Underdogs

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

"I take pride in saying that I play college basketball," says Burton. "A lot of people wish they could play -- and here I have a chance to make the Sanford-Brown Hall of Fame."


Blaring boom boxes are not permitted in the parking lot of Christ Memorial Baptist Church before Sanford-Brown's twice-weekly practices. On Wednesdays the Reverend Bill Little leads his congregation through a worship service; the blend of hymns and hip-hop would inevitably lead to cacophony, interrupting the Lord's wavelength and cursing the Indians. That's assuming, of course, that the team hasn't already been hexed into its ongoing downward spiral.

Little and Campbell are longtime acquaintances who both happen to be among the region's finest Senior Olympic free-throw shooters. Campbell also pitched softball well into his fifties. But on this Monday, the first practice/tryout for the 2003-04 Indians, he's hobbling around a dark parking lot, courtesy of a broken leg still in rehab mode.

Even on the lowest rungs of college basketball, most teams don't commence formal practices until mid-October. Sanford-Brown, however, gathers its prospects on September 22. Even with the month's head start, most teams will have logged more practice time than Sanford-Brown by the time the Indians travel to Moberly, Missouri to play their November 8 opener against Central Christian College, owing to the limited availability of Little's basement gym and the banana-split schedules of Campbell's charges.

As he rumbles down the back stairs to open the gym, Campbell is trailed by Burton and assistant coach Jason LaBrash, a beefy, bearded, blond bloke a year removed from active duty in the Indians' frontcourt. LaBrash is a classic Campbell project. Having never played high school ball but a fanatic for the sport, he tried out for coach Tim Gray's team while a freshman at Mineral Area College, whose storied junior-college program was featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary Hoop Dreams.

"He was terrible," Gray recalls. "Out of shape -- a big old six-foot-five country kid."

Undaunted, LaBrash served as Gray's film guy and worked out steadily with the team through his sophomore year. At that point, knowing LaBrash wanted to play organized ball and pursue a career in business, Gray picked up the phone and called Campbell on the student's behalf.

"He's been coaching a long, long time -- seems like a great guy," says Gray, who became acquainted with Campbell in the early '80s, when the two teams clashed in a game. "They gave [LaBrash] a chance to play. If you get a chance to play organized ball, it beats playing in a rec league."

It's also a lot tougher, which is the first point of emphasis on Campbell and LaBrash's menu this Monday night as they survey an uncharacteristically hardy turnout -- in fact, at 25 strong, it's the best Campbell has seen in all his 55 years. Still, he refuses to cut players. His determination to be inclusive harkens back to the time he was made team manager after being axed from his high school team as a freshman. Rather than subject any players to similar fates, Campbell will throw together a junior-varsity schedule, ensuring that everyone sees satisfactory (if not ample) floor time between now and the end of February.

If history is any indication, though, attrition may take care of the playing-time dilemma. Some years Campbell has seen his roster slice itself in half over the course of the season, what with players getting hurt, getting in trouble, or getting confronted with more important life matters.

"That would happen every year," confirms 2001 graduate Todd Coffey, who played center for Campbell. "Guys would drop off the face of the earth, go to jail. Day to day, he doesn't know what players he has. Having people show up is one of his biggest challenges."

And yet, with the first day of practice comes hope. Dressed in black suspenders, white New Balance sneakers and a yellow shirt stitched with the words "Coach John Campbell" and "Sanford-Brown," Campbell begins his night's work with a stern diatribe, telling the players not to hang on the rim for fear that having to replace a backboard might break the shoestring budget grudgingly allotted to him by the college's administrators. Typically mild-mannered both on the floor and off, Campbell can be plenty forceful when he sets his mind to it -- or when one of his players pisses him off.

"He totally reminds me of Bobby Knight," says Berryhill, comparing Campbell to the legendary Indiana University coach who now guides the basketball program at Texas Tech. "When you meet him, he's cool, calm, easygoing. But he's really fiery. When he gets down to business, it's like, 'Granddaddy, can I have a piece of candy?' When players don't play hard, he gets really hot. I can almost see the steam coming out of his ears."

Even before assessing the strengths and limitations of this year's crop, Campbell figures he has "at least six decent players" returning from the previous campaign, in which the Indians went 3-23. Compared to most years, that's a robust veteran nucleus. Even so, it's a core that is severely lacking in size: Though two members of the expected starting five stand six-foot-five and six-six, the other three are barely six feet tall.

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