BOWLING GREEN - College basketball players are born on the steamy, asphalt courts in the big cities, on playgrounds with chain nets, rims twisted by countless dunks and graffiti-laced backboards - that's where kids with a real game come from, right?
Kids from places named Chickasaw, Kimball and Middle Point can play a little too. In some of these specks on the map, basketball might be the only game in town, if there is a town at all.
Bowling Green State University, which got some national attention with its 13-1 start this season and is still a strong contender for post-season play with its 20-6 record, has a collection of players from places you've never heard of, places you likely could not find, even with directions.
Seniors Brandon Pardon (Middle Point, Ohio) and Brent Klassen (Kimball, Neb.), junior Kris Gerken (Hamler, Ohio), sophomore Kevin Netter (Frankfort, Ohio) and freshman Cory Eyink (Maria Stein, Ohio) probably never learned to cross the street when the sign said WALK, because most of these towns don't even have a stoplight. Kimball, the metroplex of this group, has one.
Bowling Green coach Dan Dakich says that kids who can play the game come from everywhere, not just urban areas. Dakich is not surprised that he was able to find five Division I players in villages of less than 2,500 people, and some with a lot less than that.
“These kids have all wanted to be good since they were pretty young, so they have worked at it, and have probably done a lot of work on their own,'' Dakich says. “What they have in common is that they have all been coached hard in high school. They didn't come to college and go into shock when they got pushed a little. Their high school coaches all worked these guys pretty hard, and that's made them better college players.''
Dakich says that the proliferation of basketball camps and the growth of summer tournament play has allowed the small-town players to be exposed to different types of talent. They first see that they can play at a high level, and season their game at the same time. Bill Wallace, who coached the 6-8 Klassen at Kimball High, agrees.
“Kids who love the game, they find a place to play no matter where they are from,'' Wallace says. “They work and get better and better. Look at the Nebraska football team. Most of the linemen are from dinky little farm towns here in Nebraska, and most of them only played on eight-man teams in high school. But they work at it and they turn out to be some of the best Division I players in the country, year after year.”
No one to pass to
Bowling Green senior point guard Brandon Pardon led the Mid-American Conference in assists last season with more than seven per game, sixth-best in the nation. He is far and away the conference leader in that category again this year, but in his hometown of Middle Point, Ohio, it was tough to find someone, anyone, to pass the ball to. Middle Point, a hamlet on the Little Auglaize River, is about halfway between Delphos and Van Wert - hence the name, Middle Point. It has never had a stoplight.
“We've got a four-way stop, but that's it,” Pardon says. “We've got a couple of bars around the area and the local pizza shack. It's just a little rinky-dink town, but I'm proud of it.”
The Conrail tracks still slice through the village, but the Pennsylvania Railroad station in Middle Point was torn down in the late 1960s, and there hasn't been much traffic through town since, except for 1997 when Pardon led nearby Lincolnview High to a 27-0 record and the state championship.
He was the player of the year in the state with a game that he developed in Middle Point.
“I had to play on my own a lot, so my backyard was really where I put in the hours,” Pardon says. “When I got a little older my parents drove me into Van Wert and I would play all day at the YMCA there, but I couldn't guess how many hours I spent practicing or playing on my own. It was a lot.”
Pardon started college at Wright State, but transferred to BG where he is completing his third season. A home crowd is roughly 10 times larger than the population of his home town, but the pressure has never bothered Pardon.
“One thing that's helped me a lot is that no matter where I came from, I never doubted my ability, or the fact that I could play at this level,” Pardon says. “I've worked just as hard as anybody else out there - probably harder than a lot of people - so I deserve to be where I'm at. It's the same ball, and the same basket for everybody, so where you're from shouldn't really matter at all.”
Really big shoe
While introducing his players to a bunch of kids before a basketball camp, Dakich had Kevin Netter peel off one of his size 17 Nikes and showed it to the crowd, telling them Netter's shoe was larger than Kimball, Neb., Klassen's hometown. It was a joke, but it was not all that far off.
Kimball sits on I-80 in a predominantly rural, grain-farming area. Nebraska is 485 miles wide, and Kimball is about as far from Ohio as you can get and still be in Nebraska. It's an eight-hour drive from Lincoln, the state capital.
Kimball is tucked in the corner of the Nebraska panhandle, less than 30 miles from Wyoming and Colorado. It is close to the highest point in Nebraska at 5,426 feet, but “it's just a hump in the pasture,” according to the locals.
“It's kind of the middle of nowhere, I guess, but it's a good place to be from,” Klassen says.
Farmer's Day is the big event each year, and the cow chip throw is one of the main attractions. There was a Titan missile silo here for years, but a windstorm took it down. The kids used to hang out at Big Al's Mini-Mart when Klassen was in town. He sought out the older crowd when it came time to play basketball.
“When I was in seventh and eighth grade I'd go to the park and play against older guys, high school guys,'' Klassen says. “But even though I'm from a really small town, I never had any doubts over whether I was good enough to play in college. It was just a question of getting the opportunity to play. Most colleges don't recruit places like Kimball; they just focus on the big cities.”
Klassen played a year at New Hampton Prep, and is in his fourth season with the Falcons. Although a prolific scorer in high school, he is primarily a defender and rebounder for Bowling Green.
“Kimball is like every other small town -- it's not necessarily the place, it's the people you like,” Klassen says. “I go back to visit and everybody has been keeping up on how we're doing. We just got the Internet last week [he's kidding]. The people there, they really care about you.”
Klassen's high school coach says if college success is connected with time spent in the gym, he is not the least bit surprised that Klassen is a quality MAC player.
“The big cities probably have the competition that we lack in the small towns,'' Wallace says, “but I feel like these kids from small towns probably have the work ethic that a lot of those big-city kids lack.”
In the suburbs?
Kris Gerken lives just outside Hamler - in suburban Hamler. He would be away from the hustle and bustle, if there was such a thing at any time other than on Saturday morning when the volunteer fire department holds its popular monthly breakfast.
Hamler is at the intersection of State Routes 18 & 109 in Henry County. It is seven miles south of Malinta, eight miles east of Holgate, and 16 miles north of Ottawa. Hamler is one of several Henry County hamlets that feed Patrick Henry High School, where Gerken played on a state championship team in 1997. He was all-state in both football and basketball.
“My friends and I, we just got together and played sports every day - at recess, after school, on weekends,'' Gerken says.
Hamler takes good care of its basketball players, who have the use of a covered facility in the village park that features three full-courts. Summerfest, with its polka bands and German foods, takes over the park for a week every year, but that leaves 51 weeks for basketball players to develop.
“In high school, we won the state and we beat Cleveland Villa-Angela/ St. Joe -- a school that has a great history and some top players, and we also beat a Dayton Christian team that had some very good athletes who went on to play college ball, and we took it to them,” Gerken says. “There's no doubt in my mind that kids from small towns can compete. You see it all of the time.”
Dave Krauss coached that state championship team at Patrick Henry.
“I don't think the coaches at these smaller schools are surprised at all to see a kid like Kris play college basketball,” Krauss says. “For years, we've felt like our players are a little overlooked because they're not big-city kids. But if you look back at the great teams Toledo had under Bob Nichols, there were three or four of these kids from smaller towns - kids like Tim Selgo, Kevin Appel, Jay Lehman - on every team.”
A couple roads
Cory Eyink grew up in Chickasaw, but now lives a few miles away, in the southeastern corner of Mercer County, about 10 miles south of Grand Lake St. Marys. Three German immigrants settled in the area in 1833, and they spoke a dialect called Plattdeutsch.
Maria Stein is one of six tiny communities they started that now make up the Marion Local school system. The area is well-known for its ornate churches, and the Shrine of the Holy Relics just a couple of miles from Eyink's home in Maria Stein.
“It's really nothing but houses on one side of the road, and houses on the other side of the road,” Eyink says. “There's not really a town or anything like that. We don't have a stoplight. It's basically two roads that come together. That's my town.”
Eyink had an older brother who played on the Marion Local High School team, and Cory served as the team manager from second to sixth grade.
“That got me in the gym, and I'd be in there every single day shooting around, just getting my hands on a basketball whenever I could,” the 6-8 freshman says. “Basketball just stuck to me, and I think I grew to love it from being around the team all of the time.''
Despite being from a basketball-rich area with many more churches than stoplights, Eyink went out and found more good competition in the AAU ranks.
“That got me exposed to some pretty good players from all over,” Eyink says. “I think my college coaches have helped, too. They know whether you can play at this level or not. You can think it, but they really give you the confidence, and make you realize you can compete with anyone.”
That fact played out early for Eyink, who, in the first MAC game of his career in early January, found himself guarding David Webber, the conference player of the year from last season.
Keith Westrick, the coach at Marion Local, says Eyink, who dominated many games in high school, was driven to excel beyond that arena, and asked for the keys to the gym often.
“I think it all has a lot to do with the values these kids from small towns have when they come to me,” Westrick says. “They are not afraid to work. They have had discipline at home, so if a coach yells at them or makes certain demands on them, they don't go home and whine about it. They understand the value of discipline and respond.”
Big man in town
There are not many 6-10 kids walking around in Frankfort. None when Kevin Netter is away from home. Frankfort, in Ross County just north of where the Old Town Run hooks up with the North Fork of Paint Creek, has a gas station, but no stop lights.
Netter started playing basketball in the Adena school system in the Frankfort area, and stayed there from fifth grade until his junior year. He transferred to Southeastern in Richmond Dale, about 30 minutes away for his senior year, but still lives in Frankfort.
“I played summer ball with a lot of different guys from all over,” Netter says. “My parents sent me to a lot of different camps, too. I went to the Nike Camp, out to the camp at Iowa, and I got to play against a lot of bigger guys and some really good players. When I went back home, it was all smaller people that I was playing against, and I felt like I could handle them.”
Netter's father was a point guard, while his mother played in the post in high school, so he was tutored in all aspects of the game.
“We went to the gym and worked on shooting, dribbling, everything,” Netter says.
And it helped to be an athletic 6-10.
“Kevin came to the table with a lot of God-given tools,” his high school coach at Southeastern, Dan Easterday, says. “He grew up in some tiny little towns, but he got the out-of-area development that a great player needs, especially a big man. He was a very raw talent, but for his size he could run the court better than anyone. He played AAU and went to camps all over the place, and he played a lot up in Columbus against some pretty stiff competition.”
Netter says he has heard all of the jokes about being from a small town.
“Guys get on you about it,” Netter says. “But once they see you can play, that all goes away in a hurry. Where you come from doesn't matter. I have some fun with it though, and I tell them the sign outside my hometown says: ‘Population: dwindling.'”