A Basketball Story
One great team, a blowout, and the JuCo experience.
by Nick Rotunno
Small-college basketball never receives a lot of media coverage, and junior college hoops gets almost none at all. Sometimes a Division I program will snag a legit JuCo guy, a player who’s developed in the minor leagues and can make an immediate impact, and that will make headlines or maybe even scroll across the ESPN ticker – but mostly those tiny two-year schools stay on the frontiers of the college basketball map.
Yet the JuCo level is still high-quality basketball, and even though it is basketball played with little fanfare, usually in front of very few fans, the games are often first-rate and laden with competitive drama. So, they’re worth seeing every now and again.
The other day I drove 30-odd miles down Interstate 90 to watch the fifth-ranked junior college team in the country play ball. North Idaho College (NIC) is a nice little school in Coeur d’ Alene, ID, with a neat balcony-lined gym, a strong fan base and a top-notch program. The NIC Cardinals are perennially ranked among the best teams in the National Junior College Athletic Association, luring solid ballplayers from across the Northwest and beyond.
On that particular Wednesday night, NIC squared off against Salish-Kootenai College (SKC), a Native American school located in Pablo, MT. The SKC campus is smack in the middle of the Flathead Indian Reservation, a lovely stretch of rolling big-sky country not far from Glacier National Park. Of course, western Montana, despite its beauty, is not exactly a basketball hotbed, and SKC suffers from severe recruiting limitations. Not surprisingly, the Bison aren’t ranked very high –- and they most likely never will be.
I arrived at the gym early and watched most of the pre-game shenanigans. Right off the bat I could tell things would go badly for SKC. The first clue was the quasi-dunk contest the Cardinals performed during warm-ups; every NIC player could throw it down, even their shortest guard. Over on the Bison end of the floor things were a bit more pedestrian. SKC wowed the crowd with a dazzling display of… basic layups. Very fundamental, but not exactly inspiring.
OK, I thought, maybe these SKC kids can shoot the lights out. I figured that would be their only chance against the Cardinals –- a barrage of accurate three-balls. Alas, the Bison were misfiring from beyond the arc, and they weren’t even being guarded yet. NIC, on the other hand, had some sharp long-range bombers who could splash from anywhere on the floor. Man for man, NIC outclassed SKC at every position. The Cardinal guards were quicker, better shooters, and the forwards were full-bodied men who could jump out of the gym.
This was clearly going to be a bloodbath, but basketball being the wonderful game that it is, where anything can and does happen, I held on to a few drops of misguided hope. Maybe, I thought, the Bison play defense like wolverines, and maybe – like those vicious wolverines that occasionally fight grizzly bears – they could scratch and claw NIC into submission.
Foolish thoughts. The Cardinals easily won the opening tip (their center is huge; it wasn’t exactly sporting), raced downcourt, missed an easy two, snagged an offensive rebound and dropped in the first bucket of the night. A couple steals, fast-breaks and jump shots later, NIC was up 10-0 and firmly in the driver’s seat. For the Salish-Kootenai College Bison, it was time to settle in for a long, long game.
NIC put on a clinic. The Cardinals boast several players with Division I talent, including two –- Renado Parker, from Seattle, and Lakeland, Florida native Idell Bell –- who will be playing for the University of Idaho next winter. Parker is a beefy 6-6 forward with a nice scoring touch; he’d finish with 16 points on the night.
Another big frontcourt presence for the Cardinals was center Guy-Marc Michel, hailing from Sainte Marie, Martinique. Standing at a lighthouse-like 7-1, Michel is lean and rangy, with a mile-long stride and a wingspan like a bald eagle. He can put the ball on the floor and hop-step to the rack all in one smooth maneuver; oddly graceful for someone so large. Rumor has it Gonzaga University (just half an hour west of Coeur d’ Alene, in Spokane) is holding Michel at NIC until he’s ready for a transfer to the big leagues. To my untrained eye, he has all the physical tools to be a big-time Division I center, though he seems a little raw on the offensive end. But what team couldn’t use an athletic seven-footer?
The best player on the floor, though, was also the shortest: NIC point guard Michael Hale III, another Seattle boy, who’s listed at a generous 5-9. Dreadlocked and sneaky, he’s one of the quickest players I’ve ever seen live, and he was getting to the rim at will. Granted, SKC had absolutely no one who could stay in front of Hale, so who knows how well he can play against legit competition -– but still, he was a blur out there. I remember one play when he dribbled upcourt along the left sideline, faked left and changed direction with a satin crossover (almost Iverson-like), then charged to the rim for an easy layup. Very pretty.
Hale was also unselfish, the ideal PG, running a quicksilver fast break and finding open teammates. He racked up 19 points, six assists and four steals against SKC –- though he probably could’ve dropped 40.
The Bison played hard despite the caliber of their opponents. They had some kids who could hold their own out there, kids with elegant Native names like Pius Takes Horse, Terrance Lafromboise, Joe Yellow Horn and Stephen Old Elk. SKC’s best player was Sonny Eppinette, who’s listed as a 6-6 center but plays more like a nimble power forward. He has a rugged game, a grinder’s game, with a decent jumper and pretty good footwork. Eppinette was one of the only Bison to score in double digits; everyone else was clanking shots with abandon.
For all intents and purposes, the contest was over in the first 10 minutes. By halftime SKC was down 30, and North Idaho College coasted through the second 20 minutes playing mostly reserves. The final score was Cardinals 120, Bison 46.
I stayed until the last buzzer, enjoying the first college basketball game I’d seen in a long while. The NIC fans were expecting an easy win, so of course the atmosphere suffered, but a little gym like that is a fun place to watch a game -– you’re right along the sidelines, like high school, and the Cardinals were very good and they were jack-hammering dunks over those poor little kids from SKC. Good times.
You can learn a lot about human character whenever you’re watching sports, but nothing is quite so poignant as the somber death throes of a team getting blown out of the gym.
A compelling thing happens when players realize they have zero chance to win. There’s a fleeting moment of anger –- somebody invariably throws a towel or water bottle, slaps the ball against the floor or screams an obscenity. Then comes sad acceptance, and that acceptance is sad for the crowd too, because you can actually see a team giving up its will to fight. The bench falls quiet, eyes drop, the coach is no longer standing and screaming. The squad has officially capitulated, and from that point on the rest of the game is a foregone conclusion. It’s over, and everyone knows it.
And yet, sometimes, a team refuses to accept its own inevitable defeat. I think that has something to do with being young and determined to control your own destiny, no matter how long the odds or how lopsided the contest. Perhaps I’ve been on the Custer side of a massacre too many times, but I generally realize I’m going to lose well before the clock hits zero. I’m getting older and more bitter, though.
When basketball players are very young, like the Bison –- who are all freshmen and sophomores -– they tend to believe there is always a chance to win, because they are naïve and passionate and they know in their hearts that basketball is beautifully unpredictable. When a team is young, it has this wonderful faith in its own invincibility, even when that invincibility has never been tested – and, while preparing for a big game against a far better opponent, the players find solace in the romanticized notion that scrappy defense, prayerful three-pointers and well-run plays might somehow be enough to conjure victory from certain defeat.
Without these youthful delusions, a 15 could never beat a 2, and Cinderella wouldn’t even make it to the ball. Without belief, David cannot slay Goliath. So, understandably, sometimes young men simply won’t quit –- even when they’re 50 points down and most of the crowd has already left the building. They hold onto scraps of faith, shavings of belief. And that, in itself, is damn-near heroic, and adds a measure of allure to the sport we all love.
For SKC –- to its credit -– acceptance took quite a while, even while the Cardinals were quickly turning the game into a blowout. The Bison kept playing hard, double or triple-teaming NIC’s big forwards, moving their feet on defense against the shiftier, savvier Cardinal guards. They kept shooting –- tough three’s with a hand in their face, running layups that glanced harmlessly off the rim. As the game wore on the frustration mounted, the acceptance complete and the intensity mostly gone. But they tried, and that’s what counts.
Forgive me if this sounds like a thoughtless generalization, but from what I’ve seen and read, a lot of Native American teams play with a chip on their shoulders. There’s a lot of pride -– pride in the team, in the reservation, in the colorful traditions and brave histories of the tribes. The Bison played nobly, their large group of fans cheering them on from the bleachers, even as the team was beaten into the ground.
That pride was particularly evident at halftime, when a troupe of Native dancers honored the memory of a former SKC player, Tim Wolfe, who was murdered in Coeur d’ Alene last spring, shot during an altercation at a neighborhood bar. By all accounts Wolfe was a fantastic athlete, a dynamic point guard who always thought of his teammates first. He had a girlfriend and a toddler-aged daughter; he was earning an education so he could support his family.
Wolfe was 21 years old when he died.
The ceremony was very cool to watch. Dancers spun across the floor wearing feathered headdresses, beaded moccasins and ornate, handmade jewelry, whirling in a kaleidoscope of color and motion. A tribal drum cadence kept the beat, throbbing loudly in the small gymnasium. It was a vibrant tribute, an honor to Wolfe and his heartbroken family.
Watching those dancers and listening to those drumbeats, I was a distant observer, a small part of something important and powerful. Remembering the scene later, I thought of the Bison and their fallen teammate, the courage it took to stand on that hardwood. By halftime SKC was thoroughly beaten, down by dozens, but a blowout matters little in the lives of young men who are still living, who can still play the game they love. Wolfe was handsome and strong, he was a good man and a great basketball player, and it was far too early for his story to end in sorrow.
Basketball is consuming, and beautiful, and it is often a metaphor for the lives we lead. It’s important, though, to keep in mind that a game is just a game, and the apparent tragedy of a tough loss is never truly tragic, especially when we remember young men like Tim Wolfe.
Sorry, now my thoughts are just rambling. But it’s amazing how much thinking you can do in the bleachers of a tiny gym, and it’s equally amazing how interesting a junior college basketball game can be.