Grand Canyon College ought to win several home games every year on the strength of its name alone. It makes the place sound as if it is teetering on the edge of an abyss, with hungry buzzards circling overhead. But names can be deceiving. Neither a burro nor a prospector's map is needed to get to the school. It is situated on one of the main drags in downtown Phoenix, Ariz., which has not been considered the wilds for quite some time now. The real Grand Canyon is 165 miles to the north of this 1,000-student Baptist institution, which has a high school-like campus that hardly could be confused with a wonder of the natural world.
No doubt sensing that the college needed some impressive achievements to go along with its mighty name, the Grand Canyon basketball team grabbed the NAIA championship last March with a blend of defensive coercion and offensive discipline seldom seen at the annual run-and-gun show in Kansas City. Although even their supporters gave them little chance of winning the 32-team playoffs, Coach Ben Lindsey's Antelopes, helped by an upset of favored Kentucky State in the first round, made their way to the finals against strong Midwestern University of Wichita Falls, Texas.
During the championship game NAIA officials decided by secret ballot to give the tournament's Sportsmanship Award to Grand Canyon. At the time most of the voters thought it would make a suitable consolation prize. But Grand Canyon continued to surprise everyone by winning 65-54 and walking off with both awards, the first time any team had pulled off such a double in the tournament's 38 years.
The leader of this contingent of good guys was 6'10" Center Bayard Forrest, who also won the tournament's Most Valuable Player award. An unusual young man with an imposing name of his own, Forrest turned down an offer of more than $500,000 from the Kansas City Kings this summer in favor of returning to Grand Canyon for his senior year. Not only is he likely to be the best among small-college players this season, but he is one of the last of a vanishing breed, a center from a little school with a big future in pro basketball.
Forrest is a devout Baptist who grew up in Arizona, then moved to Oregon with his family when he was 16. He went to high school in Bandon, a chilly fishing village on the Pacific, and played basketball against a lot of stringbean pivotmen who offered little resistance to his considerable scoring and rebounding skills. Until he went to college, Forrest's toughest competition came in one-on-two matchups against his older brother Truitt and younger brother Jon, and in confrontations with his 6'7", 235-pound father Nelson, who played basketball at Grand Canyon from 1953 to 1955. The family connection is what ultimately led Bayard, as well as his two brothers, to select Grand Canyon. But for Bayard, by far the most talented member of the family, the decision involved extensive praying in an attempt to divine what he should do about scholarship offers from places such as Arizona State and the University of Hawaii.
"Like a lot of kids, I was interested in making it big in college," Forrest says. "I was considering quite a few schools and having a good time doing it, when my uncle called me in Oregon one day and suggested that I think about going to Grand Canyon, where he is the director of publications. I remember saying to him, 'Uncle Paul, I don't mean to laugh at you, but UCLA phoned me last night.' Still, his call did start me thinking about continuing my Christian education in college. Then Coach Lindsey gave me his ask-not-what-your-school-can-do-for-you speech, and I was sold on the idea of putting Grand Canyon on the map in basketball."
Still ultraconservative in many areas of life, as deeply religious youngsters tend to be, Forrest admits he is becoming more broad-minded as he grows older. In accordance with his religious beliefs, he does not smoke or drink but he says exactly what is on his mind, drives a dune buggy and is growing a mustache. Still, the prospect of a lucrative pro basketball contract overwhelms Bayard's wife Peggy, who says, "We're too common to be rich."
If Forrest had been a star at an NAIA school like Grand Canyon or at an NCAA small college like Evansville during the mid-1960s, his career statistics of 18 points and 13 rebounds per game probably would not have attracted as much attention among pro scouts as they do today. Back then a steady stream of high-scoring, tough-rebounding small-college athletes, including Earl Monroe of Winston-Salem, Jerry Sloan of Evansville and Willis Reed of Grambling, came into the NBA every year.
With the advent of the 2.0 rule, increased emphasis on winning in basketball at big-time football schools and nationwide racial integration, major-college recruiters now see to it that virtually all players of Forrest's caliber end up in the NCAA's Division I. As a consequence, the old pattern of four or five small-college players making it in the NBA every year does not hold anymore. There are scarcely a dozen regulars in the league now from small colleges, and few of them fall into the category of young players. The trend is especially pronounced among big men. Last year Elmore Smith ( Kentucky State '71) was the only ex-small-college center who started over the entire season for an NBA team.
Many Division I coaches argue that they cannot corner the market on tall men because the NCAA has limited their number of scholarship holders to 15. But Arizona State's Ned Wulk, who nearly enticed Forrest to come to school across town in Tempe, admits, "The big guy who can play is never going to be the player who'll miss out on a scholarship when we have to reduce the size of our squads."