Publish date:

FACTORY TOWNS

Author:

What makes a place excel at manufacturing OUR FINEST ATHLETES? There's usually an explanation or two, but often it's a mystery

HOCKEY

WARROAD

POPULATION: 1, 800

TO UNDERSTAND HOW Warroad, Minn. (pop. 1,794), became Hockeytown USA, consider the story of T.J. Oshie. He was 10 when he first visited Warroad, a hamlet nestled on the frigid shores of Lake of the Woods, six miles from the Canadian border. He was there to see his second cousin Henry Boucha, a Warroad native, who was a member of the 1972 Olympic hockey team. As his family rolled into town, the first thing young T.J. saw was the hockey sticks painted on the water tower rising from the horizon.

Every morning during his visit, T.J. would head outside and skate in the backyard rink—they're as common in Warroad as driveway basketball hoops. He played in pickup games with others his age, and it was there that he faced off against a 10-year-old girl named Gigi Marvin (left). "She was really good," Oshie says of Marvin who would go on to win two Olympic silver medals with the U.S. hockey team. "I was the new kid. We got into a tussle. I'm pretty sure it was me who ended up crying."

T.J. moved with his father, a Warroad native, to the town from Stanwood, Wash., when he was 15. He led Warroad High to two state titles, earned a scholarship to North Dakota, became a first-round NHL pick and is in his 10th season in the league, now with the Capitals. Four years ago Oshie and Marvin both skated for Team USA in Sochi. T.J. credits Warroad with his hockey career. "I honestly don't know what I would be doing if I didn't go there," he says.

Locals can't explain exactly how Warroad came to be the cradle of U.S. hockey—they can only tell stories like Oshie's. The town forged five NHL players, eight Olympians and four Hall of Famers.

The seeds of the hockey tradition were sewn in 1904, when a man named George Marvin, Gigi's great-grandfather, built a successful business, Marvin Windows and Doors, and financed hockey rinks around town. Warroad's rinks—where ice time is free for people of all ages—have produced six state champs and are the heart of the town. "The high school rink in Warroad is nicer than some of the college rinks I play in," says Lynn Astrup, a senior defensewoman at Minnesota-Duluth and a Warroad native.

And that rink is full much of the time. Says Oshie, "Some games, the rivalry games, I don't know if the fire marshals turned a cheek to it, but it looked like it was almost illegal how many people would pack into these rinks."

No U.S. men's Olympic team—and only one women's—has won a gold medal in hockey without a player from Warroad on the roster. Which bodes well for the U.S. women's team in PyeongChang: Marvin will lace up again in February. She is not the last player from this tiny hockey nook to make a big mark on the hockey world. Every summer she returns home to run a camp for kids. "It's not a matter of if Warroad is going to produce another NHLer or Olympian or Division I player," she says. "It's who. Which one is it going to be?"

NBA

INDIANAPOLIS

POPULATION: 731,000

THEY WERE CALLED the Magnificent Seven. All were stars on the Indianapolis high school scene in the 2000s, and destined for big things. George Hill led the state in scoring his senior year at Broad Ripple High. Eric Gordon was the main attraction at North Central. Courtney Lee won a state title at Pike, Josh McRoberts led Carmel High, Rodney Carney was a standout at Northwest High, and Greg Oden and Mike Conley were the unstoppable duo from Lawrence North. All seven made all-conference teams in college; all but McRoberts were first-round NBA draft picks; and Hill (with the Kings), Gordon (Rockets), Conley (Grizzlies), Lee (Knicks), and McRoberts (Mavs) are still in the NBA. To date, Indianapolis has been home to 37 NBA players.

The stereotype of Hoosier excellence is the pasty farm boy in the ratty gym with wooden bleachers. Milan, Ind.—home to the underdog 1954 state champs, memorialized in the movie Hoosiers—is farther outside the city. There's plenty of talent in the countryside: the Zellers—Cody (of the Hornets), Tyler (Nets) and Luke (Suns)—grew up in Washington, a town of 11,500. John Wooden went to high school in Martinsville, 45 minutes south of Indianapolis. Celtics coach Brad Stevens hails from Zionsville, 25 minutes from downtown, and his All-Star forward Gordon Hayward grew up in Brownsburg, just 20 miles northwest on I-74.

But the real center of Hoosier basketball is in the city's gyms that have churned out standouts going back decades—from Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson (above; Crispus Attucks High, class of '56) to ABA star George McGinnis (Washington High, '69), to current T-Wolves All-Star point guard Jeff Teague.

MLB

CURAÇAO

POPULATION: 160,000

WHEN HE WAS a kid, Andrelton Simmons was often told he'd be the next Derek Jeter. The prediction was a little off—Simmons, the Angels' shortstop, is one of the top defenders of all time, and until this season he was a below-average hitter. Still, there were not many natural role models for a Curaçaoan shortstop in the mid-'90s. Leftfielder Hensley Meulens made it to the majors with the Yankees in 1989, and centerfielder Andruw Jones starred for the Braves in the aughts, but for a while it seemed they and a small collection of others might be the only major league talent to emerge from the tiny island 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela.

Not anymore. These days it seems a young athlete's best shot at making the majors is to have been born on Curaçao, a self-governing country of about 160,000 within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. (Or, really, any of the Lesser Antilles: Three players hail from the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts is from Aruba.) Simmons, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies and Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar were born there. Four are middle infielders, an astonishing number, and that doesn't count Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, who was born in Amsterdam but grew up in Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao. One in every 27,000 Curaçaoans is in the majors, the most production per capita of anyplace in the world. Compare that with one in 70,000 Dominicans or one in 340,000 from the U.S. How did this happen?

"I think it's in the water," Meulens says.

The most common explanation is the dry climate. While Dominicans and Puerto Ricans practice on the plentiful grass that grows in their wetter environment, Curaçao lies outside the hurricane belt and offers patches of gravel for baseball fields. Young infielders realize quickly there is no such thing as a good hop on dirt and rocks. Everyone has a story about misplaying a ball and paying for it with a fat lip or a lost tooth. Says Simmons, "I learned to wear a cup, number 1."

Curaçaoans develop quick reflexes and strong early reads—anything to avoid diving for a ball. They practice footwork, whether while taking ground balls or playing the island's other favorite sport, soccer. As a youngster, Simmons considered dropping baseball to focus on soccer, and still plays pickup games with Gregorius and Schoop when they are all home. They say their soccer experience helped improve their agility.

There are other factors. Curaçao's membership in the European Union means its citizenry is largely comfortable financially. There is less pressure for kids to sign with teams when they become eligible, typically at age 16. Most finish high school and speak four languages—English, Spanish, Dutch and the local tongue, Papiamento. "We don't like signing early," says Gregorius, who dismisses the idea that anyone would forgo a diploma. Once they arrive in the U.S., "we can communicate with everyone," he says.

The result is an unusually successful band of major leaguers who were childhood friends. Imagine those youth teams: Jansen, then a catcher, flashing signs to Simmons, who used to pitch too, while Gregorius manned short or second. (That's right: The guy who actually did take over for Derek Jeter with the Yankees didn't play shortstop regularly until he was 16 because his double play partner—Simmons—was so talented.) Albies, seven years younger, and his friends used to watch the big kids practice. Now he plays alongside them. Four of the Curaçaoan-born major leaguers, plus Bogaerts, led the Netherlands to fourth place in the World Baseball Classic last spring. Meulens was the manager. Jones was a bench coach.

The best may be yet to come—all 30 teams have scouts dispatched to the island. They'll all be there later this month for the annual Curaçao Baseball Week, which offers young players clinics and a chance to meet their idols. And that's how Simmons knows things have changed.

"Now," he says, "I hear, 'This guy's gonna be the next you.'"

NASCAR

DAWSONVILLE

POPULATION: 2,500

IT'S ONLY 60 MILES from Dawsonville, Ga., to Atlanta, but the route that Raymond Parks, Roy Hall and Lloyd Seay took to evade the law helped launch a major sport. You could make $1,000 a week running moonshine during Prohibition, and the three cousins from Dawsonville were great at it. The state highway was their main shipping route—and test track. Hall pioneered steering into the skid. The three made evading the law into an art, and from there NASCAR was born.

Of course, it's a bit more complicated than that, but Parks was one of the men who gathered at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach in 1947 to create NASCAR. In 1949, Parks's driver, Red Byron, won the circuit's first title. The lineage of the sport can be traced to Dawsonville, where the population hovers around 2,500. Dawsonville's Gober Sosebee won at the Daytona Beach Road course in 1949 through '51, and Bill Elliott won the '88 championship, Daytona in '85 and '87, and the 2002 Brickyard 400. His son, Chase, the Nationwide champion in 2014 and the '16 Sprint Cup rookie of the year, is a rising star.

Every year at the Mountain Moonshine Festival, you can tour a distillery and get some whiskey. Take it to go, but don't speed, O.K.?

NFL

LONG BEACH

POPULATION: 462,000

THERE HAVE BEEN 24,543 NFL players from 9,407 high schools across the U.S., and no school in the country has produced more of them than Long Beach Polytechnic, a school with an enrollment of just over 4,600. There are five current NFL players from Poly, including Buccaneers wideout DeSean Jackson (right) and Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey. Standouts over the years have included Pro Bowlers Mark Carrier, Willie McGinest and Tony Hill. In all, the school has produced 56 pros. And it's churned out standouts in other sports too: Tony Gwynn, Chase Utley and Billie Jean King also hail from the school that is, historically, the country's most productive football factory.

BY THE NUMBERS

6

MAJOR LEAGUERS from Curaçao, where one in every 27,000 Curaçaoans is in the major leagues—the most production per capita of anyplace in the world.