Every year around NCAA tournament time the interest in college basketball heats up a couple of hundred degrees around the NBA. Break out the ol' letter sweaters and turn up Dickie V a little louder, eh, boys? All those University of North Carolina products (there are currently 11 of them on NBA rosters) can josh about ACC superiority with all those North Carolina State guys (there are eight of them). All those University of Michigan alums (eight) can woof about the Big Ten with all those former University of Illinois players (eight). And all those UCLA products (six) can quibble over who's best in the West with all those UNLV guys (five).
Which leaves one third of the Portland Trail Blazers' roster with very little to talk about.
The Blazers are but the most obvious example of a surprising development in the NBA. To wit: In an era when the major-college basketball programs are getting more and more sophisticated in their recruiting techniques, the NBA is finding more and more of its talent in the boondocks. Quick—name the alma maters of Blazers Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Kevin Duckworth and Lamont Strothers. (They are, respectively, Longwood College, Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Eastern Illinois and Christopher Newport.) Which school has more players on NBA rosters today, the University of Kansas, a storied team from the Big Eight, or Virginia Union, a Division II school that plays in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a conference of historically black colleges? (Well, each has three: Charles Oakley of the New York Knicks, A.J. English of the Washington Bullets and Terry Davis of the Dallas Mavericks all played at VU, while the Jay-hawks boast only Danny Manning of the Los Angeles Clippers, Greg Dreiling of the Indiana Pacers and Mark Randall of the Minnesota Timberwolves.) What town were you in if you caught Golden State's Mario Elie or Houston's John Turner in a home game during their senior years? (Springfield, Mass., for Elie, who went to American International College, and Enid, Okla., for Turner, who transferred to Phillips University, an NAIA powerhouse, from Georgetown.)
While this season's all-rookie team will almost certainly be dominated by players from major-college powers—Georgetown's Dikembe Mutombo, UNLV's Larry Johnson, Michigan State's Steve Smith and Syracuse's Billy Owens—look for the fifth member to be the Bullets' Larry Stewart, a free agent out of Coppin State, a relatively obscure Division I school in Baltimore that plays in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
And then there are the patron saints of these Men from Nowhere—Central Arkansas's Scottie Pippen, Southeastern Oklahoma State's Dennis Rodman and Gonzaga's John Stockton, NBA All-Stars all. Chicago's Pippen is merely one of the league's most sensational players, while Detroit's Rodman and Utah's Stockton are leading the league in rebounds and assists, respectively. Not bad for three guys whose college games were never seen on ESPN. In fact, Pippen and Rodman were never even on local television, and we mean local—in Conway, Ark., and Durant, Okla.
There have always been some Men from Nowhere in the NBA, of course. Heck, Hamline University, a Division III institution in St. Paul that now competes in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Conference, was once a veritable feeder program for the NBA, producing seven NBA players in the '40s and '50s, including the estimable Vern Mikkelsen, one of the NBA's early greats. In fact, Hamlinites Mikkelsen, Howie (Stretch) Schultz and Joe Hutton (son of the Hamline coach of the same name) were teammates on the Minneapolis Lakers' 1952 championship team.
But the college system in those days was wide open and lacking, as Mikkelsen says, "all those I's, II's and III's." Under Hutton, a little-known but wildly successful small-college coach, Hamline's Fighting Pipers routinely played against the best colleges in the country, regardless of size. The surprising thing about today's Men from Nowhere is that they are beating the odds in a system that glorifies only the high-profile, Division I programs.
Moreover, players are being summoned from the boonies to an NBA that since 1989 has drafted only 54 players in two rounds. Granted, it's still rare when a player from an unknown school is drafted as high as Pippen was—No. 5 in 1987—but these days NBA teams are more likely to spend their second pick on the best player from a relatively unknown school than on, say, the second-best player from a name program. In fact, Oral Roberts, an NAIA school in Tulsa, was one of only six schools to have more than one player taken in last year's draft—Greg Sutton, now with the San Antonio Spurs, and Anthony Jones, who failed to stick with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Thus was Turner the 20th player selected in the 1991 draft, ahead of such well-known (and oft-televised) college stars as Eric Murdock of Providence, LeRon Ellis of Syracuse, Rick Fox and Pete Chilcutt of North Carolina and Randall of Kansas. And thus did these sleepers get their shot from the second round of the draft—the Mavericks' Mike Iuzzolino, the 35th pick, out of St. Francis (Pa.), and Strothers, the 43rd pick, out of Christopher Newport, which sounds like the name of a playwright but is in fact a Division III school in Newport News, Va.
There are a multitude of reasons that the Men from Nowhere either matriculated at, or transferred to, the small-time. Some were late bloomers, such as Pippen, who was the manager of his college team as a freshman instead of its star, or Rodman, who grew 11 inches between his senior year of high school and his sophomore year at Southeastern. Some were overlooked, such as Strothers, who firmly believes he could have been as successful at a Division I program as he was at Christopher Newport, where he finished his career as the third-highest scorer in Division III history, with 2,709 points. Others had problems with the coach at a major program, as did Turner, who got into trouble with coach John Thompson because of his friendship with a convicted drug dealer and Hoya hanger-on named Rayful Edmond III. (Turner himself was never involved in any illegality.)