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In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, there is a notorious walled compound, a red-light district of unpaved streets and neon strip joints—dubbed "Boys' Town" by Anglos who cross the Rio Grande looking for cheap thrills. A barker stands in the doorway of one of those joints, hustling passersby with a frantic "Caballeros, come this way...it's Show Time!"
In Laredo, Texas, just across the International Bridge, there is a former army fort turned into a junior college, where a school official sits at a microphone in a packed gymnasium—in total darkness—and announces seductively, "Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros...it's Show Time!"
And what a show it is. The basketball team in the remote border town has improved from a 6-22 record two years ago to a 20-1 mark at the end of last week and the No. 1 ranking in the nation. Among the star performers north of the International Bridge are slam-dunking youngsters from the playgrounds of Kansas City, New York and Washington, D.C. They've become heroes to the folks in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley.
"Our first game last year, there might have been 100 people in the stands," says 30-year-old Gary Moss, recalling his debut as Laredo's head coach. Most students seemed to prefer study hall to Palomino basketball, and the matchup of Lackland Air Force Base of San Antonio, coming in with a 12-0 record and a 110-points-per-game average, excited interest only among masochists. Surveying the empty stands, Moss told a reporter that his goal was "to pack this place to the point that they'll be turning people away at the door." Few took him seriously—at Laredo, people turned away before they ever got near the door.
Surprise. Sparked by transfer guards Harold Howard and Tony Malveaux, who had followed Moss over from Southwest Texas State, where he was an assistant, the Palominos outran and out-shot the airmen for a 91-84 win and went on to a 23-7 season. "Four games later we had to move in folding chairs," Moss says. "After that, we had standing room only with fire marshals to control the crowd." So dramatic was the turnaround that Moss had a bulky safe hauled into his office to stash the gate receipts. "If we had a bigger place," he drawls, "we'd have to have a vault."
The good-natured Moss has convinced Laredoans that they can have a winning image to go with their long and colorful history. "It's a delightful change," one LJC administrator says. "For a long time the only thing we led the country in was rabies and unemployment."
No longer. Billboards all over Laredo promote Palomino basketball with the slogan, THE HORSES ARE COMING...HERD OF US? One television station runs a weekly Gary Moss Show, another tapes LJC's home games for later telecast. Two daily newspapers give the team heavy coverage. "It's definitely Show Time," Moss says. "We've got everything the major colleges get and more."
When the newly formed Palomino Club, a booster group, decided to celebrate last year's miracle season, proud businessmen donated two sides of beef and untold kegs of beer for an all-day barbecue that attracted 600 fans who feasted on two-inch steaks and danced to a country music band. "The Mexican-American people are very proud," Moss says. "If they have a winner, they're going to back it to the hilt."
Laredoans agree that this city of 91,000 people—about 90% with Hispanic surnames—needs a dose of optimism. In one year, unemployment has skied from 9.2% to 25%. Retail sales have fallen an estimated 40%. According to Moss, "The only thing that hasn't devalued is LJC basketball. We've given people something to turn to."
Moss organized the Palomino Club to raise funds for recruiting. Then, instead of beating the bushes locally—the bushes being the huisache and mesquite which dot the otherwise empty flatlands north of the Rio Grande Valley—Moss recruited in the inner cities of the Northeast and Midwest. At Kansas City's Central High he found a high-jumping 6'8" pivotman. Glen Jamison, and a versatile role player in 6'7" Marc Davis. In Kent, Ohio, he came up with John (Ice) Sales, a George Gervin lookalike. In Washington, D.C. he went after a quick and muscular point guard from Roosevelt High, Linwood Davis—("He'd be playing at Georgetown if he had the grades," Moss says)—and came back with both Linwood and his brother Earl, a frantic hustler who leads the team in floor burns. Another Washington player, Kenny Harvey, a junior-college honorable-mention All-America last year at Southeast Community College in Fairbury, Neb., threw in with the others, and so Laredo had all the horses it needed.