Truth can be stranger, more inspiring and just plain better than fiction. Last year Disney released a seemingly silly film, The Air up There, about a college assistant basketball coach who discovers a future NBA power forward in a poor African country and brings him to the U.S. to star for his big-time program.
Back up to the original story meeting. What if we make the assistant coach a college professor...no, wait, husband and wife professors, who also conduct clinics for referees? Let's turn that country in Africa into an island in the Caribbean. And why does that college have to be a nondescript basketball power? Let's make it some picturesque school like Colgate.
Now we're rolling. Give the player a really distinctive name. Put him through all kinds of culture shocks, including his first elevator ride. Have these nice, diminutive Jewish profs become his surrogate parents—Mom and Dad, he'll call them—and you can almost see the audience smile. The kid wins games, but he also wins over an entire town. We put him at the center of a continuous struggle, basketball versus education, hoops versus books. He acquires a distinctly American passion for, say, Broadway musicals, yet remains very respectful of his Caribbean roots.
And this is the payoff: While the hero wants to become an NBA player, what he really wants is to be the prime minister of his island nation.
Hollywood would have said, Nah, too unbelievable, too good to be true. But Hamilton, N.Y., knows that this story is both too good and true. That's because Hamilton is where Adonal Foyle played high school basketball and now plays for Colgate University.
"I have to pinch myself sometimes," says Colgate coach Jack Bruen, a sort of anti-Pitino (attention, casting agents: Think Dennis Franz). "I played CYO ball with Lew Alcindor, and I've coached a few players who went on to the NBA, so I think I know the real deal when I see it. Adonal's still learning the game, but he could be the next Bill Russell. By all rights he should be playing for Duke or Michigan or Syracuse, not Colgate. A lot of people thought he was crazy to come here. He wasn't crazy, though. He was just honest and unspoiled and eager to learn. And I'm damn lucky."
Colgate's record may not look especially lucky—3-8 as of Sunday—but that's because Bruen arranged an over-their-heads schedule to prepare the Red Raiders for play in the Patriot League, whose champion gets an automatic NCAA tournament bid. In the meantime Foyle, a 6'10", 260-pound freshman, has been more than holding his own against the likes of Syracuse and Mississippi State and Penn; against Texas Southern on Dec. 3 he had 32 points, 25 rebounds and seven blocked shots in an overtime loss. Bucknell, Lafayette, Lehigh and the other Patriot League teams must shudder to think what he'll do to them.
In many ways besides his height, Foyle is a very big man on the 2,700-strong Colgate campus. "Something like 250 freshmen applied to be his roommate this year," says Josh Lamel, a sophomore sportswriter for The Colgate Maroon News. "One kid even submitted a list of the top-10 reasons he should be rooming with Adonal. About the only celebrity we have who compares to him is the guy who's a J. Crew model." If you know Colgate, you know that a J. Crew model would indeed command some respect on campus.
If you know Colgate, you also know that it enjoys a fine academic reputation. Among its illustrious alumni are Charles Evans Hughes, Andy Rooney, Charles Addams and the inventors of Trivial Pursuit, Ed Werner and John Haney. Among the university's excellent faculty are Jay R. Mandle, the W. Bradford Wiley Distinguished Professor of Economics, and Joan D. Mandle, an associate professor of sociology and the director of women's studies. The Mandles are also the authors of Caribbean Hoops: The Development of West Indian Basketball, and they are the surrogate parents of Adonal Foyle. (It might be a stretch, but they could be played by Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.)
And if you know Colgate, you know that sports there are decidedly medium-time, even though basketball is played at the I-A level, and the I-AA football program occasionally produces an NFL stalwart such as Marv Hubbard, Mark van Eeghen or Mark Murphy. Says Murphy (David Caruso), the former Pro Bowl safety with the Washington Redskins who is now Colgate's athletic director, "Adonal has had a decided impact on our program. For one thing, we're raising basketball ticket prices 100 percent—from $1 and $2 scats to $2 and $4 seats. For another, the basketball team has a contract [with Adidas] not only for shoes but for other things such as hats and bags, which is something we didn't envision a few years ago when we went 1-24. In fact, I'm thinking of sending the Mandles back to the Caribbean to find us a quarterback for the football team."