Junior college can be 'a blessing'

"Whooo!" Antwain Barbour lets out a shout as he stands outside the three-point line and admires his own arcing jump shot all the way into the basket.

It's not the mark of a mature player, but the freshman is having the night of his life, hitting five of six three-pointers on the way to a 21-point game, and he's exuberant. Before the night is over, Barbour will be named Most Valuable Player in the 2001 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) tournament, as his Warriors of Wabash Valley Community College (Mount Carmel, Ill.), take the championship game from the Trojans of Allegany College (Cumberland, Md.), 89-83.

Junior college basketball is an important avenue for young players such as Barbour, a gifted but gangly 6-ft., 4-in. guard who's still filling out and maturing. Every year, some 4,965 players who may not be ready for prime time, Division I college basketball find a home in one of 428 two-year colleges that dot the American landscape - most of them located in out-of-the-way communities such as Mount Carmel, on the Wabash River in east-central Illinois, or Cumberland, in the far-west, Appalachian panhandle of Maryland.

Michael Johnson, a sportswriter from Seattle, has been covering the NJCAA tournament for decades. "The kids who play at this level have been rejected one way or another," he observes. "In some cases, they're not big enough [for big-time schools]. In other cases, they have academic deficiencies. There may be emotional or other kinds of baggage they bring along.

"The people who work at the junior college level are trying to help these kids ..., so they can improve and go on in life."

Johnson mentions Verties Sails Jr., coach of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, Tenn. A large, engaging man who's led Southwest for 22 years, Sails is fervent about the work he's doing. "There are a lot of young people who have changed their lives by going through a two-year school," he says.

As evidence, one need look no further than a 5-ft., 10-in. guard on his team. Marlon Walls was the talk of the 2001 NJCAA tournament, which concluded last weekend, not only for his standout play but because he's a college sophomore who happens to be 29 years old. It seems that as a young adult when he might have been in college, Walls was dealing drugs on the streets of south Memphis. For several years after that, Walls was in prison.

"He'd just got out, after 3-1/2 years in jail," Sails recalls. "That's when I first met him. In spring and summer, after the season, we have players come out to school and play ball. Some are in college, some are even from the pros.

"Well, here's this young guy, and he's out there whippin' everybody. I didn't know who he was, and I know everyone in town. Turns out he'd been in jail." Coach Sails spoke with Walls about coming to Southwest, but before the player could enroll he was back in prison for failing to keep in touch with his parole officer.

Sails began a round of encounters with Walls that would alter the young man's life.

"One day he called me up to complain about the parole officer," Sails says.

" 'She's stupid,' he said. I asked him where the parole officer was that day. He told me, 'She's in her office.'

"I asked him, 'Where are you?'

" 'I'm locked up,' he said.

" 'So, tell me again. Which one of you is stupid?' "

Sails helped Walls get out of prison. "Bottom line was, I stuck my neck out," the coach says, "but he's done pretty well.... Marlon was player-of-the-year in our conference, and he's done well academically. He got his GED in prison, and now he's completed about 48 hours of college credits. There's no doubt in my mind he could play at the Division I level.''

For Walls, who grew up fatherless, the relationship with his coach has been an exercise in tough love. "I never had a male figure ... that I had to listen to," he says. "We had a few bumps and bruises, but my blessing came through him. He gave me a chance. I'll always love him for that."

Hutchinson, Kan., where the NJCAA tournament has been held for 53 years, is an unusual setting in which to listen to a story such as Walls's. Like 85 percent of the players here, Walls is African-American. So is Sails. Hutchinson is a typical Midwestern farm town, rimmed by grain elevators. The tournament is staffed by volunteers from the local American Legion. The crowd is stocked with retirees and farm kids, overwhelmingly white.

As Walls sits in the bleachers, telling his story, two of his teammates sit like sentries, a row below him. When the player begins to nervously twirl a sun visor, one of his friends reaches up and steadies him, quietly taking it from him.

"It's been a blessing, man," Walls sums up, "from where I was two years ago. All these people supporting me. The atmosphere is just totally different."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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