Small-m men are forged into capital-M Marines not long after they say "I do" to their recruiting officers. The process begins at some bus station a thousand miles from home when a khaki-clad, buzz-cut whipsaw with a blast-furnace voice makes it crystal clear to arriving boots that life as a leatherneck is not, and could never be, like a Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. rerun.
Forget about the Halls of Montezuma. From the Kitchens of Cleveland, from the Concrete of the Bronx, from the Hangouts in Baltimore, from the Bench at Ranger ( Texas) J.C. they have established a foothold far from the Shores of Tripoli. They are a four-square foursome of former Marines who accepted unlikely commissions to play basketball at the decidedly nonmilitary Huron ( S.D.) College. The four led the Tribe to a 28-3 record last season after it had gone 8-19 in '84-85. Recruited by a stock and grain broker from Minnesota who has never seen them play in person, and manhandled in Huron by a coach whose temper and perfectionism would fit your average D.I., they have re-upped to battle such hardy units as Arkansas-Monticello and Charleston (W.Va.) for the NAIA title this season.
Herewith, The Dirty Third-of-A-Dozen, by name, former rank and significant stats:
? Cpl. Dennis Smith: 6'2", 27-year-old senior forward; averaged team-high 20.8 points and 8.5 rebounds last season. In the Marines, Smith was an infantryman, part of the mud-slogging, gun-toting backbone of the Corps. On the court Smith plays an equivalent role, with his Jamaal Wilkes jump shot and a wily way of scoring inside. "Dennis plays more minutes than he should, and that's my fault," says Huron coach Fred Paulsen. "But he's my comfort zone."
Smith is actively laid back, the kind of guy who will go to a party, lean against a wall all night and take home the prettiest woman. He was born and raised in Abilene, Texas, and spent one season at Ranger, where he rode the wood and saw-no future. Unwilling to sponge off his folks, Smith decided to join the military for four years. "My friends told me the Marines weren't as hard as everyone thinks," he says. Then came his first day on the job in San Diego. "All of a sudden this drill instructor with this hat comes screaming at us. Line up, shut up. Get on the bus, shut up. Sit down, shut up. I couldn't believe what I was getting into. I'm saying, 'Oh god, I'm in the service now. I'm bugging out.' But I learned the Corps is just a mind game—you deal with pressure and get past it. Just listen, be quiet and do what they say."
?Lance Cpl. Jeff Norman: 6'4", 24-year-old senior forward; 14.3 points, 8.3' rebounds per game. Norman never played organized basketball in the Bronx. He dropped out of high school at 16 and pumped gas. He suspected he needed discipline though, so when he went into the local recruiting office he requested a 20-year hitch. They suggested a four-year one. Norman wears a gold earring and has a lot of charm, and on the court he plays a creative, city-slick game. But he's temperamental, even volatile. No wonder the Marines assigned him to combat engineering, which deals in demolition and landmine warfare. (The closest Norman came to plying his trade was in Okinawa. There, he says, an officer who couldn't get rid of his car profitably and who didn't want to pay for its transportation back to the States, asked Norman to blow it up.)
Norman was cocky when he arrived at Parris Island. "Then I heard this guy saying, 'You got three seconds to get off the bus and two are gone.' Funny thing was, I started liking boot camp. I thought no one could be tougher than we were."
?Lance Cpl. Herm Braxton: 6'3", 23-year-old sophomore guard; 14.8 points, 5.8 rebounds per game. In 1981, Braxton was a starter at Baltimore's Dunbar High on one of the greatest high school basketball teams ever. Reggie Williams and David Wingate, later of Georgetown's 1984 NCAA championship team, were underclass pups when Braxton graduated. But Braxton wasn't really into hoops. He is a measured speaker and wears glasses that could get him mistaken for jazzman Wynton Marsalis. "For a while I was just content to be on the team," recalls Braxton. "All I wanted to do was party. My grades went down, I stopped working on my game. When the recruiters came around, I knew I blew it. I got some offers, but I felt as though I hadn't produced, so I didn't want to go to college."
Braxton, too, checked in at Parris Island. "The air traffic controllers were on strike, and I had a long bus ride to get there. As soon as I went through those gates all I could think was, 'I don't belong here, why am I here?' Then I just relaxed and went with the flow. I realized they weren't going to yell at me any more than my coach at Dunbar did." Braxton was a supply clerk, driving forklifts, stocking warehouses. He bears a tattoo on his right biceps that reads BORN TO RAISE HELL.
?Cpl. Felton Beckette: 6 feet, 28-year-old sophomore guard and business major; 8.8 points, 8.7 assists per game. Beckette was cut from his high school team in Cleveland as a 5'8" junior. He left school and spent three years working at a Bob Evans restaurant, mostly washing dishes, busing tables and cooking. "At Bob Evans there really ain't no speciality of the house," he says. He also grew, and his playmaking abilities sharpened. With no long-term opportunities at hand, Beckette signed up for the Corps (where he earned his high school diploma, as did Norman). He became a cook, with a specialty this time—turkey loaf for 1,200.