Sunday, January 27, 2008

Junior College Showdown

On Friday night at the Sundance Film Festival I watched a documentary about the South Los Angeles gang scene, Made in America. The movie chronicled the history of gang violence in South Los Angeles by interviewing veteran gang members and older ex gang members. Over the past 35 years fifteen thousand people have been killed in South Los Angeles due to gang violence - needless battles between the Crips and the Bloods.

At Portland State University I met Dedrique Taylor, then an assistant basketball coach at PSU, Taylor had previously coached and played in the L.A. Junior Colleges - since then he has held assistant coaching positions at the University of Nevada which has reached the NCAA tournament each of the past three seasons and now at Arizona State University which finds itself in the Top 25 for the first time in over a decade. The reason all three of Taylor's schools have been successful is largely because of Taylor's connections. Taylor has stayed connected to his roots in the Los Angeles junior colleges and basketball provides an escape from the gang violence for those kids talented enough to play it at the division I level. Without exception these players are not eligible out of high school. They first play a season or two at the junior college level. Often they start out at a division I school can't stay eligible and wind up at a junior college.

On Saturday afternoon two of these junior colleges hook up in a showdown between the #2 and #3 ranked teams in the country. Each is undefeated. Salt Lake Community College enters this game 18-0 and 3-0 in the Scenic West Conference ranked #3 in the country. The College of Southern Idaho is also 18-0 and also 3-0 in the Scenic West Conference they are ranked #2 in the country. CSI's top player is 6'7" point guard Kevin Galloway who has already spent time at the University of Southern California and then at Fresno State. Former CSI head coach and current USC assistant coach Gib Arnold landed him at USC. However, Galloway wasn't able to stay eligible at either school and now leads the Eagles chase for a national championship. CSI has been so dominant this year that they really haven't had a real game. Scores are 160-68, 131-58, 101-78, 104-52, and 146-96. CSI has ten or eleven players who are interchangeable, all tall and athletic.

With a couple of exceptions every CSI player has already spent time at a Division I school or prep academy where they were placed by a division I school: Indiana, Washington, Oral Roberts, BGS Academy, God's Academy. Salt Lake Community College isn't much different - players have already come to SLCC via the University of Colorado, University of Idaho, University of Utah, and Southern Utah University. For the players, often the junior college are the only way to the next level. They need to take their core courses, keep minimum grades to get the scholarships to division I schools across the country. A year ago, CSI had seven players earn full ride scholarships to division I schools after leading the Eagles to the NJCAA Final Four. Gary Wilkinson at Utah State University is a SLCC veteran.

Kevin Galloway, was supposed to be teaming with OJ Mayo and leading USC to PAC 10 prominence this year, but his grades didn't meet minimum requirements as a freshman and he spent a short time at Fresno State before coming to CSI. He is a freaky 6'6" point guard who makes three pointers, drives to the basket, and dunks in transition. The Utah Jazz would have a hard time containing him much less Salt Lake Community College. Memphis, Kentucky and yes Arizona State are leading in the chase for his talent this time around.

Yet all I can think of as I watch is how many of the players at CSI are avoiding the gang scene in South Los Angeles or Oakland or Philadelphia because of their basketball gift. Will they mess this opportunity up? Will they end up back in South Los Angeles or Oakland? This is their last chance. You can see it in how they play. How they all want to score to show colleges that they are still good enough. The focus isn't so much on winning (that just happens as a byproduct), it's more on showing what they can do.

CSI wins 84-78, but the game isn't that close. In the second half CSI opens up a fifteen point lead, but because of the players focus, CSI keeps shooting three pointers and pressing they allow SLCC some hope, but not much, because it's obvious CSI has a chance to do something they have done twice before - win a national championship in Hutchinson, Kansas.

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