Underdogs

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

"Yeah, they're a little down," says Illinois College coach Mike Worrell, whose Jacksonville, Illinois-based NCAA Division III school recently unveiled a $22 million fitness and recreation center complete with a pristine new basketball arena. "They haven't been real big, but they can give you problems, because they're small and quick."

After Campbell's diatribe, LaBrash has the players run. And run. And run. End to end, 50 times. Jermaine Gardner and the vets knew what to expect coming in, and they look to be in fine shape. But more than half of the newbies fail to complete Campbell's idea of baptism by baseline.

After a brief spate of barking at a klatch of sweaty slackers that would make Bobby Knight proud, Campbell sits on the bench and smiles as he watches players drop like rain. "They're gonna find out they're not gonna touch a ball for a while," he cracks. "We've gotta keep 'em huffin' and puffin'. It won't take 'em too long to find out they're not playing church league or YMCA ball."

Amazingly, by the end of practice it's evident that Campbell has at least two newcomers who possess the talent to help his team immediately: Scott Shell and Kristian Long. Shell, a shaggy-haired six-footer, looks and plays like Dallas Maverick Steve Nash, the indefatigable Canadian point guard known for his ball-handling, no-look pinpoint passes and pull-up three while leading a torrid fast break. But as teammate Ron Burton is quick to point out, raw skill constitutes a mere fraction of the collegiate equation.

"We'll have to talk to him about slowing down," says Burton, a diabetic who takes frequent gulps of Gatorade during practice. "Watching college basketball and playing college basketball is totally different."

Adds Gardner, a former Mehlville High School star: "I came in and thought it'd be easier than it was. I was on a scoring rampage, then teams threw in a box-and-one defense, and I couldn't touch the ball."

Gardner is one of the few Indians who can create his own shot off the dribble should one of Campbell's dozen set plays fail to yield a quality scoring opportunity. Another is the aforementioned rookie Kristian Long, a smooth, spring-loaded six-foot-four Normandy High grad who Campbell figures will play all three frontcourt positions for the Indians, even though his size best qualifies him for a spot on the wing. With his team's height limitations already compelling him to start a three-guard lineup, Campbell bears the double burden of not having anything close to a true center on his roster. Jeremey Harris, his best frontcourt scorer, stands six-five, but to plant him in the post would neutralize his preference for working within the flow of the offense. Campbell's tallest player, a six-eight southpaw from Omaha named Sean Smith, is plenty talented but he's a bit of a head case and so skinny he'd be liable to blow to the sweet hereafter during an outdoor pickup game should a powerful gust of wind make its presence known. Six-foot-six Collinsville native Ray Floyd, the Indians' projected starter at the pivot, is foul-prone and stricken by the sort of gravitational limitations that are so famously said to impede Caucasian yeomen around the bucket.

All things considered, Campbell must tackle challenges that no other coach in the nation has to face, reckons Doug Faulkner, athletic director and former coach of Greenville College, a small liberal-arts school in southern Illinois that's one of the few opponents each year that Sanford-Brown has more than a snowball's chance in hell of beating.

"I think he has a philosophy about sport that is healthy and also now almost obsolete," Faulkner says of Campbell, whom he has known for a decade and a half. "I think he does a great job, given that he has players who can't make it to practice and that he doesn't have a facility. He doesn't have the same stability that a residential campus affords you. He may have twenty-five players now, but he may have just ten by Christmas.

"But he doesn't cheat his players," Faulkner adds. "He doesn't soften things up for them. I've heard his halftime speeches. He's trying to hold his team accountable. He's not just trying to give them an intramural experience."


A powerful six-foot-two-inch native of East Orange, New Jersey, Anthony Drejaj enjoyed a surprisingly productive freshman year at Saint Louis University, an NCAA Division I program, garnering serious playing time behind leading scorer Marque Perry and floor general Josh Fisher during the 2002-03 season. This year, even with Perry gone and a solid first-year track record behind him, Drejaj expects stern competition for precious minutes in the Billiken backcourt from Fisher, über-talented Villanova transfer Reggie Bryant and prize frosh recruit Darren Clarke of Minnetonka, Minnesota.

So for Drejaj, the off-season is no time to party on the basis of past successes. Judging from last year's performance, his jumper is in need of some serious refinement -- and he knows it. Evidence the sophomore's typical September day:

7:30: Rise and shine

8 a.m.: Long run with teammates (T, Th) or short-fiction class (M, W, F)

9 a.m.: Economics class

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