Originally published November 26, 1997.
Past the college, the only lights under the night sky come from towering oil rigs. A parking lot outside the men's dormitory is lined with pickup trucks and horse trailers. When Rafi Stevens first showed up at New Mexico Junior College this fall as a basketball recruit, he didn't realize he'd be sharing his campus with livestock.
''You can hear cows hollering like they're sick,'' said Stevens, who starred at Roman Catholic High School. ''They drive me crazy. ''
Following a long line of Philadelphia players, Stevens is living in this oil and ranching town, three miles from the Texas border, and sharing a dormitory with the rodeo team. Several feet from the school gym is the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame, celebrating a century of life on the open range.
Stevens is more than willing to coexist with cattle because New Mexico Junior College is a proven way station on the road to NCAA Division I basketball. About 90 players have left NMJC with basketball scholarships to four-year schools in the last three decades. Players usually go to NMJC not because they lack talent, but because their high-school grades and SAT scores didn't pass muster.
''I knew it was different,'' said Albert Crockett, a sophomore guard from Philadelphia's Edison High. ''I didn't know it was as different as it is. I'm not into rodeo. Everybody down here, they chew, they dip. Down here, it's all enchiladas - burrito this, burrito that. ''
While eating a steak at the local Sizzler, Crockett said: ''It's been my dream to play Division I and have my name on the back of my jersey. That's what I strive for. ''
Since 1982, the Thunderbirds basketball team has always had a player from Philadelphia or nearby. Coach Ron Black said his best team, the 1986-87 squad, had three Philly starters. ''I've started as many as five Philly kids before,'' he said. Twenty-one players from the Philadelphia area are among NMJC's top 82 all-time scorers.
Stevens, the latest arrival, said he was stunned when he first got to Hobbs. ''You see straight out for miles,'' he said. ''You see nowhere. ''
He had to adjust to overnight bus trips for games around the Southwest (''I get carsick'') and morning runs under a close sun. (''I think I got seven shades darker. I told my mom I'd be purple by the time I'd get home. '')
Another thing Stevens says about the place: He thinks it's good for him. He could have gone to a junior college close to home, but there would have been distractions. He would have been around his friends all the time. His grades are better at NMJC, he said, than they were in high school.
Crockett said the same thing. He had considered going to a junior college on the East Coast. ''My dad said, 'Too close,' '' Crockett said.
Stevens and Crockett rarely have their hometown out of their thoughts, though. They endlessly debate who would have won if Crockett's Edison team, the '96 Public League champion, had faced Stevens' Roman team, the '96 Catholic League champion.
Crockett: ''We would upset you, like everybody else. ''
Stevens: ''I don't want to start the comparisons. We're not Gratz or Frankford. ''
(In '96, Edison upset undefeated Frankford in the regular season, then knocked off Simon Gratz in the Public League final. )
Crockett: ''You would have underestimated us, like everyone else. ''
Stevens: ''How many championships did Edison win in the last 30 years? ''
They figure it's good that they're not rooming together. ''I don't know if we'd get any sleep,'' Stevens said. ''It goes on and on. It gives us something to do. ''
Back in the dormitory, Crockett's roommate, Rupert McClendon, from Sacramento, Calif., shook his head. ''Last year, it was Edison versus Gratz,'' he said. ''I knew the whole starting five for both teams, and I've never been to Philadelphia. Now, with Roman, I know half their alumni. ''
In the dormitory lobby, Crockett and Stevens ran into three guys, each wearing huge silver 4-H Rodeo belt buckles. Crockett switched gears and began laughingly arguing about which team - the basketball team or the rodeo team - is treated better by the school.
They're all treated pretty well. Basketball players are on full scholarship. The rodeo kids, for the most part, get books, tuition and fees. The more events they're proficient at (bull-riding, calf-roping, steer-wrestling, etc.), the more scholarship money they get. And there are other potential perks. Because rodeo isn't regulated by the NCAA or its junior college equivalent, riders and ropers are permitted to compete professionally - they can earn up to $3,200 at college rodeos.
The sport is expensive, though. While the school provides the bulls and calves, the students have to provide their own horses.
One of the students wearing a 4-H Rodeo belt buckle was asked if he was on the rodeo team.
''I'm on the livestock-judging team,'' he replied.
Even the basketball coach at NMJC learned to brand cattle and build barbed-wire fences when he was growing up.
''My father-in-law's a real cowboy,'' Black said. ''My father had a ranch, but he's not a cowboy. He's kind of a city cowboy. ''
Black was a professor at NMJC for 11 years before he became the basketball coach 21 years ago. He still teaches American history, New Mexico history, and a class in U.S. government.
He landed his first Philadelphia recruit ''for the price of a stamp. '' That player recommended a friend, who recommended a neighbor.
''I got quite a few players from Philly before I ever went there,'' Black said.
The path from the Delaware Valley through NMJC to Division I has been well-established. Right now, DeWaune Wesley (Academy Park High) is at the University of New Orleans. Harry Allen (Norristown) is at the University of Memphis. Derrick Perry (Norristown) is at Rider.
Black has been to Philadelphia enough times now that he figures he probably knows the geography of the city better than many of his Philadephia players.
Once, he walked down a street in Center City and heard somebody hollering his name. It was a former player. Another time, he landed one of his top players - Southern High's Will Scott - after stopping at a South Philadelphia playground when he had some extra time on his way to the airport. A recruit's mother once mentioned to him that she'd seen him on television the night before. The Phanatic had been giving him a hard time at a Phillies game.
The coach hasn't gotten back to Philadelphia in several years, since his wife underwent brain surgery, but connections there still help him. Black said he was alerted about Stevens - the 6-foot-4 forward who is leading the Thunderbirds in scoring and rebounding - by Rowan University coach Joe Cassidy, whom he had met years earlier at a tournament in Houston when Cassidy was an assistant at Drexel.
''He told me he'd gone to the Conshohocken tournament and there were all these big-name players there, but Rafi got all the rebounds,'' Black said.
After the initial culture shock, Black said, players usually come to appreciate the friendliness of people in Hobbs, how they're invited into homes for dinners and stopped on the streets or at high school football games for autographs.
''This is an oil-field community,'' Black said. ''The whole economy is based on oil. I've seen stretches where people are living in motels because they couldn't get houses up in time. And other times, banks were foreclosing right and left. ''
The distractions are few. Across the street from campus is a working ranch. If players want to go to a decent-size mall or to a club, they have to drive 90 minutes to Midland, Texas.
If they get caught missing a class, they know the penalty - a 6 a.m. run. A sign on Black's door spells it out: ''Miss class, you report, run 2 miles. Miss class, coaches find out, run 4 miles. Late to class, you report, run 1 mile. Late to class, coaches find out, run 3 miles.
A mile is a loop around the campus, speed bump to speed bump.
There have been occasional troubles. One recent year, two freshmen from Philadelphia were charged with stealing a CD player in the dormitory shortly before they were supposed to leave for home at the end of the school year. The charges were plea-bargained to misdemeanors, but returning for their sophomore years wasn't an option for those players.
Black says that problems have been minimal overall, that players are thoroughly checked out.
The ball is good at NMJC, which beat out Odessa (Texas) College for the Western Junior College Athletic Conference (WJCAC) title when Larry Johnson, now a New York Knick, was playing for Odessa. The next season, NMJC beat out Midland College when Mookie Blaylock, now an Atlanta Hawk, was there. Black said only eight Division I conferences have more alumni in the NBA than the WJCAC.
If he can get past biology, Crockett figures to be another success story. Mullen's Roundball Review, a scouting report devoted to junior college players, calls the 6-foot-2 guard a sleeper with mid-Division I potential.
''He didn't have a great freshman year,'' Black said. ''We played him out of position - at the point. Last year, I would have even questioned if he was a Division I prospect. At the end of the season, I thought he was solid low Division I. Now I'd say he's mid- to high Division I.''
Most junior college players don't get recruited seriously until their sophomore years. If they didn't meet NCAA academic requirements for freshman eligibility, they can't go to Division I schools until they graduate from junior college, so recruiters usually don't spend much time on them until they see their freshman transcripts. And the four-year schools typically wait to determine their own needs before recruiting junior college players, who generally are expected to come right in and start.
''I think junior college players work harder than Division I players,'' Crockett said. ''They're trying to get there. ''
Richard Morris, the NMJC athletic director, says the Philly kids can always be found in the gym, which, to him, suggests a comparison with another sport.
''The thing about rodeo, it's very similar to basketball - you live it,'' Morris said. ''We talk about gym rats. We call the rodeo kids arena rats. One sport has Nikes. The other has Justins.''
''I think the basketball players are amazed when they see this little old friend of theirs from class get on a 1,500-pound bull,'' Black said.
The ballplayers do have experiences they never would have had otherwise. A trip to a tournament in Las Vegas means a stop at the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam.
Since the coach's hobby is backpacking - ''I've gone on trips for a week where I haven't seen another person,'' - he took his team on a 14-mile preseason hike in the White Mountain Wilderness Area. The hike began at 7,000 feet above sea level and went to 11,500 feet. Along the way, the players came upon a black bear who weighed perhaps 300 pounds.
''They won't forget that for quite a while,'' Black said.
McClendon, Crockett's roommate from California, won't forget how, all the way up the trail, the two Philly guys debated their favorite topic.
''You won the Public League. We won two NATIONAL tournaments. You wouldn't beat us.''
''That's what Gratz and Frankford said.''
''We're not Gratz and Frankford.''