In the Tumbleweed-Strewn precincts in which junior college basketball flourishes, there are two very different schools of thought regarding Connors State College and its men's basketball team. These two theories are so far apart that the Cowboys' 7'1" center, David Dean, could recline quite comfortably between them.
One holds that Connors, which occupies most of Warner, Okla. (pop. 1,479), is an institution with a surpassingly dedicated faculty. It has educated students faster than most other two-year schools, and it will watch proudly this season as one of its graduates, Arturo Llopis, a 6'10" center from Spain, suits up for Harvard.
The other take pegs Connors as a diploma mill, a place that has hurried players through its classrooms to please the four-year colleges that send athletically gifted but academically deficient young men to Warner. "You get six credits," the line goes, "by driving through town."
Driving through town doesn't take long, inasmuch as Warner doesn't have any traffic lights. Nor does it take long for the action to start in a typical Connors game, because the signal for the Cowboy offense is stuck on green. No school has quite dominated the jucos the way Connors did during the 1989-90 season, when the Cowboys averaged nearly a 19-point margin of victory during their tournament march to the national title.
But with its dominance, Connors State invited close scrutiny. In particular, rivals wondered how one former Cowboy player, Marshall Wilson, a 6'8" forward who had tried repeatedly and unavailingly to meet his NCAA-mandated standardized-test requirements while in high school, picked up 60 credit hours in only 15 months at Connors and enrolled at Georgia. Curiosity was such that the National Junior College Athletic Association ( NJCAA) launched an investigation into Wilson's case, but it turned up nothing improper.
In fact, Wilson later proved to be an able scholar, earning a B average at Georgia. After he left Connors, such talents as Elmore Spencer (now at UNLV) and Angelo Hamilton ( Oklahoma) may have enhanced the school's academic reputation by progressing slowly through classes. The Southeastern Conference, reacting to the Wilson affair, initiated a proposal to the NCAA, which now requires juco transfers to have four quarters (or three semesters, excluding summers) under their belts before being eligible to transfer to an NCAA-member school.
Dean is a shot blocker from the most blighted section of Miami. He earned only 22 credits at Connors last year and will be lucky to graduate on time. There's pathos in his story, and in those of others who have attended the school: In July 1989, Spencer, desperate to see an ailing relative back in Atlanta but unable to travel the 17 miles to Muskogee, Okla., where he could catch a bus home, stole some beer from a convenience store in Warner so he would be sent to the county seat, Muskogee, at the state's expense. Last season Hamilton was charged with pawning stolen goods pilfered by another student from dormitories over a school break. (The charges were later dropped.)
With the odd exception, histories like these are characteristic of athletes who wend their way to last-chance saloons such as Connors State. Yet the school is taking steps to eliminate the perception that it's named for Jimmy Connors or Chuck Connors, and that its players cut a gun-for-hire profile. Gone is Ed Stepp, who coached the team to its title but presided over many of the lapses in discipline. Tony Andre, the 33-year-old minister's son who has taken Stepp's place, enforces mandatory study halls and has already kicked one player off the team for disciplinary reasons. "He put me to the test," says Andre. "I passed. He didn't."
In fact, Connors is named for J.P. Connors, Oklahoma's first secretary of agriculture, and the school is just as proud of its livestock-judging team as it is of the former basketball champions. Now, Connors is trying to make sure that the produce it sends to Division I doesn't include any bad apples. "If we can't have good kids with good moral character," says Connors president Carl Westbrook, "we're looking for kids with the good sense to keep it under control."