Where the Stars Don't Shine In the freewheeling world of junior college hoops, the best players wait for that one big chance--or desperately cling to their last one

March 06, 2000

The red GMC Jimmy rolled off the College of Southern Idaho
campus and headed toward the heart of Twin Falls, a speck of
humanity on the frozen Snake River Plain. It was a cold night in
late January, and the distraught rider in the passenger seat
needed to call home. Suddenly the bizarre and oft-resuscitated
basketball career of Kenny Brunner had come to a crossroads--in
the parking lot of a Mr. Gas convenience store. Using a borrowed
cell phone, Brunner punched in a number in the 323 area code. As
drivers pumped premium unleaded nearby, he waited. "Granny?" he
said. "I got some bad news."

Remember Kenny Brunner? Hailed as the next Allen Iverson when he
enrolled at Georgetown in the fall of 1997. Fearless shooter,
visionary passer. Led the nation in assists for a time two years
ago, led the Hoyas in scoring and steals, made UConn's Khalid
El-Amin look like a chump one night in Hartford. Then--poof!--he
skipped town. Midseason of his freshman year. Too much pressure,
he said.

Remember Kenny Brunner? Turned up at Fresno State. Got suspended
indefinitely from Jerry Tarkanian's team--no small feat--after he
allegedly assaulted a fellow student with a samurai sword in
March 1998. Acquitted of all charges. Never played a game for the
Bulldogs.

Remember Kenny Brunner? Went home to Compton. Got arrested on a
robbery rap and then charged with attempted murder. Spent four
months in the L.A. County Jail. Cleared of all charges in
September 1998, two days before trial. Ready, once again, to
hoop.

Remember Kenny Brunner? Derek Zeck did. "Here was a top 15 kid
out of high school," says Zeck, the first-year coach at Southern
Idaho, a junior college powerhouse that accepted Brunner last
June. "We could give him a chance to clear his name, play
basketball at a very high level and graduate to a Division I
program." The risk seemed to pay off. Two and a half months into
the season Brunner was averaging 17.4 points and 8.3 assists a
game. He was staying out of trouble, making sure his teammates
weren't late to class, talking about having turned his life
around. He cried tears of joy every day, he said. Southern Cal,
UNLV and San Diego State had already made recruiting visits.

Now a reporter for a national magazine had come to Twin Falls to
write about Brunner and the redemptive powers of junior college
basketball. School officials had said all the right things, had
spoken glowingly of how Brunner "hasn't let us down" (athletic
director Jeff Duggan); "is always in class, very responsible,
gets his papers in on time" (assistant professor of English Joel
Bate); and "hasn't had any discipline problems" (Zeck).

Then, on that very same day, this: "We've suspended Kenny Brunner
from the team indefinitely," Duggan announced at 5 p.m. on Jan.
20. "We're cleaning out his locker right now."

The fireworks had begun the day before, when Zeck had thrown his
team out of practice for not working hard enough. Come back at 10
p.m., he said. Only three players returned. After conducting a
quick investigation, the coach determined that Brunner had
incited the mutiny, persuading the team instead to go see Galaxy
Quest.

Ten minutes after learning of his punishment, Brunner was on the
phone in the parking lot of the Mr. Gas. On the other end was
Mary White, the woman who reared him, the only adult relative
whose photograph is on display in Brunner's dorm room.

"Granny, I'm off the team," he said. "The whole team decided not
to go to practice yesterday, and the coaches are using me as a
scapegoat."

Pause. "All I know is I'm gonna stay for the semester and get my
degree, even if I don't play ball."

Pause. "Maybe you could give Coach a call and beg him to let me
back on the team. He knows I ain't got any more chances left."

Brunner turned off the phone. "Five minutes ago they were telling
you I was a prince, and now I'm a peasant," he said to the
reporter. He was about to cry tears that had nothing to do with
joy. "I should have stayed at Georgetown."

What now? Would Brunner return to the team? Should he be allowed
to return? What did suspended indefinitely mean, anyway? Brunner
had an idea. He had been "suspended indefinitely" at Fresno State
and never played. Having his locker cleaned out created an air of
finality too. And what was it that Duggan, the AD, had said
earlier that day, before this news had gotten out?

"Kenny realizes that if he screws up, he's toast."

They all come for a reason, and these days there are more reasons
to play junior college basketball than ever before. Didn't make
that test score? Enroll in a juco. Ignored because you missed out
on the summer all-star circuit during high school? Enroll in a
juco. Need your image rehabilitated? A pit stop before turning
pro? Junior college may be the place for you.

Consider: Avery Johnson, Larry Johnson and Latrell Sprewell, all
1999 NBA finalists, were juco players. Steve Francis, Shawn
Marion and Aleksandar Radojevic, all among the top 12 picks in
the '99 NBA draft, were juco players. From Auburn (Chris Porter)
to Cincinnati (Pete Mickeal) to Oregon (Alex Scales), big-time
NCAA programs are loaded with splendid former juco players.

Why has recruiting at junior colleges become so much more popular
with Division I coaches? Here are a few reasons.

--As NCAA academic standards rise, so do the quality and quantity
of juco players. The advent of NCAA Propositions 42 and 48 in the
1980s drained the talent pool of high school players who
qualified to compete immediately at four-year schools. "Take the
top 100 players, and 50 won't be eligible," says Texas Christian
coach Billy Tubbs, somewhat hyperbolically. "If you're recruiting
only freshmen, that's going to make it tough."

--Buses are more grounded than planes. While blue-chip high
school seniors jet all around the country and are often
accompanied by entourages the size of Mike Tyson's (AAU coach,
high school coach, parents, posse), juco players learn the joys
of the interstate highway system. "I like them," Virginia coach
Pete Gillen says of these road warriors. "They're not spoiled.
They're not corrupted. They seem to appreciate what they have
more when they've eaten cheese sandwiches and ridden in a van
for six hours to get to a game."

--You might become a better player in two years at Indian Hills
Community College than in two years at Tennessee-Martin. So
improved is the level of play at junior colleges that more
players are going there despite having qualified academically
for four-year schools. "Every single J.C. kid we brought in was
a [qualifier] out of high school," says Oregon coach Ernie Kent,
whose four juco transfers this year have contributed heavily to
the Ducks' 19-7 record. "They went to junior college not to
improve their academics but to improve their basketball."

--Using juco transfers worked for Bob Knight. If there was a
watershed moment for junior colleges, it was the evening of March
30, 1987, when juco transfer Keith Smart hit the winning shot
against Syracuse that gave Indiana and straitlaced coach Knight
the national championship. (Dean Garrett, the Hoosiers' starting
center, was also a former juco player.) Overnight, it seemed,
jucos shed the rogue image they had suffered for decades. Why,
this season even Ivy League blue bloods Cornell and Columbia each
have a juco transfer.

Oh, there will always be colleges that refuse to besmirch their
reputations with jucos (North Carolina, for instance, has
recruited only one, Bob McAdoo in 1971, and has no plans to add
any more) because there will always be questions about those
players' readiness to do the academic work at Division I
universities. (According to the last available figures from the
NCAA, the graduation rate for men's basketball players who
started their careers in junior colleges in 1991 was a dismal
30%, compared with 41% for players who entered four-year
institutions the same year.)

Yet for all the high-profile players who have emerged from them,
junior colleges remain cloaked in obscurity. Did you know, for
example, that this month's NJCAA national tournament--a five-day,
16-team, 26-game hardwood orgy--will turn Hutchinson, Kans., into
basketball nirvana? (Of course not. The tournament has never been
televised nationally.) Did you know that the aforementioned Pete
Mickeal thinks the Hellyer Student Life Center at Indian Hills
Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, is louder than Cincinnati's
rowdy Shoemaker Center? (Of course not. Jucos never even make it
into the agate of major newspaper sports pages.)

As we resume our juco journey, don't forget: Bring your cheese
sandwiches and your patience. We'll be taking the bus.

Cory Hightower remembers the exact moment he went big time. It
was last fall, when comedian Tom Arnold walked into Keokuk Hall
at Indian Hills, saw Hightower gabbing on the dorm's pay phone
and, as casual as could be, said, "How're you doin', Cory?"

Hightower swooned. "I'm like a kid when I see superstars," he
says, "so I was like, Hey, that's the man from Roseanne! Oh, my
god, Tom Arnold knows my name!" Leaving aside the obvious
question--Tom Arnold a superstar?--you take what you can get at
Indian Hills, where there is no greater honor than being
recognized by Arnold, Ottumwa native, Indian Hills class of '81.
Cory Hightower had arrived.

For some in Ottumwa (pop. 23,000), every moment PTH (post Tom's
hello) might be a letdown, but for Hightower, a swashbuckling
6'8" guard, Arnold's attention was only the beginning. At a
six-team tournament in Daytona Beach in January, Hightower and
his teammate Ernest Brown, a remarkably smooth 7-foot center,
drew a couple of dozen NBA scouts, an unprecedented number for a
regular-season juco game. "I've been scouting junior colleges for
over 20 years," says Rick Ball, who runs a Florida-based juco
scouting service, "and I saw more NBA scouts in one place that
weekend than I had seen, combined, in two decades of
regular-season games."

Hightower and Brown are part of a new generation that uses the
juco system not simply as a stepping-stone to Division I but as a
possible catapult to the NBA. Both players have signed letters of
intent to attend Division I colleges--Hightower at TCU, Brown at
Iowa State--but both say they might turn pro instead. "I picture
the league in my head all the time," says Hightower, who was
averaging 22.8 points going into this week's playoff regional
finals. "It seems like I'm so close I can touch it."

Though Brown has less impressive stats (12.4 points, 7.1 boards),
he says there's an 80% chance he'll declare for June's NBA draft.
"I'm ready," he says.

Indian Hills, a club team 11 years ago, began offering
scholarships only in 1989 and has since become the UCLA of the
juco ranks, claiming the last three NJCAA national titles and
winning 89 straight games between 1996 and '99, the alltime
collegiate record. Crowds at the 1,800-seat Hellyer Student Life
Center are always SRO, and every game is broadcast on KMGO, a
100,000-watt radio station that reaches an area with a 160-mile
radius. "Before basketball started, the only thing people knew
about Ottumwa was that we were the hometown of Radar O'Reilly,"
says Indian Hills athletic director Kelly Conrad. Nowadays, the
Warriors' Internet broadcasts get hits from Singapore and Tokyo.

Enter Hightower, a native of Flint, Mich., who played high school
ball with Michigan State star Morris Peterson until Hightower
decamped to Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., before
his junior year. By the time Hightower graduated, his
hype-intoxicated coach was calling him as talented as any guard
in the state's history, and Hightower nearly followed the lead of
former Mount Zion teammate Tracy McGrady, who jumped from high
school to the NBA, signing with the Toronto Raptors in 1997. "I
was going to go pro," Hightower says, "but then the NBA lockout
hit."

Unable to make the NCAA's minimum test score, he enrolled at
Indian Hills and won the MVP award at last year's national juco
tournament, spawning more speculation and advice. On a campaign
stop in Ottumwa, Bill Bradley told Hightower that the decision to
turn pro should be his and nobody else's. (Tom Arnold took the
team out for pizza and volunteered these two pearls: Stay away
from strip clubs, and don't marry Roseanne.)

Brown took an even more circuitous route to southeastern Iowa.
Raised in the Bronx, he signed with St. John's, but it became
clear that he wasn't going to qualify academically, and he left
the team at St. Raymond's High just four games into his senior
season. He was living in a two-bedroom apartment with 11 other
people, including his fiancee, Alisa Scott, their two-year-old
son and Alisa's four-year-old son from a previous relationship.
"I had to decide whether to be a father or to not pay attention
to my child and just play basketball," Brown says.

To cover the bills, he took two jobs, one at a car wash and the
other at a post office. Last year Brown, Scott and the kids moved
to Mesa (Ariz.) Community College, where he earned his high
school diploma by correspondence and averaged 22.7 points and
15.3 rebounds a game. But that's when things started to get
weird.

After the season, Brown decided that he wanted to transfer from
Mesa to Indian Hills. Shortly thereafter, Mesa assistant Tres
Chapman took a job as a graduate assistant to Larry Eustachy at
Iowa State (where former Indian Hills coach Terry Carroll is also
an assistant), and a month later Brown gave a verbal commitment
to play for the Cyclones next year. Something in these movements
piqued the interest of the NCAA, which has contacted Iowa State
with questions about Brown's recruitment.

Brown, meanwhile, has adjusted to life in Iowa. "When we got off
the plane, I was like, Oh, my goodness," he recalls. "There's not
much to do out here. But I guess that's why we win."

Living in Ottumwa isn't always easy for Indian Hills players.
Eleven of this season's 12 Warriors are black, while only 270 of
Wapello County's 35,687 residents (or one out of every 132) are
African-American. Hightower notices such differences at the movie
theater, which shows, as he puts it, "stuff like Little House on
the Prairie and Star Wars, not the types of movies we watch."
Host families arranged by the college help matters, Hightower and
Brown say, but only so much. It comes as no surprise that
Cincinnati's Mickeal, a former national player of the year at
Indian Hills, says he would spend Monday through Thursday in
Ottumwa each week outside of basketball season, then drive home
to Rock Island, Ill., for the weekend. On most days this winter,
you could find Hightower in the gym, wearing a black Los Angeles
Dodgers stocking cap and talking on the pay phone to somebody
somewhere else--anywhere else.

At the same time, Indian Hills assistant (and former Iowa star)
Kenyon Murray argues, the juco playing style offers several
benefits over Division I, not least the freedom to create, which
may attract notice from the NBA. "Juco ball is a lot more wide
open, and it allows players to play up to their potential,"
Murray says. "Division I has a lot more structure. We allow kids
to be a lot more creative, and that helps them develop a little
bit faster."

Most often Hightower's biggest challenge isn't even the opposing
team. Watching him dominate his juco competition is like
observing a math prodigy recite multiplication tables over and
over. "Sometimes it's boring," he admits. Usually he comes up
with ways to amuse himself, whether it's by passing up open
three-pointers and waiting for a defender to arrive before
shooting (a crowd favorite) or by setting lofty goals such as
making every free throw in a game. In a win over Marshalltown
(Iowa) Community College in late January, Hightower scored 24
points on all manner of moves--slippery drives, 23-foot jumpers,
splay-legged dunks--yet upon leaving the game he angrily wrapped a
towel around his head. His sin? Missing a free throw.

Indian Hills coach Mike Marquis thinks a 7-footer like Brown, on
the other hand, faces more difficult obstacles. "It's hard for
big men to be successful in junior colleges," Marquis says. "The
highest levels of juco basketball are based on the 6'6" athlete,
which is why I maintain that the higher the level Ernest plays,
the more successful he'll become. He would outrun most big
people, but here he's chasing around 6'5" kids."

"I struggled a little bit earlier in the season," Brown admits.
"I didn't know how Cory or anybody else played, so I studied them
and figured out how I have to move to get the ball."

Whether he and Hightower are ready to turn pro is another
question. While Brown is leaning heavily toward declaring for the
draft, Hightower is noncommittal. "If [Hightower] can go in the
first round, he'll go," says his would-be coach, TCU's Tubbs,
"but if he can't, he'd be wise to come to school. The word I'm
getting from most NBA people is that he's not a first-rounder,
but it still won't be a shock if he goes to the NBA."

Not a shock, but perhaps a mistake. According to one NBA player
personnel director who saw Hightower and Brown play in Daytona
Beach, Hightower may be better prepared than his teammate to make
the jump, but both players should go to a Division I school
first. "Cory has a very high skill level, but his body needs more
maturity," the NBA man says. "I'd compare his build to Richard
Hamilton's at this stage." What about Brown, who boasts that he's
ready for the pros? "I saw nothing that indicated he was ready.
He has some skills in the post, and he rebounds his area O.K.,
but he didn't go outside his area for rebounds and didn't finish
as many plays as he should have."

Then again, with the NCAA snooping around Iowa State, Brown may
not have a choice. Not yet 21, he also must provide for a family
of five. Last month, Scott gave birth to a baby girl.

Lodgepole Pines whiz by like rows of giant matchsticks as the
charter bus speeds west along I-10 in the Florida Panhandle. A
gorgeous sunset is on display outside, but Tallahassee Community
College forward Antwan Jones doesn't even notice. He's sprawled
over two seats, daydreaming about next year, about playing for
Cincinnati, about a future that involves the foreign concept of
air travel. "When I went there on my recruiting visit, Oscar
Robertson took me to see his statue outside the Shoemaker Center,
and he said, 'Maybe you could have one of these someday,'" Jones
says. "Then they took me to a football game, and people had signs
saying I CAN'T WAIT TILL BASKETBALL SEASON STARTS. Did you know
the Shoe has a restaurant above the court? Man, that's tight."

Jones's current accommodations are merely tight in the
old-fashioned sense, but they have served him exceedingly well.
Consider this: Before last season, before Cincinnati's Bob
Huggins, Utah's Rick Majerus and Maryland's Gary Williams made
pilgrimages to Tallahassee, almost nobody--not even in Jones's own
state--had heard of him. He played for Suwanee High in Live Oak,
Fla., a town of 7,450 about 75 miles east of Tallahassee, and
though he averaged 18 points during his senior year, Live Oak
might as well have been Vladivostok to the hoops cognoscenti. Not
one of the big-time summer camps invited Jones to compete against
the nation's best players. Not one AAU team asked him to join its
traveling band. Not one scouting service listed Jones among its
top 100 high school prospects--nor, for that matter, its top 500.
"If kids aren't exposed to the summer circuit, then some of them
can fall through the cracks," says South Florida coach Seth
Greenberg. "I'll tell you what, though. We recruited the hell out
of Antwan from his junior college."

In a day when dozens of Internet sites are devoted to analyzing
the crossover dribbles of adolescent boys, it's somehow
satisfying to learn that a player can be missed by all of them,
then be signed two years later by one of the top teams in the
land. Certainly Jones's back-roads journey from Live Oak to
Cincinnati, from obscurity to an audience with the Big O, would
never have taken place without the aid of a junior college. Three
years ago, on a tip from a friend, Tallahassee Community College
coach Mike Gillespie drove to Live Oak and met Jones at the
Douglas Center, a dimly lit gym that had served the town's black
high school when Live Oak was segregated.

"I saw him shoot once, and it was a flick from three-point
range," recalls Gillespie. "Just flick, and it was in. He flicked
another one, and boom, it was in. It was a Scottie Pippen-type
shot. I turned to his mom and said, 'Your son's got a scholarship
to Tallahassee Community College.'"

Two shots for a scholarship? Jones remembers thinking. That's
pretty easy.

The preceding five years, by contrast, had been a never-ending
chore for Jones, his mother, Patricia, and his high school coach,
Don Atherton. Spectacularly lax in his schoolwork, Jones was
ineligible for sports in the ninth grade. "He flunked five of six
courses," Atherton says. (Jones insists he failed only three.)
"He had no goals. But if you put a carrot in front of somebody,
he can walk a long way."

A decade earlier Atherton had been Jones's grade school gym
teacher. Remembering that Jones could throw a football 55 yards
as an 11-year-old, Atherton persuaded him to get his schoolwork
in order and to come out for basketball. Not that Antwan had any
outsized expectations. "Cincinnati was never my dream," he says.
"All my friends would say, 'I want to play for Duke,' or 'I want
to play for North Carolina.' I just liked messing around with
audio speakers, so I'd always say, 'I want to be an
electrician.'"

Slowly, Jones's dream changed. On Sundays after church he would
meet Atherton and take 400 jumpers on a Shoot Away machine. Jones
was developing into a gifted shooter, yet that wouldn't have
mattered, Atherton believes, if the coach hadn't petitioned the
Florida High School Activities Association to grant Jones an
extra season of eligibility. According to a state rule (since
changed), Jones was entitled to the season because eligibility
limits began only when a student entered the 10th grade. "Antwan
didn't excel until his final year," says Atherton. "If he hadn't
[had that extra year], he never would have even gone to junior
college."

No Division I school courted Jones, not even as a partial
qualifier (he failed to make the minimum standardized test
score), so he enrolled at Tallahassee C.C., a commuter school of
12,000 students in a city that, Jones says, is "way faster than
Live Oak." Gillespie's teams are frenetic, too, pressing
full-court for 40 minutes, shooting quickly and regularly
breaking triple digits. Naturally, Jones was in heaven. Twice as
a freshman he scored 37 points, and after a season in which he
averaged 19.6 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, Division I coaches
began descending on Tallahassee like frogs from a Magnolia sky.

First came Majerus (on a summer day so sweltering that rivers of
sweat gushed down his face). On another afternoon Jones played a
pickup game before an audience that included Huggins, Williams,
Tubbs, Florida State's Steve Robinson and South Florida's
Greenberg. Yet when the coaches gave Jones the usual recruiting
spiel, some of them got a surprise. "They were thinking, This
guy's from a small town. We can tell him anything, and he'll
believe it," says Jones. "But I didn't want anybody promising me
a starting position. Coach Huggins said I was going to come in
and take Pete Mickeal's spot, and I said, 'Coach, I want to work
and earn it.' Gary Williams sat here and said, 'I never thought
you would say these things.'"

These days Jones is maintaining a 2.3 GPA, not dean's-list
material but enough to graduate. Moreover, while Cincinnati may
not be known for recruiting choirboys, in Jones the Bearcats are
getting an actual choirboy, one who still visits Live Oak's
Ebenezer AME Church on Sundays whenever he can. Jones eschews
tattoos and piercings, and he is obsessively neat. Every day
before classes he irons a perfect crease--in his blue jeans. Since
high school he has occasionally been late to practices and
shootarounds because he was pressing his shirts. In the closet of
his dorm room Jones uses a color-coded filing system (pants on
green hangers, shirts on blue) that one suspects his Cincinnati
teammates will find richly amusing.

When Jones talks about being grateful for a second chance, he's
referring to his academic awakening, of course, yet he's partly
missing the point. Junior college gave him his first chance to be
recognized by the star-making system. Jones knows one thing for
sure: He has earned his ticket to college basketball's elite, and
he did it on his own, the quintessentially American way. "I told
my high school coach that when I got to college, I didn't want
anybody to know about me," Jones says. "I figured if I went to
TCC and did my thing, my name would get out there, and people
would go, 'Where did this kid come from?'" He smiles. "Well, I
guess my name's out there now."

The morning after his suspension from the Southern Idaho team,
Kenny Brunner was sitting in his dorm room, watching TV below a
Tupac Shakur poster that said only god can judge me. After his
cell-phone plea to his grandmother the previous night, Brunner
had vowed, "I'm not playing any more basketball, ever. I'll get a
job. Do something with computers, work with kids. I won't be a
bum on the street."

Since then, Coach Zeck had sent word, through an assistant, that
Brunner's reaction would determine whether he would be allowed to
rejoin the team, and Brunner was softening. He admitted that he
had been wrong to skip practice, and he said there was a 40%
chance he would decide to return. "At this point I don't want to
come back," he explained, "but if I want to play D-I, I might
have to come back."

If he did, it wouldn't be because he loved Twin Falls. The
scarcity of African-Americans in Twin Falls County--one black
resident for every 824 people--makes Ottumwa look like South
Central L.A. "There's nothing to do here," moans Southern Idaho
forward Jerry Dupree, who's growing an Afro because there are no
black barbers in the area. Moreover, Twin Falls clings
depressingly to its single moment in the spotlight, Evel
Knievel's failed 1974 attempt to leap across the Snake River
Canyon in his rocket-powered "skycycle." Town fathers have
erected a monument to Knievel (EXPLORER, MOTORCYCLIST AND
DAREDEVIL) by the river that directs you to a point two miles
upstream, where a 50-foot-tall pile of dirt (Knievel's ramp) has
been preserved in all its glory.

What Twin Falls's 33,000 residents are most proud of, however, is
the Southern Idaho basketball team. Started from scratch by coach
Eddie Sutton in 1966, the program has won two national titles and
owns the highest alltime winning percentage (.851) of any juco.
As the biggest show in town, Golden Eagles games regularly draw
crowds of up to 2,500 that shake CSI Gymnasium to the rafters.

But with that success comes scrutiny. "This is a small community
where the spotlight is bright on athletes," says Duggan, the AD.
"I always tell our players that if they even jaywalk, it'll be in
the paper."

When Zeck got a call from USC assistant Silvey Dominguez asking
if Southern Idaho had any interest in Brunner, school officials
at first said no. In the span of six months in 1998, Brunner had
been cleared of all charges in two felony cases. (In the samurai
sword incident at Fresno State, Brunner was acquitted, and
Bulldogs center Avondre Jones was convicted of one felony count
of weapons possession and three misdemeanor charges. In the L.A.
case, involving the robbery and attempted murder of Mike Miller,
the basketball coach at Los Angeles City College, Brunner was
cleared after Miller was unable to identify him as one of the
culprits.)

Only after conducting its own background check did Southern Idaho
agree to admit Brunner, and sure enough, the taunting began as
soon as he donned a Golden Eagles jersey. At Utah Valley State
College in December, the home fans waved plastic samurai swords.
Two weeks later coach Deke Routheaux of Michigan's Gogebic
College embarrassed Brunner in the middle of a game by ragging
him about his checkered history at Georgetown and Fresno State.
Crushed, Brunner cried in Zeck's office the next morning for
nearly an hour.

"I'd never joke about somebody's troubles like that," Brunner
says. "That's like somebody's mother dying and your asking him,
'How's your mom doing?' Real Christians don't do that."

Brunner says he discovered the power of religion in the L.A.
County Jail, where he read from Proverbs and Psalms during his
four months of incarceration awaiting trial. "It was a living
hell," he says. "You go to the bathroom when they say go to the
bathroom. You eat when they say eat. I wouldn't wish that on
anybody." Brunner says that when he saw The Hurricane, the movie
about the wrongful imprisonment of boxer Rubin (Hurricane)
Carter, "I saw me. That's how life works. If someone doesn't like
you, they can devise a plan to destroy you."

Persecution is a common theme in Brunner's world. Often, when the
mood strikes, he scribbles his musings on paper. "I might write,
'Life is like bricks. You build a house every day, only to see
someone you don't even know tear it down,'" he says. "I'll read
it, then I'll just tear it up and throw it away." Former
Georgetown coach John Thompson said when Brunner left his program
that he thought the player had "an emotional problem," which
Brunner denies. He has never seen a therapist. "I believe in my
family and God," says Brunner, whose parents floated in and out
of his life and have seen him play basketball only once. "That's
all the therapy I need."

But what exactly are Brunner's basketball aspirations? "My dream
is to play pro basketball, and I know somebody is going to give
me a shot: the NBA, the CBA, overseas," he says. "Just remember
what happened with Jason Williams [who was kicked off the team at
Florida after two positive marijuana tests but now stars for the
Sacramento Kings]. He's in the NBA. It's a matter of being in the
right situation with the right people."

Whatever happens, Brunner swears he'll finish the season at
Southern Idaho. All that talk about leaving? False alarm. After
missing two games, he returned to the lineup and had 17 points
and five assists in his second game back. "Kenny makes mistakes,
but he has a good spirit," Zeck says. "I don't want to give up on
him."

For Brunner, who's still being recruited by Southern Cal, UNLV
and San Diego State, "Everything's back to normal. I'm just going
with the flow, getting another chance to show what I can do."

Getting another chance. It's happening all the time at more than
520 junior college programs around the country. Why, even as
Brunner was being suspended last month, two Nigerian NBA
prospects who weren't academically eligible for Division I this
season were landing in Twin Falls. Uche Okafor, a 6'11" center
who had signed with Miami, made his Southern Idaho debut only
five days after setting foot on campus for the first time.
Watching in the crowd that night was his friend Ben (the
Helicopter) Eze, a 6'10" forward with mad hops who had signed
with Louisville.

Both players will suit up next fall for the College of Southern
Idaho, their latest stop on an odyssey from Lagos via Moscow,
where they claim to have been held against their will by Russian
mobsters while attempting to reach North America. They tell a
long and twisted tale, of course. Doesn't everyone in jucoland?

COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY RICH FRISHMAN CALCULATED RISK The College of Southern Idaho is the latest school to take a flier on the erratic but talented Brunner (with ball). COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN BEHIND BARS Brunner's tortuous path to Twin Falls included stints at two Division I universities and one L.A. jail cell. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES EXPOSED Jones (3) was not heavily recruited in high school but got his shot at Tallahassee. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER READY FOR PRIME TIME? Hightower (5) and Brown (52) signed with TCU and Iowa State, respectively, but are eyeing the NBA. COLOR PHOTO: JOEL SARTORE ALL DRESSED UP...But there's nothing much for African-Americans to do in Ottumwa, according to Brown (rear) and Hightower. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES FAST TRACK The next stop for Jones is Cincinnati and a spot on one of the nation's top-ranked teams.

Didn't make that test score? Need your image rehabilitated?
Junior college may be the place for you.

So improved is the level of play at jucos that more players are
going there despite having qualified for four-year schools.

Tom Arnold took the Indian Hills team out for pizza and offered
this advice: Stay away from strip clubs, and don't marry
Roseanne.

In his journey from obscurity to a meeting with the Big O, Jones
would have gotten nowhere without a juco.

"Players appreciate what they have more when they've eaten
cheese sandwiches and ridden in a van six hours to get to a
game."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)