The Mr. Quick gas station on Walnut Street, just down the road
from a herd of buffalo, certainly doesn't look as if it would
have any real importance to the town of Hays, Kans. It's a
one-man operation with three gas pumps outside and a small
selection of food items inside that can be eaten at the five red
Formica booths lining the front window. Stop in there during the
day and the place will be as quiet as a wheat field. But go
there on almost any weekday night and you'll stumble onto the
social epicenter of a particularly notable group of the town's
movers and shakers: the basketball players for Division II
national champion Fort Hays State.
"It's where we go after practice, and we often meet there later
at night," says Alonzo Goldston, a 6'9" senior All-America
center at Fort Hays. "It should tell you something about Hays
that this is the place where guys like me hang out. I never
could have dreamed it."
There was nothing resembling a Mr. Quick, or the ready smiles
offered there, in Goldston's neighborhood in northwest
Washington, D.C., where three years ago his cousin was killed
after a dice game went sour. But today Goldston lives in a
trailer on the edge of Hays; he's learned how to square-dance,
and he's developed a keen taste for the frozen pan pizzas at Mr.
Quick. "A lot of guys on the team, myself included, needed to
come to a place like this to get our lives straightened out,"
says Goldston. "The town of Hays is a big reason why we were so
good last season."
The Fort Hays Tigers weren't just good last season, they were
perfect--the sole undefeated college basketball team in the
United States. The Tigers went 34-0, becoming only the third
Division II team in history to finish a season without a loss;
they won their games by an average of 21.9 points, on a par with
Division I national champion Kentucky's 22.8 average. It was a
season in which Fort Hays dominated its opposition, not unlike
the way Sitting Bull overwhelmed George Armstrong Custer, who
once supervised a military outpost less than a mile from where
the Fort Hays campus is now located.
"We'd beat more Division I teams than we'd lose to, that I'm
sure of," says Gary Garner, the head coach of Fort Hays, as he
sits in the dim light of his windowless office. "We've been able
to attract kids with Division I talent because of our facilities
and our people. We have the best facilities in Division II, and
the people of Hays are probably the nicest people in the world."
"It's not a fluke that Fort Hays is so dominant," says Bill
Morse, who coached the Tigers to back-to-back NAIA national
titles in 1984 and '85, and now sells insurance in Hays.
"Small-college basketball always does better in rural areas than
it does in metro areas, because it's the only game in town and,
in Hays especially, the fan support is excellent. Players are
attracted to that. They always have been." How crazy are the
locals for Tigers basketball? Two families that live more than
100 miles from Hays hold season tickets. That's support.
Garner recruits almost exclusively transfer players. In fact,
this year his top 10 players and the student manager are all
transfers. Last season, seven of the 12 players on the roster
were culled from Kansas's 20 junior colleges. This season Garner
has six of his top eight players back, but four of the five
starters are from out of state (Chicago; Carthage, Texas; and
two from Washington, D.C.), and from completely different worlds.
"Moving here was hard. All I could see was land and more land,"
says Goldston, who had never seen a live cow before arriving in
Hays in 1993. "It was a tough transition from D.C., where things
are happening all the time, to here, where things rarely happen."
Hays lies in the northwestern corner of Kansas and is a
predominately German Catholic, conservative community of 18,000,
where churches outnumber bars 24 to 20. Imagine, then, how a
transfer student from a place like Chicago feels when he first
arrives and sees that the town's hot spot is Mr. Quick. The
initial reaction is dismay, followed by resignation. But most of
the new arrivals soon come to see that what the town doesn't
have to offer is just what they need most. It happened for the
team's two top players, and for the coach.
For the 53-year-old Garner, who was named the Division II coach
of the year last March, winning the national title marked the
culmination of his phoenix-like rise from the ashes of college
basketball. Eight years ago he was fired from his coaching job
at Drake after compiling a 95-104 record from 1981 to '88. After
he was let go, Garner interviewed for five Division I head
coaching jobs, but everywhere he went athletic directors told
him that because he had been dumped by a mediocre basketball
school, he was an unpalatable candidate. "There was a black mark
by my name that nobody would look past," says Garner.
Convinced that he couldn't land a Division I head coaching job,
Garner dropped out of basketball and took a real estate job in
Des Moines. For two years he worked a typical office gig--eight
hours a day, five days a week--and was perfectly miserable. He
talked frequently with his close friend, Missouri coach Norm
Stewart, who advised him not to get back into coaching until he
was once again prepared to stare down the specter of failure.
Garner finally was. So in 1991, when he heard through the
grapevine that the Fort Hays job was open, he jumped at the
opportunity for redemption.
"For me, coming to Hays was a second chance," says Garner, who
in five years at Fort Hays has a 109-42 record that adds fuel to
his hopes of someday returning to Division I. "My wife of 26
years says I'm happier today than ever before, and she's right."
This season he could be even happier, and earn more accolades,
if the Tigers can keep their streak going and win their first 19
games, thereby breaking the 53-year-old Division II record of 52
Much of Garner's success at Fort Hays can be traced to the way
he uses the town as a recruiting aid. One player who came to
Hays largely because of its slow and steady ways is Sherick
Simpson. A 6'6" senior small forward, Simpson grew up on the
South Side of Chicago; in his senior year of high school, he was
courted by Arkansas, Illinois and Baylor. But he failed to
qualify academically, so he enrolled at Elgin (Ill.) Community
College. Simpson was again declared academically ineligible,
this time in his second year, signifying to Division I
schools--and even to many of his friends--that his talents were
no match for his frailties.
"People thought I failed when I didn't go D-1," says Simpson,
who now carries a B average in his physical education major.
"Everyone said I had the ability, but I wasn't serious about
school. Moving to Hays is what I needed, because all we do here
is play ball and go to school. Even during the year, on our day
off the team will get together and play for a couple of hours.
That's why we're so good."
In the final four minutes of last season's national championship
game against Northern Kentucky, Garner put the team's title
hopes in the hands of Simpson, abandoning the triangle offense
(he is virtually the only coach in any division who uses the
offense run by the Chicago Bulls) in favor of a "1-4 offense,"
in which he placed Simpson at point guard and let him penetrate
to create a shot either for himself or for a teammate. The
strategy worked on nearly every offensive set and propelled Fort
Hays to its 70-63 victory. Simpson scored 24 points and grabbed
10 rebounds--both game bests--and was named the most outstanding
player of the tournament. With that performance, he joined
Goldston on the short list of Division II players familiar to
pro scouts. According to NBA scouting director Marty Blake, both
players have a reasonable shot at making an NBA team.
If Goldston or Simpson ever do make the NBA, they surely will
have traveled more miles by bus to get there than any players in
the history of the game. Fort Hays is the only Kansas school in
the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Road trips to play
conference rivals are brutal. It is 593 miles from Hays to Las
Vegas; 590 miles to Grand Junction, Colo.; 515 miles to
Gunnison, Colo.; and 447 miles to Chadron, Neb. "I was the
happiest man alive when they raised the speed limit to 70," says
"The trips make the team closer, and they keep us out of
trouble," says Goldston, who knows all about trouble. While
growing up in Washington, D.C., he was arrested for driving a
stolen car and admits that he spent "too much time hanging with
the wrong crowd." He attended junior college at Vincennes (Ind.)
in 1992, but quit school after just three months when he got
into a fight at a party.
Goldston returned to Washington, his basketball future in doubt.
A few weeks later he was walking into a D.C. restaurant when a
stranger stopped him. "Damn, you're tall," the man said to him.
"You want to play basketball tonight on my summer team?"
Goldston did. And that night he led the squad coached by Harold
Bates, the same stranger, to victory over a team from Hampton,
Va., that featured a point guard named Allen Iverson. Toward the
end of that summer, Bates, a librarian who has acted as a broker
of sorts for more than 100 Washington-area players trying to get
into college, called one of Garner's assistants and said he had
a terrific talent who would like to walk on. "He sat out a year
and did everything he had to do," says Garner of Goldston, who
averaged 20.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game last season. "I
had my doubts, but he's turned out to be one of the best players
we've ever had."
On a recent early evening Goldston drove his red Grand Am down a
highway through a sea of milo and wheat fields. As he sped
along, with the last glimmers of sunlight shooting across the
high plains of western Kansas, he reflected on his experience in
Hays; his face came alight with a radiant smile that Goldston
says he wasn't capable of producing just a few years ago.
"This place will be with me forever," he says. "Hays, Kansas! I
still can't believe I'm here. But right now, I don't want to be
COLOR PHOTO: DARRELL MIHO Simpson (32) helped drive the high-mileage Tigers to a 34-0 year. [Sherick Simpson and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DARRELL MIHO Garner (above) molded the once troubled Goldston (52) and his mates into a happy band of Division II champs. [Gary Garner]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN F. GRIESHOP (2) [See caption above--Alonzo Goldston and others in game; four Fort Hays State players]