Requiem for the Small College NBA Player

earl monroe
Earl Monroe, like so many of his contemporaries, vaulted from a small college to NBA stardom. Are those days over for good?

In 29 years as NBA commissioner, David Stern has led his league to unprecedented heights by opening its doors to nearly every corner of the world.

He expects its next generation of stars, some of whom are playing on their franchises’ summer teams, to continue fueling growth through diversity and global expansion. A quick scan at the statistical leaders for the NBA Summer League, which wrapped Monday in Las Vegas, seems to indicate everything is on track.

There are foreigners like Candian Kelly Olynyk, Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunus and German Dennis Shroeder. There is an American, Jeremy Tyler, who played abroad after skipping college altogether.  Other Americans, like C.J. McCollum of Lehigh University, starred at the mid-major collegiate level. This fall, McCollum will start his career in Portland beside NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, who played at Weber State University. Mid major, high major, when it comes to predicting future NBA stars, the difference seems increasingly minor.

But the path has not widened for all.

The NBA player who hails from a small college has all but disappeared. In past decades, the NAIA and schools from what is now NCAA Division II and III produced All-Stars like Earl Monroe, Dick Barnett, Jerry Sloan, Walt Frazier, Nate Archibald and Willis Reed. Later, Terry Porter, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen came from these ranks.

But in the 21st century, the well has gone dry. There has not been a player from DII, DIII or NAIA to make a substantial splash in the NBA since Flip Murray, Devean George and Ben Wallace nearly a decade ago. As those players have retired, it appears nobody will step in to carry the small college banner into the next era.

Indeed, small college alumni are having a harder time than ever even making an NBA squad: of the ten such players in Las Vegas, only two off them – Glen Dandridge of the now-defunct Lambuth University and Othyus Jeffers of Robert Morris University – averaged more than 10 minutes a game. Jeffers led the pack with 8.3 points a game for Minnesota but none of these ten players – including John Stockton’s son Michael Stockton – appear to be a favorite to make a final roster.

How did this happen?

An influx of foreign players in the last 30 years is a big reason, says John McCarthy, director of the NAIA’s Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship. Perhaps the most important reason, though, is the NCAA Tournament has become enormously profitable in recent years and more and more small colleges have elbowed into Division I to get a piece of the pie. Many of the historically black colleges which produced Reed, Monroe, Frazier et al have migrated to the lower fringes of Division I – which now swells at about 340 program and more than 5,000 players.

The elevated cachet of Division I, due to boosted financial dividends and exponentially increased media attention, have at the same time downgraded the appeal of the lower divisions and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. More high school and summer league coaches believe the only route to the pros is Division I, and they pass those convictions to their players.

Which means, recruits often choose to play in Division I even when it’s not in their best interests. “I think that there are times where a Division II program may actually be a better fit for a player,” wrote McCarthy, who runs this small college basketball blog. “A good Division II program may be a better fit for a player (academically, class-size, geographically, need for his position, coach, etc.), but a player will often choose the Division I program because of the label.” The player often finds the level play at the top DII schools is higher than than the lower tier DI program he might have left.

As a tribute to the NBA’s small college legacy  – which unfortunately seems to be shrinking – below are the Top 16 small college NBA/ABA players of all time. I’ve limited the list to only players who played at schools that are still DII, DIII or NAIA today. That’s why you won’t see greats like Jerry Sloan, Dick Barnett and Maurice Stokes, Willis Reed and Bob Love, whose programs have since joined DI.

Since I’m ranking players based on performances during college and pro careers, you also won’t find scoring phenomenon Bevo Francis, who averaged more than 48 points a game for Rio Grande College in the 1950s. He chose not to play in the NBA.

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16. Devean George
College: Augsburg (Minneapolis, Minn.)

NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 23rd by Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Playing Career: 1999-2010
All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages (for one season)
Points per game: 7.4
Rebounds per game: 4.0
Assists per game: 1.4
Steals per game: 1.0
Blocks per game: 0.5
43.2 % FG
39.0 % 3PT

George was a dominant scorer in Division III, averaging 27.5 ppg as a senior, but will forever be remembered as a sort-of-vital glue guy bench player during the Lakers’ 2000-02 threepeat. His career apex came in 2003-04, when he started 48 games and played nearly 24 minutes a game.

Continue reading Requiem for the Small College NBA Player

Excerpt: Why Basil Shabazz, Arkansas’ Greatest Athlete, Wasn’t a Razorback

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At last, the elusive legend has found a home.

Photo taken by Arshia Khan; courtesy of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. 

 

Imagine you’re 12 years old.

Like most kids, you crave acceptance. Unlike most kids, the acceptance you want the most isn’t from classmates. It’s from your own parents.

You rarely see your father, but over time that kinda, sorta becomes O.K.  Some of your friends are in the same boat and nobody’s drowned yet. What gets you – what at a certain level will never stop getting you – is your mother’s rejection. Your mom, a gambling addict, up and left you and your siblings in Pine Bluff and headed to her hometown San Diego with the excuse of finding work. Two Greyhound bus tickets and a few nights later, you and your older brother are knocking on her door.

It doesn’t work out. She isn’t any more ready to provide for her children now than she was in Arkansas. Soon enough, you’re on that bus again, heading to a home with no parents.

The pain is there, always will be. You can’t run from it. But soon enough, you find you can run from just about everything else.

***

Shabazz.

Say the word in most states, an image of a genie, magic lamp, or young basketball pro with the last name ‘Muhammad’ springs to mind.

But here in Arkansas, the name conjures visions of our  greatest all-around athlete. The guy who was the very definition of “natural” – who, instead of lifting weights in the off-season, annually lifted the fortunes of his football, then basketball, then track and baseball teams. The guy who to this day remains the only Arkansan to win the National Sports News Services’ USA High School Athlete of the Year award. And, to this day, remains one of the most tantalizing “What-if” stories in Razorback lore.

If you want to better understand how Basil Shabazz rose to the top of the prep athletic world, read Nate Olson’s article in SYNC this week. In it, we learn how Shabazz’s lack of parental guidance might have fueled early success but derailed his chances of sustaining it. For instance, young Shabazz developed a form of “cross training” most children wouldn’t be allowed to even attempt:

He chased and caught rabbits with his bare hands. His strategy was to steer the rabbit to the pavement, where it lost traction, then scoop it up. Shabazz also worked out on the railroad tracks, running from tie to tie without his feet hitting the gravel in between, and running on the rails.

Both of those exercises could have resulted in injury, but Shabazz claims he rarely fell. “When I ran on the rails, I tried to see how fast and far I could go. I made a game out of it and tried to beat my record each time,” Shabazz says.

His other favorite pastime was swimming in the Safeway loading dock. After a heavy rain, water collected in the dock, and Shabazz swam laps.

“I think all of those things helped,” he says. “It helped me get quick feet and gave me lateral quickness and kept me in shape.”

Seriously: what kind of kid spends hours and hours alone on train tracks, tempting fate with every bound? Who runs to a nearby grocery store during thunderstorms, only to jump into its overflowing loading dock?

It’s clear Shabazz was a kid seriously in need of distractions, no matter how ill-conceived or dangerous, and didn’t have parents to steer him elsewhere.

He found a home in sports,  and in the love of the families of his best friends/teammates Torii Hunter and Carlos James. But it cannot be forgotten that our state’s most gifted athlete was playing with a severe handicap – no strong parental guidance to push him in academics, or help him navigate the series of critical decisions he faced as high school graduation drew near.

For the rest of this story, visit Sporting Life Arkansas.

Top 10 NBA Players Ever From Non-Division I Schools: Part 2

Not one – but two – of the players listed here did this to Wilt.

Continuing on our countdown from last week’s Top 10 list of the best NBA (and ABA) players who played for a Division II, III or NAIA school. And, yes, I fully admit it: I cheated by actually cramming in eleven players.

5. Caldwell Jones

College: Albany State (Georgia)

NBA Draft: Round 2/Pick 32 by Philadelphia 76ers

ABA Playing Career: 1973-76

NBA Playing Career: 1976-90

All-Star Appearances: 1 as ABA All-Star

Career High Averages

Points per game: 19.5

Rebounds per game: 10.0

Assists per game: 2.1

Steals per game: 1.1

Blocks per game: 4.0

50.7 % FG

83.7 % FT

One of six brothers from McGehee, Arkansas to play at Albany State, “CJ” left with his family’s highest career rebounding average at 20.3 rpg. Even before his first pro game, the 6-11 post man made quite an impression on his rookie head coach, 37-year-old Wilt Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, then 7-1 and approaching 300 pounds, was “Godzilla in sweat pants and Converse All-Stars,” with  “nostrils flaring, chest heaving, grinning a grin that had some evil in it,” as former San Diego Union sports reporter Joe Hamelin put it.

On the Conquistadors’ first day of drills, Wilt the Stilt lined up his new players to test their manhood. They “stood in a row until summoned, one by one, to dribble down the lane to their doom, to where Chamberlain was waiting like a Mayan god demanding sacrifice,” Hamelin wrote.

With little apparent effort he rejected their pitifully human layups, fly-swatting them to various distant parts of the USD gym. Contempt was etched into his face. Whap! Whap! Wilt was letting them know who was boss.

And then came CaIdwell Jones.

The rest had tried to go around Chamberlain. Jones, 6-11, built like a fence post and full of flight, chose to go over him!

Launching himself into the air like some enormous bony bird, Jones went up over Chamberlain till his waist was even with the big fellow’s unbelieving eyes. Then he brought the ball down with all the youthful exuberance in him, slamming it through the cords so hard it struck Chamberlain solidly on the shoulder and bounded 10 feet in the air. From the look on Wilt’s face, you’d have thought he’d been shot.

Caldwell Jones put up his biggest numbers in the ABA and went on to serve as a defensive anchor for the Dr. J-led 76er conference champion teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Continue reading Top 10 NBA Players Ever From Non-Division I Schools: Part 2

Top 10 NBA Players Ever From Non-Division I Schools: Part 1


manute bol
Fighting Refrigerator Perry signaled Christ-like humility. Yes, the argument has been made.

EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS RANKING HAS BEEN EXPANDED TO SIXTEEN PLAYERS IN A LATER POST.

In June, we saw an eventful NBA Draft that drew from a variety of sources – Canada, Germany, Greece, Brazil, France, the NBDL and, of course, all levels of Division I basketball.

What we didn’t see – and haven’t seen for a while – is a draftee taken from a non-D1 college basketball program. Perhaps, the days of the Division II, Division III and even NAIA superstar who also ends up making a splash in the pros is over. It’s been more than a decade since anybody of note made this kind of jump.

For the sake of commemoration, let’s look back at the Top 10 “really, really small college” players in pro basketball history. Each of these guys didn’t let a non-D1 college basketball background stop them from achieving their dreams.

You’ll find three Arkansans on the list:

10. Devean George

College: Augsburg (Minneapolis, Minn.)

NBA Draft: Round 1/Pick 23rd by Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Playing Career: 1999-2010

All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages

Points per game: 7.4

Rebounds per game: 4.0

Assists per game: 1.4

Steals per game: 1.0

Blocks per game: 0.5

43.2 % FG

39.0 % 3PT

George was a dominant scorer in Division III, averaging 27.5 ppg as a senior, but will forever be remembered as a sort-of-vital glue guy bench player during the Lakers’ 2000-02 threepeat. His career apex came in 2003-04, when he started 48 games and played nearly 24 minutes a game.

9. Flip Murray

College: Shaw University (Raleigh, N.C.)

NBA Draft: Round 2/Pick 42nd by Milwaukee Bucks

NBA Playing Career: 2002-10

All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages

Points per game: 13.5

Rebounds per game: 2.5

Assists per game: 3.5

Steals per game: 1.4

Blocks per game: 0.3

44.8% FG

38.9% 3PT

(boldfaced statistics are from the 28-game stint Murray spent with Cavaliers in 2006)

As a senior, Murray set a Shaw University record of 23 ppg while racking up Division II Player of the Year honors. He made another splash as a Supersonic in 2003-04, when he scored 20 or more points 10 times in the season’s first 11 games (he started in absence of an injured Ray Allen). During the partial season  Murray played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, he averaged nearly 37 minutes a game.

8. Manute Bol

College: University of Bridgeport (Conn.)

NBA Draft: 1st time: Round 5/Pick 97 by San Diego Clippers (in 1983)

2nd time: Round 2/Pick 35 by Washington Bullets (in 1985)

NBA Playing Career: 1985-1995

All-Star Appearances: 0

Career High Averages

Points per game: 3.9

Rebounds per game: 6.0

Assists per game: 0.5

Steals per game: 0.4

Blocks per game: 5.0

60% FG

60% 3PT

The 7’6” Bol averaged  22.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, 7.5 blocks in leading DII Bridgeport to a 22-6 record in his one season there. His rookie season ended up being his best in the pros, and he remains the only player in NBA history with more blocked shots (2,086) than points (1,599).

Bol’s legacy reaches far beyond his record-setting 8’6” wingspan. He spent most of the money he made as a basketball player to alleviate the poverty and war afflicting the people of his native Sudan. He told Sports Illustrated in 2004  “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.”


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Indeed, when Bol’s fortune dried up, he raised quick cash through publicity stunts in which he turned himself into a humorous spectacle – horse jockey, hockey player, celebrity boxer.

As John Shields wrote for the Wall Street Journal after Bol’s death in 2010:

Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.

Shields noted many sportswriters covering Bol’s death from severe kidney problems labeled him a “humanitarian” rather than “Christian.. Shields argues Bol’s Christian faith is fundamental to his identity, and whatever good he did for man was an outcome of first and foremost serving God.

Similarly, the mainstream media has avoided stressing the faith of other famous athletes, Shields wrote. “The remarkable charity and personal character of other NBA players, including David Robinson, A. C. Green and Dwight Howard, are almost never explicitly connected to their own intense Christian faith. They are simply good guys.”

Continue reading Top 10 NBA Players Ever From Non-Division I Schools: Part 1