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Follow the two-lane blacktop of Highway 75 north out of Tulsa
until the music on the radio fades out and the sound of chirping
crickets fades in, past the Tom Mix Museum and the original
Little House on the Prairie, where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent
her youth, and there is Independence, Kans. (pop. 10,000). A
flat and remote place where the churches outnumber the
restaurants and nothing outnumbers the fields of grain,
Independence is home to Independence Community College, the way
station where Ruben Patterson is attempting to cure lifelong
academic failure and at the same time salvage his promising
basketball career.

Patterson is the best juco player in the country, six feet, six
inches of versatility who scored 58 points in one game last
season and was the MVP of the East team at the U.S. Olympic
Festival. Once unrecruitable as a star at John Hay High in
Cleveland because of his poor grades, Patterson is now on
schedule to graduate from Independence this spring and is being
sought by a host of top-20 Division I schools. But before
leaving town, he hopes to lead the Pirates to the national juco

When Patterson first saw the minuscule cluster of two-story
buildings that make up downtown Independence, "I was ready to
turn right around," he says. But Ruben's uncle Albert, a
Cleveland mailman who had paid his own way to take Ruben there
to visit the tiny cinder-block school, warned him, "This is what
it's going to take. Two years in a boondocks country town."

Independence, 800 miles from Cleveland, was exactly what Albert
and Ruben's AAU coach, Hal Ehretsman, thought Ruben needed. Says
Ehretsman, "It was far away, with no distractions."

To the despair of his family, Ruben had skipped classes whenever
he could during high school. His relatives were dismayed because
Ruben had a chance to be one of the few Pattersons to make it to
college. When he was a teenager, his talent was already being
noticed in pickup games at the Woodhill playground--the court
where Charles Oakley had played. "Ruben's the first one to come
along in our family and be this good at something," says his
mother, Charlene McEwen.

In his sophomore year at John Hay, Patterson was marked absent
50 times. He was deemed academically inept--and worse. In 1993,
Charlene, in the process of divorcing Ruben's father, sent Ruben
to live with her mother and asked Albert to look after him. "See
if you can get him straight," she told her brother.

Under the watchful eyes of Albert, Ehretsman and Charlene,
Ruben's grades steadied somewhat. But midway through his junior
year, he discovered that he would not be able to play basketball
his senior year because of a rule making players older than 18
ineligible. Ruben would be 19. Depressed, he again stopped going
to class. "We'd drive him to school, and he'd go out the back
door," Albert says. Ruben's grades plunged. "I wasn't myself,
that's all," he says. "The work wasn't hard. I just got sick of

"Everybody thought he was going to be a failure," says Albert.
"They told him, 'You're dumb and you ain't going to make it.'"
Ruben, desperate to prove his critics wrong, started looking at
prep schools. He wanted to go to Virginia's famed Oak Hill but
was told his grades weren't good enough. How bad were they?
"Whew," says Ruben. "They were low."

While many Division I schools salivated over him, one look at
Ruben's transcript sent them the opposite way. Then a local high
school coach told Albert about Independence and put him in touch
with coach Mike Kruszynski. Albert and Ruben made their visit,
and though he had quit high school before his senior year, Ruben
was accepted after passing the General Equivalency Degree test.

But no sooner had Ruben arrived in Independence than he was
stricken with homesickness. His family spent hours on the phone
cataloging the reasons for him to stay in Independence. Albert
or Ehretsman called Kruszynski once a week to check on Ruben's
attendance. When they didn't like what they were told, they
would ring up Ruben.

"You're messing up," Albert would say.

"O.K., Unc."

On a recent fall morning Ruben sat at a table in the back of the
Trading Times general store and coffee shop, eating three
breakfasts. Devouring French toast, pancakes and an omelette
with hash browns, he announced that he had learned to like
Independence, even though it had only one movie theater and he
had sat through Dumb and Dumber 10 times. "People respect me
here, and I respect them," he said. "You can't get into trouble."

You can get into complicated situations, however. Last summer
Ruben's girlfriend, Brenda Gonzalez of Fort Riley, Kans., gave
birth to their daughter, Natyana. Ruben lives with Brenda and
the three-month-old infant in an apartment near campus. In the
beginning Ruben struggled with his new responsibility. "I told
him to accept it and deal with it and be proud, and to keep his
goals," says Albert.

Ruben is taking the advice. He has close to a B average and is
taking Algebra, English Composition, English Lit, Introduction
to Computers and Theater Appreciation. "I'm taking care of
business," he vows. Says Kruszynski, "It's always been a
struggle, and he's done well. I tell him to be proud of doing
well at something that doesn't come easily."

Ruben's real purpose in Independence, of course, is to play
basketball. In that he has excelled, averaging 20.9 points and
6.7 rebounds last season for the Pirates. He attracted the
attention of coaches across the country when he scored 58
points, on 21-of-26 shooting, against Kansas City-Kansas
Community College on Feb. 15.

Patterson drew notice again with his performance at the U.S.
Olympic Festival in Denver last summer. One of the few
non-Division I players invited, he had 21 points for the East
team in an 86-84 loss to the West in the final. "He's a
monster," Long Beach State coach Seth Greenberg said afterward.
"He got every loose ball." With that performance, plus his
highlight film, he became the object of sudden affection from
Division I coaches. "We got bombarded," says Independence
assistant Dave Jordahl. "It's been a bit of a scene."

Assuming he doesn't suffer another scholastic lapse, Patterson
should graduate this spring. Where will he go? He says there are
eight candidates: Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, Arkansas,
Cincinnati, Kentucky, UMass and Michigan State. And he's aching
to hit the big time. If all goes as planned, his accomplishments
may finally catch up to his abilities. Says Patterson, "I've
been behind."


TOP 25


Team (1994-95 Record)

1 Vincennes (Ind.) (29-8) Point guard DaShay Jones will
run an offense with three other players who scored in double
figures last season

2 Okaloosa-Walton C.C. (Fla.) (31-6) With three returning
starters and a stellar freshman class, defending champs are
still a team to beat

3 College of Southern Idaho (33-5) 6'2" guard Marcus
Wallace shot 61.7% but didn't attempt a single three-pointer

4 Three Rivers C.C. (Mo.) (34-4) Raiders have reached
national tournament semis three times in the '90s

5 Independence (Kans.) C.C. (29-4) Ruben Patterson is one of
four Division I prospects on the Pirates

6 Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist College (34-2) 6'8", 240-pound
Marlon Chambers has Division I potential in basketball and

7 Connors State College (Okla.) (28-10) Sophomore forward
Horatio Webster averaged 22.6 ppg and was named conference MVP

8 Wabash Valley College (Ill.) (30-3) Enters '95-96 season
with 23-game home winning streak

9 Western Nebraska (36-4) Among 12 new recruits are George and
Philip Von Backstrom, 7'2" twins from South Africa

10 Hutchinson (Kans.) C.C. (29-5) The clock is ticking:
Second-year coach Randy Stange is the Blue Dragons' fourth coach
in 10 years

11 Jones J.C. (Miss.) (23-5) Bobcats cracked Top 20 last season
for first time in school history

12 Butler County C.C. (Kans.) (23-10) Three starters, but no
other experienced players, are back for the Grizzlies

13 Odessa (Texas) College (24-7) Larry Johnson is back. No, not
that one. This one averaged 14.7 points and 5.3 rebounds

14 Dixie College (Utah) (23-8) Running Rebels have averaged
more than 100 points per game each of last four years

15 Hagerstown (Md.) J.C. (27-5) Hawks' 106.7-points-per-game
average was third best in juco ranks last season

16 New Mexico J.C. (30-7) Little Big Men: Thunderbirds' front
line averages just 6'6"

17 Eastern Arizona (33-2) Only starter back is 6'3" point guard
Jody Beck, 26, who led the Gila Monsters in steals, assists and

18 Trinity Valley C.C. (Texas) (30-8) Guard Fantasia
Johnson and center Hrvoje Butorac are nominees for the
all-name team

19 Southeastern C.C. (Iowa) (24-7) One of only two juco
programs with 1,200 wins or more

20 Hiwassee College (Tenn.) (26-7) Tigers rank fifth on the
alltime junior college win list, with 1,170

21 Tallahassee C.C. (Fla.) (24-8) Eagles beat Okaloosa-Walton
twice last season, by a total of 50 points

22 San Jacinto College (Texas) (17-14) The Ravens' record over
their 34-year history is 1,008-246 (.804)

23 Southern Union State J.C. (Ala.) (24-5) The Bisons' top
player last season, Louis Moore, is now at Indiana

24 Pensacola (Fla.) J.C. (22-8) Sophomore transfers Gus Abbott
(Tulane) and Arnell Hamilton (South Alabama) give Pirates added

25 Kankakee C.C. (Ill.) (17-17) Cavaliers have reached the
national tournament's Sweet 16 five times since 1985


Vincennes forward Troy Nesby should be even better than last
year, and last year he was the Trailblazers' top scorer (15.9
ppg) and rebounder (8.6)

COLOR PHOTO: ELI REICHMAN After failing to make the grade in high school, Patterson has made hay in Kansas as the nation's top juco talent. [Ruben Patterson standing beside bales of hay]

COLOR PHOTO: ROB EDWARDS/VINCENNES SUN-COMMERCIALNesby gives Vincennes a good shot at No. 1. [Troy Nesby]