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Lost in the Babel of northwest Chicago is a school called North Park College and Theological Seminary, 25 acres of campus crammed with mostly nondescript buildings and crawling with pretty, mostly blond people. North Park was founded in 1891 to further the works of the Evangelical Covenant Church of America, and 86 years later it came up with the best NCAA Division III basketball team in the land. That's not exactly the mission the Swedish founders had in mind, but no one's complaining.
North Park is a quiet school, so quiet that back in 1970, while most colleges agonized over the Vietnam war, North Park's students were distressed by a ban on campus dances. It's also a small school, so small that it's hard to find. What you have to do is go to the corner of Foster and Kedzie and look for the chartreuse streamer over the gymnasium that proclaims: NORTH PARK VIKINGS, 1978 NCAA BASKETBALL CHAMPIONS. The makers of the banner would not have been overly presumptuous had they added 1979 and 1980, because the Vikings are, in a word, loaded. The top three scorers will be back from a team that finished 29-2 and ended the season with a 21-game win streak.
North Park is located within a chest pass of Chicago's Greek and Spanish neighborhoods, the Bohemian National Cemetery, the Korean Missionary Church and a synagogue. So at this Swedish college they think it is only natural that the basketball coach, Dan McCarrell, is of Irish descent, and his assistant, Bosko Djurickovic, is Serbian. And it is not at all odd that the Vikings' three best players are black, because the North Park student body, though predominantly of Scandinavian extraction, is varied.
The school's main attraction for its diverse students is that it is a bucolic enclave in the nation's second-largest city. The school has 1,167 men and women students, all of whom go bananas over basketball. At one of last season's games the usual raucous crowd of 2,000 included 50 of the country's 550 Evangelical Covenant ministers, who were in Chicago for a theological conference. They cheered so lustily that some even seemed to be, ahem, dancing.
During 11 years as North Park coach, McCarrell has usually kept Viking fans hopping. But last season he showed them some entirely new steps. After winning the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, the Vikings beat Rip-on ( Wis.), Minnesota-Morris, Humboldt ( Calif.) State and Albion ( Mich.) to reach the Division III final, in which they overwhelmed Widener of Pennsylvania 69-57. And they did all this with two sophomores and a freshman scoring two-thirds of the points.
The big man is Center Michael Harper, a 6'10" junior and a resident counselor who averaged 18.5 points and 14.3 rebounds. Junior Modzel Greer, a 6'7" forward, scored 16 points and had 7.9 rebounds a game, and sometimes will step in at guard to handle the ball.
It wasn't just happenstance that Greer and Harper turned up at North Park. McCarrell attends a million high school games every winter, and when he first saw Harper, he was a needle-thin 6'5" forward on a mediocre team. Even during Harper's freshman year at North Park, McCarrell wondered if he could play, because he fainted twice during games. No wonder. Harper was in the process of growing about three stories in six months. After McCarrell fed him some Nutrament, Harper earned his nickname, the Chicago Eraser. Greer ended up at North Park because the big-time recruiters failed to notice him as he played low post on a guard-oriented offense.
The final—and perhaps biggest—reason for North Park's success was the arrival last season of Michael Thomas, another of this season's classy sophomores. As point guard, Thomas ran the Viking offense and averaged more than 19 points over the last 10 games. He was McCarrell's big catch; because he was the star of Illinois' powerful Proviso East High, several Division I schools wanted him. "The big places confused me," says Thomas, "and I wanted to go where I could play right away and my family could see me."
McCarrell runs a tight practice—"He keeps our heads small and our bodies tired," Thomas says—but he lets the Vikings loose during games. They play a running offense and press almost constantly. When they fail to score off the break or a steal, the Vikings can either work the ball into Harper or let Greer or Thomas fire from afar.
North Park's biggest stumbling block in trying to repeat as champion may be the very nature of Division III basketball. In the last four years there have been four different titlists. This season, California's Whittier College, with All-America Mike Brown, could knock off North Park and make it five different champs. Humboldt State and Widener are strong once more, and Stony Brook ( N.Y.) and Albion could very well end up in the final four. But, oddly, perhaps the toughest opponent for North Park will again be left out. "I'd love to play Hamilton," says McCarrell.