His pants came from a Big & Tall catalog. So did his dreams. The pants could be delivered in six to eight weeks, but the impossibly large dreams took longer to find him. A dream could pass through Gans, Okla., (pop. 346) without ever knowing it had been there. How did Bryant (Big Country) Reeves describe his hometown? "There's a schoolhouse," he said. "Drive a little further and there's a post office. Drive a little further and you're out of town."
His dreams were too big for his oversized britches. Reeves became convinced of this in the hours before his second college basketball game at Oklahoma State—against Purdue in the preseason NIT two years ago. Big Country paced a country mile in the Cowboy locker room. When his coach, Eddie Sutton, told him not to be nervous, Reeves replied, "I'm not nervous about the game, Coach. But when we beat Purdue, we have to fly to New York City, and I've never been on an airplane before."
Before Big Country saw the Big Apple as a freshman, before he became the Big Eight Player of the Year as a sophomore last season, before he toured Europe with a team of All-Americas this past summer, the farthest he had strayed from Gans was a recruiting visit to Creighton University. Omaha may as well have been Beijing to this small-town boy from a high school graduating class of 15. What was it Reeves said when he was still a Gans Grizzly, when Oklahoma State assistant Bill Self informed the recruit that he had to play in the city to improve his game?
"I've been playing in the city," said Big Country.
November 29, 1993
"Oklahoma City?" asked Self, now the head coach at Oral Roberts. "Or Tulsa?"
Quoth Country, "Sallisaw."
There are but 7,122 stories in the naked city of Sallisaw, Okla. Imagine Big Country's astonishment, then, when he flew to New York that November night two years ago. As the twinkling skyline of the great metropolis suddenly appeared beneath the airplane, Big Country whispered, "It sure is big." The plane was over Tulsa.
"We're flying," recalls Sean Sutton, a former Cowboy guard who is now an assistant to his father at Oklahoma State. "Country's really nervous. He heard somewhere that gum will unclog your ears. He's sitting next to me, and he says, 'Sean, can I have a piece of gum?' I say, 'Sure, Country.' Twenty minutes later I'm sleeping, and Country wakes me up. 'Sean,' he says. 'Can I have a piece of gum?' I tell him, 'Country, I just gave you a piece of gum.' 'I know,' he says. 'But I need one for my other ear.' "
Sutton allows the image to emerge—the 7-foot, 288-pound Country, a wet wad of Juicy Fruit plugged into one ear, earnestly asking for another stick—before he smiles diabolically and says the story is apocryphal. Sutton told it at a postseason basketball banquet, and nobody laughed louder than Big Country, whose Big & Tall smile is as ubiquitous as his Big & Tall blue jeans. "He likes Wranglers," says Country's father, Carl. "He's got no behind so he can't wear Levi's."
He's got no behind, but so much ahead of him. "People just naturally like Country," says Sean Sutton. "Fans like him. Coaches like him. The media like him. On top of that, he's a very good basketball player. He can make a lot of money someday. If he doesn't get hurt, he can't miss."
"You'll like him," Sean continues. "Everybody does. Have you met him yet? The legendary figure of this state? The Crocodile Dundee of College Basketball?"
The Crocodile Dundee of College Basketball is 84 inches of snuff-dipping center who equaled another Dipper last season when Big Country became the first player since Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas in 1958 to lead the Big Eight in scoring (19.5 points per game), rebounding (10.0) and field goal percentage (62.1).
Even on the road in the Big Eight, those Cowboys who give Reeves a breather simply say at the scorer's table, "In for Country." No number is necessary, just the nickname that former State star Byron Houston gave Reeves in a summer pickup game before Reeves's freshman season. Reeves sports a flattop like a second cut of rough, and nowadays "all around here," notes his mother, Carolyn, "kids ask for Big Country haircuts."
The legend was secured last Feb. 24, in a home court win over Missouri. With two seconds left and the 'Pokes inbounding from their own baseline and trailing by three, Country caught a long pass at half-court, spun, shot and immediately threw up his arms in the signal for a successful three-point field goal. A second later the ball hit the backboard and ripped through the hoop at the horn.
"When it left my hands, it felt good," Country explains today. "It felt great. I didn't know it was going off the backboard, but it felt like a perfect shot. And when it went in? My mind was just as blank as it could be."
Blank? Reeves was supposed to have been thinking about Gans, about how much farther he had come in two years than just the 150 miles between Stillwater and his hometown near the Okie-Arkie border.
He was supposed to have been thinking about the nine different basketball coaches he had—and the nine different systems they employed—in four years at Gans High. Or about his six teammates on the Gans team. About how there wasn't a weight to lift in Greater Gans, unless you count the ton or so of sand bass that Bryant and his 6'7" father, Carl, would pull in during an afternoon of angling on the Arkansas River.
He was supposed to have been thinking about that day following his sophomore year in high school when Bryant was asked by his father if he wouldn't like to play in a larger town, perhaps Sallisaw? The boy said no, naturally. "This is where my friends are," he said. "This is where I'm happy. If I'm good enough to make it on a college team, the recruiters will find me here."
They found him there, at Gans High, in the tiny gym next to the stone school built by the WPA in 1939. One evening a rental car rolled up to the curb, and into the gym strode Robert Montgomery Knight, the Indiana coach.
At the general store in Gans, a yellowed sheet of writing paper taped to the door warns, in impeccable Palmer method script, "No Foul Language on Premises." Well, Knight wouldn't be welcome for very long there.
"The language" says Carl Reeves, when Knight's name is invoked. "The foul language. He told me, 'I can sit here and not cuss, but I have to watch myself. If your boy comes to Indiana, though, that's not what he's going to get.' " Carl respected his honesty and all, but the General would remain a man without a Country.
The original plan at Oklahoma State was to redshirt Big Country as a freshman. When Reeves arrived in Stillwater, he reluctantly removed his T-shirt for Cowboy strength coach Leroy Youster, triggering a frightening flabalanche that caught Youster by surprise. "God a'mighty, Coach," he said to Sutton. "What do you want me to do with this?"
"I grabbed Country's arm," recalls Youster, fixing a grip on your biceps. "It was like grabbing an old lady's arm. You know, a lot of...mush and bone."
The strength coach surveys the State weight room, a gleaming gift from former Cowboy javelin thrower Garth Brooks, and recalls Country's first workout there. "He was using 15-pound dumbbells, and his arms were all over the place," says Youster. "I'm trying to monitor him, but I don't have an eight-foot wingspan."
Suddenly, the strength coach himself goes soft—all mush, no bone. "I wish everyone worked as hard as he does," says Youster. "He'd go back to his dorm and throw up every night. Now, he uses 85-pound dumbbells; his arms are firm. In 11 years of doing this, I've never seen anybody improve as much as he has."
At Reeves's first practice in Gallagher-Iba Arena, the legendary Henry Iba sat watching from the sidelines and turned to Sutton. "Ed," said Iba. "That boy has a long way to go."
"A week later, he'd made amazing progress," says Sutton, who has framed basketball cards in his office of 14 of his players who made it to the NBA. "I've had a lot of nice players, but I've never had one develop as quickly as Country."
In adding 10 pounds and redistributing his weight, Reeves retained his soft hands, hands that catch a basketball like fresh carpet holds a footprint. In his first game Country scored 16 points, and one week later he was flying to New York City. "He's fixing to play his fourth college game," says Sean Sutton, "and he's walking around downtown Manhattan with Dick Vitale, looking up at all the buildings. It's fun to see where he's come from, and all the places he's getting to see."
Directions to the Reeves house are the same from anywhere in the United States: "Take 141 into Gans," says Bryant. O.K. "On the corner, there's a store." Allrighty. "Go into the store and ask the guy who works there, and he'll tell you where the house is."
Inside the general store, Andy tells you that the Reeves house is at the end of the street. What color? you ask. "Only one there," says Andy. Indeed, the yellow house by the railroad tracks stands alone. A backboard that Carl cut from a sheet of steel hangs above a small slab of concrete.
The elder Reeves is a supervisor on the night shift at the Whirlpool refrigerator plant in Fort Smith, Ark. Does he like the country life? Carl once moved his family out of Gans for three years because he wanted more peace and quiet. "Getting a little big now," says Carl, noting that a convenience store has opened in town. "Gets any bigger, I might move again."
Two seasons ago Eddie Sutton was concerned that the Reeves might take offense at their son's nickname. The coach approached the family before a game but stopped short when he saw the T-shirt on a little old lady, the one that read, I'M COUNTRY'S GRANDMOTHER.
Youster was also concerned that Carl and Carolyn Reeves would take offense at their son's nickname. "Big Country gave me some pictures of these fish he caught," says Youster. "His mother sent him the pictures, and he gave them to me, still in the envelope that his mother sent them in." In the upper-lefthand corner, the return address read. MAMA COUNTRY.
Carl Reeves was briefly concerned that his son would take offense at the nickname. "You are big, and you are from the country," Carl said to Bryant. "What's the shame in either?"
Not to worry. "I like the name," says the man who signs his autographs Bryant (Big Country) Reeves. "It fits."
It fits him like his enormous Wranglers, or his size-16 sneakers. Big Country padded across the Ponte Vecchio in Florence in his size 16's last June, one of two centers on a college all-star team that toured Europe. (The other was Eric Montross of North Carolina.) If he didn't play basketball, Big Country says he would be working in a factory. Because he plays basketball, he is getting a free college education.
Because he plays basketball, Big Country has seen Italy, Belgium, Spain, Germany and the Netherlands; has watched the New York Yankees from George Steinbrenner's private box (O.K., so it hasn't all been fun); will one day earn a flatbedful of money; and is looking forward to spending this Christmas with the Cowboys in...Hawaii. Hawaii?
Small world, Big Country. "I came here and took my first plane ride," he says. "The gum story was a good one, but I've gotten used to flying now. I've made a lot of good friends. I never even dreamed of going to some of these places overseas. It's really exciting to sec how other people live. To see what the world is all about."
He is traveling the orange, pebble-grained globe, and it's all because of basketball.
The Country Game.