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On the one hand Bakersfield, Calif., has this image of being a one-horse town. Situated at the south end of the San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield (pop. 195,000) is seen throughout the state as a time-forsaken city known for its crude oil, crops and country music (Buck Owens and Merle Haggard got their breaks in the city some call Nashville West). Each week the Fox Network takes a poke at the town with Bakersfield P.D., a rube-laden, half-hour TV show.
On the other hand there is the upscale image of the Cal State-Bakersfield basketball team. Born 22 seasons ago in the university's second year and lodged in Division II, the Roadrunners have established themselves as a powerhouse (four straight Division II Final Four appearances), a catalyst for civic support (residents pay for the team's 12 basketball scholarships through swimathons, bingo nights and twice-yearly barbecues at the fairgrounds) and a magnet for positive press (daily coverage on three local TV news shows, plus occasional live game broadcasts). On Monday nights last season, coach Pat Douglass's weekly TV show even set Nightline back a half hour on the ABC affiliate, but then Douglass and Co. made almost as much news as Koppel. By going 33-0 the Runners finished with the finest mark ever by an NCAA team on any level.
After defeating Troy ( Ala.) State 85-72 in the Division II title game last March in Springfield, Mass., the Roadrunners were greeted on their return home by 2,000 gold-sweatered fans chanting, "Thirty-three and oh," at the Kern County airport. Then they were paraded down Truxtun Avenue and handed the key to the city.
Now the Roadrunners have four starters back and are front-runners to run through everyone again this season. "Last year was crazy; it was like we didn't know how to lose," says junior guard Kenny Warren. (The Runners apparently remembered how in their second game this season; they lost 75-73 in overtime to San Francisco State.)
In reality, town and team both have more to offer than meets the eye. Sure, there are parts of the city that seem no more urbane than when "Cousin Ebb" Pilling and the Ozark Squirrel Shooters were packing them in at the Pumpkin Center Barn Dance in the 1950s. But the populace's pride and easy familiarity help the fund-raising efforts. Some residents even contributed the raw materials and labor to build a house last year, which was then sold for $320,000, with the proceeds going to the athletic program. From the local sand dunes and sagebrush has risen a Division II power: In 23 years Cal State-Bakersfield (enrollment 5,226) has won 21 national titles in men's and women's sports.
True, Bakersfield is a far cry from Los Angeles, which is 110 miles to the south, over the Tejon Pass—or "through the grapevine," in the local parlance. But there is still ample limelight to accommodate the publicity-conscious athlete. Forward Cornelius Banks, one of five new players now eligible after redshirting last season, transferred from UC Irvine, a Division I school, in '92. "Here there is media coverage, fan support, the coach has his own show—that's all I had to hear," says Banks. "At Irvine we had media day, and that was about it."
On the court the team's returning nucleus is as fine-tuned as, well, the Ozark Squirrel Shooters. Warren, a six-foot guard from Portland, Ore., provides the outside firepower; he nailed 11 three-pointers (on only 15 attempts) against Grand Canyon last March to set a Division II tournament record. Reggie Phillips, a Bakersfield native, is a 5'10" guard with awe-inspiring springs; says Banks, "I haven't seen a guy that small jump that high ever." At the point and at center, respectively, are two New Yorkers, 6'3" Tyrone Davis and 6'7" Roheen Oats. They played together at Columbia ( Calif.) College and transferred to Bakersfield last season.
"Basically, we're best friends," Oats says. "We would do anything for each other. We sit up at night and talk about school, about basketball, just wondering how far we can make it." Davis was the one who steered the Runners to the finish line, scoring 27 points in the title game to earn MVP honors.
Cal State-Bakersfield's unprecedented success last season came as a shock to the 43-year-old Douglass. "I took a wait-and-see attitude because we had so many new players," he says. "Then, after it was over, when someone told me no team had ever won that many and been undefeated, I was taken aback."
Watch Douglass in action for a while and it's not surprising that he had no clue about the record. He is so laid-back that one critic of his TV show called him "the Human Test Pattern." He doesn't even use a whistle in practice, but don't take that to mean he doesn't come across loud and clear. Playing his motion offense, the Runners fired 54.2% from the floor in '92-93; their man-to-man defense limited opponents to 41.7% shooting.