Saturday night, I drove to Chipola College in Marianna hoping to see a few flashbacks of yester-year style hoops. And then a basketball game broke out.
And this one was complete with high-flying players from all over the country. As an exhausted near-capacity crowd exhaled at the final buzzer, Chipola had avenged one of its only two defeats, beating Northwest Florida by three.
One word to describe what I witnessed? Quick. I’m talking big-time quick, from the centers to the backcourt, if you weren’t a skilled, super-quick athlete with a high basketball I.Q., your family would’ve demanded you be taken out of the game from sheer embarrassment.
Chipola’s made national headlines many times during its storied basketball existence. The building in which the Indians play is named after the legendary Milton Johnson. Now, fittingly, they’re coached by Indiana native Patrick Blake, who spent four years with Rick Pitino at Louisville and a later stint under Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss.
But you see, the majority of the players in the rough-and-tumble Panhandle Conference are placed at member schools, players who need a push academically, need to learn the game a little better or play for a fundamentally-sound coach who has contacts all over the country.
“Sure we have guys who contact us about playing here,” said Blake on my radio show Monday. “Networking is a lot of how we recruit. They know our system and send them to us sometimes until they’re ready.”
Now 21-2 and primed to move up in the national poll, Chipola was No. 12 when the school came from an eight-point deficit with three minutes to play to beat No. 4 Northwest Florida, Their players hail from places such as Denver, Durham, N.C., St. Louis and even Nigeria. In fact, the 7-foot center, Joseph Uchebo would make Blake’s squad almost unbeatable but he has a loose knee cap that needs to be fixed and doesn’t have the money to do it. Hey, Auburn, Alabama, how about giving this kid a scholarship, redshirt him while he recovers, and have a legit center for a couple of seasons.
Second thought, the Tigers and Tide probably wouldn’t have much of a chance signing the kids I saw. Northwest Florida’s rocket of a point guard, Chris Jones, is assuredly going to play for Pitino. Other players on their team are from the Bronx, Memphis, Philadelphia, Memphis and Milwaukee. Head coach Steve Forbes obviously has a good ballclub with recruiting contacts to boot.
So why is basketball taught by guys like Blake and Forbes so superior to what we see in Alabama? Blake thinks it’s simple.
“This is where football is important, and they have won championships,” he said. “Not saying there aren’t any good players down south. Some of the best I’ve ever coached were from the south. There’s just way more of them in the Midwest. Not that much difference in the quality, but a lot in the quantity of good players.”
And hey, it’s not just the men’s team. The women’s team, now 20-3 was ranked No. 8 in the nation when it edged No. 5 Northwest Florida Saturday. Chipola’s best player is arguably Kristine Brance, a guard with a spotless all-around floor game, who hails from Riga, Latvia. She played on her country’s national team in the London Olympics.
Blake’s bunch has three more home games: Feb. 5 against Gulf Coast, Feb. 9 for homecoming against Tallahassee and Feb. 19 against Pensacola. And the state tournament is at Chipola March 6-9. It’s hard to descrbe the difference in play with mere words. See it for yourself. But a warning: Don’t blink or you’ll miss something.
Phil Paramore’s column appears Tuesdays in The Dothan Eagle. He can be heard weekdays from noon until 2 on AM 560 WOOF, 100.1 FM or at www.woofradio.com. He can be reached at the same website.