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Jack McCallum
March 09, 1992
There are many schools of thought on why so many small-school players are making it in the NBA these days
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March 09, 1992

From Sleepers To Keepers

There are many schools of thought on why so many small-school players are making it in the NBA these days

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No, the compelling question is not how these players got to such remote basketball outposts, but why they succeeded in getting to the NBA once they had.

"Oh, boy," says Stockton of his years at Gonzaga, "where do I begin? Playing time, first and foremost. It all starts with that."

Indeed, that is the unifying element of these Men from Nowhere. Rodman might have been a nonplaying curiosity piece at, say, the University of Oklahoma, Stockton merely a late-game press-breaker at the University of Washington. Instead, they became the main men, and from that big-fish-in-a-small-pond status came confidence. Over four seasons a combined total of 18,962 fans watched Strothers play at Newport's Ratcliffe Gym, a number that doesn't even constitute a one-game sellout at the Dean Dome. But, ultimately, so what? "So many players go big-time and get lost in the shuffle," says Porter. "I think that could've happened to me in a big program. But, instead, I was able to stand out in the NAIA more than I ever would have in Division I. I was the go-to guy all the time."

A number of other players also mentioned the close-knit atmosphere that is likely to prevail at a smaller school. That's not to say many major-college athletes haven't felt similarly warm and fuzzy feelings, even at Indiana, where the Dad-as-dictator system is in place. But many players are simply overwhelmed at big schools—witness Larry Bird, who transferred to Indiana State after finding that the sheer size of Knight U was simply too intimidating.

"The school was good to me and cared about me," said Duckworth of his Eastern Illinois experience. "When you go to a small-school program, they give you time to develop and don't expect as much from you. That was very important to me, that family atmosphere. By the time I was a senior, I could talk to the coach [Rick Samuels] about my personal problems. That's why I would do it all over again."

Strothers felt that family atmosphere too...all the way to his bones. To prepare him for the tough competition at the Portsmouth Invitational—one of the postseason tournaments held for NBA scouts, where a Man from Nowhere's future is often made or broken—Christopher Newport assistant coach Roland Ross gathered together several of the meanest players he could find and ordered them to abuse Strothers physically during practice. Strothers then went to Portsmouth and caught the eyes of NBA scouts with 48 points in two games. Sure, Dean Smith cares about his players and wants them to succeed in the pros, but when a player from an obscure school has a chance to make the pros, it's really something special to that campus and that coach. Porter, in fact, still returns to Wisconsin each summer to work out under the tutelage of his college coach, Dick Bennett, who has since moved from Stevens Point to Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Another important reason for the success of the Men from Nowhere is that a lower-level program can sometimes offer a system more compatible with their talents. The vast majority of high school stars dream of being a cog in Knight's motion offense or a ball-hawking warrior in Thompson's relentless trapping defense, and that is fine for some. But many players would be better served by thinking beyond college. Iuzzolino, for example, stewed for two years under a conservative, walk-it-up style at Penn State before transferring to St. Francis in Loretto, Pa., the second-smallest Division I school in the country. You might say it made a difference—Iuzzolino's Penn State scoring averages of 2.4 and 3.2 turned into 21.3 and 24.1 points per game at St. Francis. "I didn't feel at Penn State that I was becoming the type of player I had worked so hard to be," says Iuzzolino. "At St. Francis we played up-tempo, run and gun. That's what I'm best in, and it really helped show my talents. There's absolutely no doubt that it helped me develop my game more than I could have at a larger school."

That should not imply that all small schools play helter-skelter basketball or that all pro prospects need to play in a college program in which they are the sun and their teammates the planets. Dozens and dozens of excellent—but relatively anonymous—Division III and NAIA coaches have principles that are every bit as inviolate as Knight's. "Hey, I played in a 'my-way-or-the-highway system' like most college players," says Stockton of his Gonzaga tenure under Dan Fitzgerald, who is still the boss man in Spokane. But a player should find a system in which he fits, not necessarily one that shows up on ESPN every week.

More than a few eyebrows were raised when Billy McCaffrey, a solid contributor during his first two years at Duke, transferred to Vanderbilt (not a Nowhere but not as Somewhere as Duke, either) after the NCAA championship season of 1991, partly because he could not supplant Bobby Hurley as the Blue Devils' point guard. McCaffrey feels that if he has a future in the NBA, it will be as a point guard, where his height (6'4") might distinguish him, so he traded media exposure and a shot at another ring for the opportunity to broaden his game. (He'll be eligible to play again in the 1992-93 season.) The fact that Duke didn't work out for McCaffrey isn't anyone's fault—perhaps he should have just thought smaller from the start.

"The thing is," says Dave Robbins, who coached Oakley, English and Davis at Virginia Union, "if you're a great player, the pros are going to find you." Absolutely correct. While dozens of legitimate high school talents escape the eye of college recruiters, there are precious few who are not known by the pro scouts once those athletes finish two or three years of college competition at any level. It's understandable. A physical and mental portrait of an athlete is much more complete at the age of 20 than at 17, and 1,000 potential college All-Americas can easily be whittled down to, say, 100 potential NBA prospects.

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