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The Juco Express
Alexander Wolff
November 18, 1987
Junior college players are on the fast track to the big time, with St. John's Michael Porter (4) and Boo Harvey leading the way
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November 18, 1987

The Juco Express

Junior college players are on the fast track to the big time, with St. John's Michael Porter (4) and Boo Harvey leading the way

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Perhaps you have heard the stories from Jucoland. You know the place—that world limned in parentheses where one set of brackets accommodates a player's funky nickname and another pinpoints his school's remote whereabouts: Charles (Big Time) Jones of McLennan ( Texas) junior college. A juco man is naked without a nickname and his school is lost without the parenthetical help—Jacksonville, Dixie and Cleveland State junior colleges are located in ( Texas), ( Utah) and ( Tenn.), respectively. Jucoland is basketball between the cracks.

It's where John (Slammer Jammer) Luster of Amarillo ( Texas) junior college is recruited out of prison by a coach who signs his parole papers; where Sean (Cadillac) Alvarado of Hutchinson ( Kans.) C.C. breaks his hand by slipping and falling on his freshly peeled-off warmup. Jucoland is where Don (Dancer) Gandy verbally commits to Amarillo ( Texas) J.C. only to have an assistant coach from Barton County ( Kans.) Community College show up at his home and spirit him away to the Barton campus, which is fine by the kid, though when his mama finds out at Thanksgiving, she raises one big stink.

Even if you haven't heard the stories, Bob Knight has. Time was when Knight would sooner appear at the Feinstein family picnic than scour the junior college badlands for a quick fix. But times change, and last spring a junior college player ( Keith Smart) sank a junior college shot (a cinder-block-and-tumble-weed number from the baseline with the clock ticking down) to give Knight and Indiana a national title. Says Ronnie Arrow, who coached for 10 years at San Jacinto ( Texas) J.C., " Bob Knight may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night."

Poke around Jucoland these days and you'll find that just about every other clipboard-toting hombre in major college basketball has joined Knight. Most have concluded that a juco transfer may not be a future rocket scientist, or even a Rotarian-to-be, but neither is he someone today's coach can afford to do without. Even North Carolina's pious Dean Smith confesses to leaving the door open to recruiting junior college players. Says Wyoming coach Benny Dees, "Anytime Bob Knight does something, it becomes a trend. Keith Smart hits that shot, and it's like a damn gold rush."

Among the more industrious prospectors is the University of Oklahoma, which took in a player at each position this season, including guard Daron (Mookie) Blaylock of Midland (Texas) J.C. Not to be outdone, Seton Hall signed Leland (Pookie) Wigington from Ventura ( Calif.) Junior College. St. John's, once again demonstrating that juco recruiting is more than a west-of-the- Appalachians phenomenon, bagged San Jacinto's starting back-court of Greg (Boo) Harvey and Michael (Freak) Porter. Arizona State plucked Joey (Dennis Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother) Johnson and his 50-inch vertical leap from the College of Southern Idaho while the University of Houston nabbed Richard Hollis, who spent part of last season at New Mexico J.C. with his forehead swaddled in Band-Aids, the result of banging into the rim. Says Montana assistant Bob Niehl, "Hollis can jump as high as you ask him to."

No wonder folks who had never before ventured into Jucoland can be found foraging about in Kansas and Texas—traditionally the two strongest juco states—and diving into the talent pools of California and Florida. The Colonial Athletic Association is rapidly filling up with first-year juniors and second-year seniors after one of its members, James Madison, went from five wins to 20 last season, relying heavily on juco talent. "I'm at Dixie J.C. recruiting Clint Rossum, and Northwestern is there," says Mark Warkentien, who got his man for UNLV. "When UNLV is going against Northwestern on a J.C. kid, I'd say that's a change."

Even Ivy-covered Cornell signed a juco transfer, though it should be noted that 6'4" guard Patrick Homer—Hollis's teammate at N.M.J.C.—arrived in Ithaca with a 3.9 GPA and a strong interest in microbiology. It seems the only colleges not booking trips to burgs like Tullahoma, Tenn., and Ina, Ill., are the handful—North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse—that simply don't need the jucos. Says Warkentien: "After Kentucky and Carolina hold their 'drafts,' six of the nation's top nine [high-school seniors] are gone. Then Illinois and DePaul carve up Chicago, the SEC takes everybody in the South—except for the Mississippi kids, who go to Louisville—and the elite high school players are basically spoken for. Guys who can't recruit them and won't recruit the junior colleges are selling insurance now."

For many coaches, Rick Ball is insurance against having to sell the stuff. Ball, 37, scouts and rates junior college players, and refers to the world they inhabit as Jucoland, as if it were some sort of theme park. Ballplayers, his scouting-service newsletter, is underwritten by 125 colleges and counting. Nine seasons ago only the Canisiuses and Arkansas States made up his charter subscribers; in the past year he has signed up such schools as Villanova, Wyoming, Minnesota and Southern Cal.

Over one weekend every fall, Ball stages two daylong scrimmages at which coaches can ogle scads of juco players. In October his Juco Jamborees drew more than 250 coaches, who checked out 26 juco teams within 30 hours. Even Ball is astonished: "Five years ago these schools couldn't even spell J.C. This juco thing is getting out of hand."

The coaches were from Oklahoma and Ohio State, from Purdue and Providence. They came looking for:

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