Hoop dreams die hard for coach John Campbell and his Sanford-Brown Indians

In 1949, at age twenty and in his third year wearing the Indian yellow-and-black, John Campbell became Sanford-Brown's player-coach. In other words, Campbell has been part of Sanford-Brown basketball since the program's very first whistle. A 1993 inductee into the Greater St. Louis Athletic Association Hall of Fame, he's now in his 55th year as coach of the same team.

But truth be told, Sanford-Brown has evolved into a school that caters to busy adult students who aren't interested in college athletics. Sanford-Brown players, alumni and administration acknowledge that this season may be Campbell's last, whether he likes it or not. The coach sees the writing on the wall, but he has seen it before -- and each time it repeats, a smirk is liable to creep across his face.

"He'll come up with something," says Craig Patton, who now toils as a correctional officer in St. Charles, having served with the Kinloch police department for seventeen years. "He'll keep the program together with paper clips and safety pins."

After some shaky-looking left-handed layups, it's time for a lecture
Jennifer Silverberg
After some shaky-looking left-handed layups, it's time for a lecture
Photo by Jennifer Silverberg; computer manipulatio

If this year does prove to be Campbell's swan song, it might just be a sweet melody. In a rare exception to the recent rule, his entire nucleus of quick, scrappy (if still overmatched) student-athletes are returning to the hardwood, along with a few promising-looking rookies. For once, team chemistry may reign over a program that's seemingly always awash in turnover, and, if it's not sufficient to provide a winning record, the 2003-04 Indians at least stand a chance of breaking even.

Which for John Campbell would be glorious indeed.

Asked to sum up the difference between the Indians and opponents like Illinois College, St. Louis Christian College, Concordia Seminary and Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois, Sanford-Brown point guard Alex Berryhill states the obvious.

"They have gyms and weight rooms," Berryhill says, peering at a lone dumbbell in the corner of his kitchen that rests in close proximity to a box of Cap'n Crunch.

This, in fact, is Berryhill's weight room. The portable hoop in his Lee Avenue driveway in north St. Louis, where the 29-year-old Sanford-Brown student lives with his aunt, serves as his off-season practice gym. Berryhill's three daughters -- ages nine, five and three -- live in the Central West End with their mother. Most days he drives them to school in his 1990 Lincoln, then drives himself to Sanford-Brown's Hazelwood outpost, a lone, utilitarian building that blends in well amid the small businesses in a strip mall off North Lindbergh Boulevard and I-270.

"It's all right," the cornrow-coiffed Berryhill says of the campus, whose student body of 500 ranks it among the largest of Sanford-Brown's five (the others are located in St. Charles, Fenton, Granite City and Kansas City).

During the early 1990s Berryhill was voluntarily bused to Pattonville High School in Maryland Heights as part of St. Louis' controversial desegregation program. An occasional starter for the varsity hoop squad, he had nary a scholarship offer to sift through upon graduation in 1993 -- a fact he bitterly chalks up to his coach's failure to push him hard enough to prospective suitors. (Pattonville coach Mark Hahn says Berryhill struggled to maintain his academic eligibility, which made him a tough sell.) So for nearly a decade, to support his burgeoning young family, Berryhill worked a series of shit jobs -- literally -- including a stint as a Metropolitan Sewer District tank cleaner.

"I had to do what I had to do," he says simply.

Like so many Sanford-Brown students, Berryhill decided to enroll as a computer-programming major after seeing an ad on late-night television. So far, so good: He has a 3.8 grade-point average and is set to graduate in February. After that, Berryhill intends to take free "refresher courses" at the school so he can play out his last two years of eligibility. Money's tight, and he acknowledges that he needs "a little part-time job right now," but he's going to squeeze every last minute out of his time in a Sanford-Brown uniform, however late in life it has come. The Indians' leading assist man, Berryhill's playing college basketball -- a point of pride few can lay claim to.

"When I first went there, I saw a flyer and I was like, 'Whoa, we got a basketball team?'" Berryhill recounts. "I was like, 'Yahoo!' It was me time. I'd made sacrifices for everyone else all my life. Basketball is my life."

At a Division I program like Saint Louis University, Berryhill's path to the basket would be considered extraordinary. But at Sanford-Brown he's the quintessential Campbell "recruit." Whereas your garden-variety Billiken is afforded a life structure that pushes sport and study -- in that order -- squarely to the fore, most Indians juggle multiple life considerations. Top scorer and co-captain Jermaine Gardner, 24, completed a tour in the Navy before enrolling at Sanford-Brown and holds down a full-time job as a clerk at Wal-Mart.

If an Indian can make practice, great; but if he's on call or has to work nights, then so it goes. Senior co-captain Ron Burton, age 27, had to redshirt last season because his technical-support job at MCI required him to work nights. This year he has drawn a more conventional day shift, but as a night-school student, newlywed and minister at Christian Embassy Church, his grid of priorities remains complex. In the juggle-happy construct of Burton's life, hanging up the sneakers or easing into a life of leisure-league stardom would seem to make sense. Only it doesn't.

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