In Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, there is a notorious walled compound, a red-light district of unpaved streets and neon strip joints—dubbed "Boys' Town" by Anglos who cross the Rio Grande looking for cheap thrills. A barker stands in the doorway of one of those joints, hustling passersby with a frantic "Caballeros, come this way...it's Show Time!"
In Laredo, Texas, just across the International Bridge, there is a former army fort turned into a junior college, where a school official sits at a microphone in a packed gymnasium—in total darkness—and announces seductively, "Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros...it's Show Time!"
And what a show it is. The basketball team in the remote border town has improved from a 6-22 record two years ago to a 20-1 mark at the end of last week and the No. 1 ranking in the nation. Among the star performers north of the International Bridge are slam-dunking youngsters from the playgrounds of Kansas City, New York and Washington, D.C. They've become heroes to the folks in the impoverished Rio Grande Valley.
"Our first game last year, there might have been 100 people in the stands," says 30-year-old Gary Moss, recalling his debut as Laredo's head coach. Most students seemed to prefer study hall to Palomino basketball, and the matchup of Lackland Air Force Base of San Antonio, coming in with a 12-0 record and a 110-points-per-game average, excited interest only among masochists. Surveying the empty stands, Moss told a reporter that his goal was "to pack this place to the point that they'll be turning people away at the door." Few took him seriously—at Laredo, people turned away before they ever got near the door.
Surprise. Sparked by transfer guards Harold Howard and Tony Malveaux, who had followed Moss over from Southwest Texas State, where he was an assistant, the Palominos outran and out-shot the airmen for a 91-84 win and went on to a 23-7 season. "Four games later we had to move in folding chairs," Moss says. "After that, we had standing room only with fire marshals to control the crowd." So dramatic was the turnaround that Moss had a bulky safe hauled into his office to stash the gate receipts. "If we had a bigger place," he drawls, "we'd have to have a vault."
The good-natured Moss has convinced Laredoans that they can have a winning image to go with their long and colorful history. "It's a delightful change," one LJC administrator says. "For a long time the only thing we led the country in was rabies and unemployment."
No longer. Billboards all over Laredo promote Palomino basketball with the slogan, THE HORSES ARE COMING...HERD OF US? One television station runs a weekly Gary Moss Show, another tapes LJC's home games for later telecast. Two daily newspapers give the team heavy coverage. "It's definitely Show Time," Moss says. "We've got everything the major colleges get and more."
When the newly formed Palomino Club, a booster group, decided to celebrate last year's miracle season, proud businessmen donated two sides of beef and untold kegs of beer for an all-day barbecue that attracted 600 fans who feasted on two-inch steaks and danced to a country music band. "The Mexican-American people are very proud," Moss says. "If they have a winner, they're going to back it to the hilt."
Laredoans agree that this city of 91,000 people—about 90% with Hispanic surnames—needs a dose of optimism. In one year, unemployment has skied from 9.2% to 25%. Retail sales have fallen an estimated 40%. According to Moss, "The only thing that hasn't devalued is LJC basketball. We've given people something to turn to."
Moss organized the Palomino Club to raise funds for recruiting. Then, instead of beating the bushes locally—the bushes being the huisache and mesquite which dot the otherwise empty flatlands north of the Rio Grande Valley—Moss recruited in the inner cities of the Northeast and Midwest. At Kansas City's Central High he found a high-jumping 6'8" pivotman. Glen Jamison, and a versatile role player in 6'7" Marc Davis. In Kent, Ohio, he came up with John (Ice) Sales, a George Gervin lookalike. In Washington, D.C. he went after a quick and muscular point guard from Roosevelt High, Linwood Davis—("He'd be playing at Georgetown if he had the grades," Moss says)—and came back with both Linwood and his brother Earl, a frantic hustler who leads the team in floor burns. Another Washington player, Kenny Harvey, a junior-college honorable-mention All-America last year at Southeast Community College in Fairbury, Neb., threw in with the others, and so Laredo had all the horses it needed.
Of course, the eager black youngsters Moss brought back to the border stand out in Laredo like the statue of General Ignacio Zaragoza in San Agustin Plaza. "Laredo's a pretty isolated place," Moss says. "The majority of the black people in this town are on my team." The Mexican-American children who flock around Moss's players, pleading for autographs, view their heroes as stars on a par with Dr. J and Magic Johnson. "It's a beautiful thing, it's very meaningful," says LJC's president, Domingo Arechiga, who hopes that these visitors from far off will inspire Laredo youngsters to dream of distant places themselves. "It's what Laredo represents. It's a blending of two cultures."
Moss's players say they were lured to the Rio Grande Valley by the attractive modern campus, the almost tropical climate ("I can't resist dropping the words 'palm trees' when I talk to a recruit," Moss confesses), and a hunger for adventure ("I thought of Laredo as a shoot-out town," one player says). But all agree they came primarily to use what LJC calls its Learning Center, a program of remedial reading, special tutoring and supervised study halls. "We're on the border," President Arechiga explains, "so we get many students with language problems and cultural problems, students who need a heavy dose of supportive services."
Moss says he uses the Learning Center as his key inducement in recruiting ballplayers. "Let's face it, the only reason they're at Laredo is because their academic background wasn't there," he says. "Otherwise, they'd all be in Division I schools. We promise a young man that he's going to get an academic education. He's going to come and work and be pushed to make something of himself. And that's not basket weaving or ceramics, either," Moss adds, anticipating the next question. "That's academics."
On the court, the Palominos play end-to-end pressure defense, run a controlled fast break, and stir up crowds with stylish, basket-shaking slam dunks. "Show Time!" is part of it—the dramatic lighting for player introductions, the pulsating theme music, Eye of the Tiger, the flashing DEFENSE electric sign. "I'm in awe. I can't believe all the things that are happening," says Moss.
Last Friday night, at Maravillo Gymnasium, a standing-room crowd of around 2,500 roared its support as the Palominos faced their toughest challenge of the year—archrival San Jacinto College of Pasadena, Texas, ranked seventh in the nation and champion of the Texas Junior College Athletic Conference for 11 straight years. Tempers flared in the waning minutes. The officials, busy handing out technical fouls, allowed San Jacinto's powerful center, Andre Ross, to play nine seconds after he had fouled out, but it was too late to make a difference. With one technical about to be shot by the Palominos, two more pending for a scuffle at midcourt, and both coaches converging on the scorer's table, the referees wisely suspended play with seven seconds left, awarding the game to Laredo on a TKO, 96-85.
"That was our biggest game ever," sophomore Forward Mike Micarelli said afterward, his exuberance tempered by a swollen eye and by the knowledge that the two teams meet again later this month at San Jacinto. "It's going to be another war," he predicted. "World War Four, I guess."
Meanwhile, the team and town can enjoy the newest yellow billboard standing in a clump of mesquite: LJC #1 IN THE NATION: THEY HAVE HERD OF US.
"That says it all," Moss drawls.