors in both basketball and football. Away from the drug-infested neighborhood where he lives with his grandmother, he is getting the chance that Pee Wee Sr. never had.

"In New York, the grown folks tell me I play like my father used to play," says Bernard, a slight, bright-eyed 17-year-old. "But he never did anything with his talent. He dropped out of high school. Now he's up in Albany somewhere.

"Back home it's just trouble. I had to get out of there, or it would've gotten to me. It's right in your face when you walk out the door—crack, cocaine, people wasting away their lives.

"There's nothing for me there. And when I go home, guys are always asking me to help them come out here."

He did help Joe by urging him to apply to Orme in 1993. The push may have come just in time. During Joe's first few months at Orme, two of his friends back home were shot to death in arguments. At Joe's police precinct in Harlem, more than 10 felonies are reported every day. In all of 1994 there were two at Orme, the worse of which was a stolen saddle.

"Being here gives you perspective," Joe says. "You have a chance to slow down and think about life. It's freedom."

And it took some getting used to. Harlem slang was a foreign language at Orme. There were unfamiliar people—"I'd never talked to a white kid before," says Bobby—in a land far from fast food and video arcades. To kids from the city, a coyote's nighttime howl sounded more threatening than a police siren's wail. And there was the time that the team returned from a road game to find a pair of peccaries on campus. While their teammates stepped off the van unperturbed by the piglike, grass-eating beasts, the Harlem kids huddled together in the last row of seats.

But by now Orme has become a second home to them. And last year Ronnell's father, Jerry, came for a visit. At night he looked up and saw a wide, glittering brightness he had never imagined. "He tried to take pictures of the stars," Ronnell recalls. "Then in the morning we went for a walk. My father said to me, 'Look at all that sky. I've never seen so much blue in my life.' "



Harris (left), Bernard Rock and Meredith were wary of the livestock; at right, the ranch's brand.


[See caption above.]



Ronnell Rock (right) rolls against Mayer, which Orme beat en route to state tournament play.