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College Basketball | Bill Plaschke

Only Dirt at Occidental Is in Flower Beds

March 19, 2003|Bill Plaschke

Sorry, Boss.

What do you mean, sorry?

I couldn't find anything.

As an NCAA investigator, you are paid to dig up something, anything -- cars, houses, Harricks.

I did the assignment. I visited one of Southern California's most successful basketball teams this season, Occidental College, to find out how it could advance to the final eight for the first time in the program's 95-year history.

Yeah, and you were supposed to uncover the story of another Georgia, or Fresno State, or St. Bonaventure.

I tried. I showed up in Eagle Rock on Monday after the Tigers had returned from losing to Gustavus Adolphus in the Division III regional final last weekend.

Gus Adolphus? Isn't he some crooked AAU coach?

It's not a person, Boss, it's a school in Minnesota. Occidental lost, but still finished 25-3. The team flew home to Burbank on Sunday, where it was met by an airport welcoming committee.

Aha, boosters with green handshakes, that's something!

Um, no, the committee consisted of three vans.

"I wondered if somebody would be waiting to greet us at the airport, and somebody was," said Coach Brian Newhall. "SuperShuttle."

Where were their fans?

At one home game this year at the 1,800-person school, they drew 100 people.

Where were their cheerleaders?

They don't have cheerleaders. Well, they have them, but they didn't show up for any of the games this year.

"A great year," Newhall said. "But we got shut out on cheerleaders."

OK, so surely some of their great players are being paid?

Well, yes, they are being paid. By their parents. For tuition.

It costs about $33,000 a year to go there, with room and board, and, as with all Division III schools, there are no athletic scholarships.

The players all receive money from home, financial aid, or places like Abercrombie & Fitch.

Oh, good, another scandal involving a retail store!

Um, no, players actually work at Abercrombie & Fitch during the season, or work at the library, or help teachers grade papers.

Virtually nobody on the team can just play basketball without holding down some sort of job.

Now we're getting somewhere! Gym rats working and playing hoops all day at the expense of their studies!

Well, that's not quite true either.

In his 15 seasons, Newhall has graduated all 55 players who have been with him four years.

A 100% graduation rate? It must be illegal! Tell me about the puff classes and cheating tutors.

You want the class list of leading scorer Finn Rebassoo?

Quantum mechanics. Thermodynamics. National Security and Arms.

"This is my senior year, so I'm taking it kind of easy," he said.

Last season, on Saturday nights, Rebassoo would score 20 points, grab six rebounds, then spend four hours in a physics lab.

"You might play basketball while you're at Occidental," Rebassoo said. "But you're not at Occidental to play basketball."

This being one of the most challenging schools in the country, there are no basketball study halls, because every hour is a study hall.

The Tigers bring their books to games, frequently studying in the stands while waiting to take the court.

Players have missed games to attend debates. They struggle in games after pulling all-nighters. Everyone is so wiped out during finals, the team shuts everything down for two weeks.

"This is why I'm able to survive academically," Rebassoo said. "Basketball clears my mind. It was an extracurricular activity that helped me handle the rest of school."

I know, Boss, I know. That sounds backward.

So how did this great season happen?

It started with the team's seven seniors, all of whom have been there long enough to understand the hard facts of Division III basketball, the only non-scholarship college ball.

Said Newhall: "We are at the bottom of the food chain."

Said Rebassoo: "My freshman year, I'm watching guys play on ESPN, in front of all the big crowds, with all the hype, and I felt bad. I wanted to go somewhere where I felt like the man."

As the years passed, however, Occidental taught those seven seniors that being the man has only a little to do with basketball.

The media guide is an eight-page pamphlet. Admission to the games is free. The players are not supplied shoes, but given a $50 shoe allowance that sends them running to the Internet, looking for deals.

"When it all comes down to it, you only play here because you love it," said Song Cun, a 5-foot-7 senior guard. "Your reward is attending a great institution."

The uniforms carry only numbers, not names. The biggest mistake is failing to pass. The second-biggest mistake is failing to defend.

This year's team had 95 more assists than turnovers.

Opponents had 111 fewer assists than turnovers.

The postseason banquet is usually held at the coach's house. The only awards given are for participation. The real dividends are unspoken.

"The sport taught me leadership and discipline in other parts of my life," Rebassoo said. "I evolved to the point where basketball was part of me, but did not define me."

This doesn't even sound like a real basketball team!

Oh, but it was.

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