All four drew pretty easy duty. What each discovered after boot camp was that basketball could cut a two-thirds slice out of a year's worth of peeling potatoes or blowing up cars. It also let them get away with wearing civvies more often and longer hair, and occasionally they could chew out a superior for playing sloppy D.
Marine hoops begin at the base level, where battalion teams wage intramural wars. Good players get to represent their base in games against other bases. Better players make regional teams (mostly in California, North Carolina and Okinawa), which get to go up against civilian outfits. The best 20 players in the Corps are invited to the All-Marine try-outs, which ultimately produce an elite dozen who battle the best of their enlisted brethren from other branches in the Armed Forces tournament each March. Smith and Braxton were All-Marine.
For these leathernecks, pitched battles took place only on court, in the lanes; finesse soldiers need not enlist. "The guys who ref the games are old gunnery sergeants who went through Korea and Nam," Norman says. "So they didn't care about elbows to the head or teeth getting punched out. They liked to see those things."
The story of how the foursome ended up in Huron begins in Coon Rapids, Minn., where, in October 1982, Paulsen became coach at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. He had started out as a part-time assistant at Michigan State, then had coached at Montana Tech, where he was fired for being too hard on his players, and at Alpena ( Mich.) Community College, which dropped athletics one season later. To get to Coon Rapids for an interview at Anoka-Ramsey, Paulsen had to borrow $150 from his mother.
The man Paulsen beat out for the job, Dennis Severson, the stock and grain broker, lived only two blocks from Anoka-Ramsey at that time and offered to help the new coach. He set the Paulsens up in an apartment and volunteered to act as assistant coach and recruiter. Remembering that his father had played basketball in the Army, Severson wondered aloud to Paulsen one day (as Anoka-Ramsey struggled through a 6-13 season) whether there might be some untapped pool of talent available in the military. The next day, Severson called the Pentagon. He got some leads and began phoning military coaches and company commanders. He collected names of players, called them and grilled them. His first conversation with Norman began:
"How tall are you?"
"Can you jam?"
"How do you want it done?"
Eight months later Smith and Norman were at Anoka-Ramsey along with another ex-Marine (who eventually went AWOL from basketball), and the Golden Rams had a 21-2 season.