The red GMC Jimmy rolled off the College of Southern Idaho campus and headed toward the heart of Twin Falls, a speck of humanity on the frozen Snake River Plain. It was a cold night in late January, and the distraught rider in the passenger seat needed to call home. Suddenly the bizarre and oft-resuscitated basketball career of Kenny Brunner had come to a crossroads—in the parking lot of a Mr. Gas convenience store. Using a borrowed cell phone, Brunner punched in a number in the 323 area code. As drivers pumped premium unleaded nearby, he waited. "Granny?" he said. "I got some bad news."
Remember Kenny Brunner? Hailed as the next Allen Iverson when he enrolled at Georgetown in the fall of 1997. Fearless shooter, visionary passer. Led the nation in assists for a time two years ago, led the Hoyas in scoring and steals, made UConn's Khalid El-Amin look like a chump one night in Hartford. Then—poof!—he skipped town. Midseason of his freshman year. Too much pressure, he said.
Remember Kenny Brunner? Turned up at Fresno State. Got suspended indefinitely from Jerry Tarkanian's team—no small feat—after he allegedly assaulted a fellow student with a samurai sword in March 1998. Acquitted of all charges. Never played a game for the Bulldogs.
Remember Kenny Brunner? Went home to Compton. Got arrested on a robbery rap and then charged with attempted murder. Spent four months in the L.A. County Jail. Cleared of all charges in September 1998, two days before trial. Ready, once again, to hoop.
Remember Kenny Brunner? Derek Zeck did. "Here was a top 15 kid out of high school," says Zeck, the first-year coach at Southern Idaho, a junior college powerhouse that accepted Brunner last June. "We could give him a chance to clear his name, play basketball at a very high level and graduate to a Division I program." The risk seemed to pay off. Two and a half months into the season Brunner was averaging 17.4 points and 8.3 assists a game. He was staying out of trouble, making sure his teammates weren't late to class, talking about having turned his life around. He cried tears of joy every day, he said. Southern Cal, UNLV and San Diego State had already made recruiting visits.
Now a reporter for a national magazine had come to Twin Falls to write about Brunner and the redemptive powers of junior college basketball. School officials had said all the right things, had spoken glowingly of how Brunner "hasn't let us down" (athletic director Jeff Duggan); "is always in class, very responsible, gets his papers in on time" (assistant professor of English Joel Bate); and "hasn't had any discipline problems" (Zeck).
Then, on that very same day, this: "We've suspended Kenny Brunner from the team indefinitely," Duggan announced at 5 p.m. on Jan. 20. "We're cleaning out his locker right now."
The fireworks had begun the day before, when Zeck had thrown his team out of practice for not working hard enough. Come back at 10 p.m., he said. Only three players returned. After conducting a quick investigation, the coach determined that Brunner had incited the mutiny, persuading the team instead to go see Galaxy Quest.
Ten minutes after learning of his punishment, Brunner was on the phone in the parking lot of the Mr. Gas. On the other end was Mary White, the woman who reared him, the only adult relative whose photograph is on display in Brunner's dorm room.
"Granny, I'm off the team," he said. "The whole team decided not to go to practice yesterday, and the coaches are using me as a scapegoat."