Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

The Mountain Pass Basketball: In the hills of Western Maryland, Allegany College takes players far from home and gets them into Division I programs.


CUMBERLAND -- A few steps inside the Allegany College gym, jerseys hanging near the ceiling represent 75 players who have gone on to play Division I basketball since 1971. Beckoning with their rich reds, whites, blues and golds, they explain why a city kid heads for the hills, wondering along the way, where am I going?

"When we started hitting those mountains, I woke up," said Derrick Worrell, 20, a would-be star who recalls being roused by the uphill struggle through five mountain passes on the ride. "I was thinking, 'A couple of hours till we get there?' I was worried. It was definitely a new sight to look at."

Worrell came to this economically depressed city in Western Maryland on a roundabout route, making his way from Iowa, North Carolina and his first home, North Philadelphia. He has joined a long parade of players shepherded by coach Bob Kirk over nearly three decades at the junior college.

Steve Francis, the best ever, now wears No. 23 for Maryland, the fifth-ranked team in the country. After transferring from San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College to spend last season at Allegany, Francis is already bringing reflected glory to the two-year school as the national media mention his background.

"Everyone's called. Everyone's looking for a different angle," Kirk said. "I've never had so many people wanting to talk to me about basketball at Maryland."

Last week, soon after ABC-TV aired Francis' 24-point, seven-rebound performance in Maryland's win over Stanford, Kirk received three calls from players who wanted to be Trojans, two now playing elsewhere.

The phone was ringing again yesterday after Francis contributed 25 points in the Terps' loss to Kentucky on Saturday night before another nationally televised audience.

Worrell, who is the cousin of Houston Rockets reserve Emanual Davis, began trying to pattern himself after the former Allegany player last year.

"I saw the success of Steve Francis transferring from San Jacinto to here, and I just wanted to come in and get more exposure, try to get my name out there," he said.

Worrell didn't expect to be here, though. If not for academic troubles in high school, he likely would be where his old AAU teammates are, on national television. Brendan Haywood is playing for North Carolina; Craig Dawson, Ervin Murray and Antwan Scott are with Wake Forest. All will be serenaded by Dick Vitale this season; Worrell won't.

"All my teammates made it to Division I except me," Worrell said of a Carolina Warriors AAU team that finished third nationally in 1997. "I look at this as punishment that they get on ESPN and we don't get publicity like that. Academics is something I'll never mess up in again."

At Allegany, the coaches say the easiest part is eliminating the stigma of rejection for those who failed to meet the NCAA's toughened academic standards for four-year-college admission.

"We treat them like they're qualifiers," Kirk said. "We don't talk about the negatives. We do insist that they go to class. If anyone happens to miss class, we know about it and we say to them, 'You know this is what got you in trouble and that you need to make sure you're doing the best job you can of taking advantage of being here.' "

Showcasing talent

Others, like 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Jim Handlos, qualified, but hope to improve their scholarship offers by using Allegany -- and its national reputation -- as a springboard.

"The kids who come here know about our program," Kirk said. "We have a program. It's not just a team. The program's bigger than any team we've ever had."

Coaches pay attention, too. "We never play a game without having a Division I coach here," Kirk said.

Rick Barnes, the former Clemson coach now at Texas, said Allegany gives athletes an idea of what to expect at the Division I level.

"I know that if a player comes out of a program like that," Barnes said, "he's going to understand the work ethic. He's going to understand the discipline. He's been exposed to the same things that you're going to try to carry on."

Decades at helm

Kirk, in his 28th season, has 766 victories against 154 losses, while sending 133 players to four-year schools. Two -- Eric Mobley and John Turner -- made it to the NBA. This season, Kirk's team is 12-1 and ranked 15th nationally.

Before the Trojans' season-opening victory over Montgomery-Takoma Park, 14 of the 15 names on the roster were new, including that of Hugh Brown, a 6-5 freshman who played at Mervo in Baltimore last year.

Handlos was the only holdover from a Trojans team that went 30-2 last year, made Allegany's ninth trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament and sent five players to Division I schools.

"It [turnover] happens at junior colleges," Kirk said, saying that as a coach it's "not bad to try to teach new kids your system. Sometimes, its refreshing."

For one recent game, despite it being a weeknight, about 1,500 jammed Trojan Square Garden, adorned with tiled, mini-billboards that help pay athletic program bills.

Throughout the game, Allegany baseball coach Steve Bazarnic and members of his team sold Twizzlers, Snickers and popcorn as a fund-raiser, hoping to catch the residue of the basketball team's popularity.

Cumberland's 'Paterno'

Bazarnic, who started coaching at the school on the same day as Kirk and has more victories (833), compared the Allegany basketball phenomenon to that of Penn State football and Joe Paterno. "You talk in State College, you talk Joe Paterno. You talk in Cumberland, you talk Bob Kirk."

Carol Brown, a fan from Cumberland, said, "People like the fact that it's home-grown coaches. Coach Kirk could probably coach elsewhere and make the megabucks, but he chooses to stay here."

In the first half, Kirk's pre-game warning -- "We're not going to be very good" -- seemed prophetic. Several players bobbled the ball before the Trojans gained a 10-point lead. Lamont Sides, who transferred from Iowa State to be closer to home, pleased the crowd with a smooth jump shot.

Worrell, who did not start in his Allegany debut, showed both his strengths and weaknesses to be considerable. A wiry 6-7 and 215 pounds, he runs and jumps well, which serves him in transition. When he has the ball, he can beat a defender to the baseline. But without the ball, loitering under the basket, he commits three-second violations.

In the second half, Worrell stood out as one of the team's best prospects as the pace picked up. He finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds in a 101-66 rout.

Salesman Chuck Lowery has been coming to games since 1975, about the time Kirk began recruiting regionally and nationally instead of relying on Western Maryland products.

"The talent in our high schools isn't like the talent in our high schools used to be," Lowery said. "So if you want to see good basketball, this is it."

Far-flung hometowns

Kirk has won by bringing in players from locales ranging from Robina, Australia, to Camden, N.J. Most go through some sort of culture shock.

In particular, black players at Allegany come to a town of fewer than 25,000 where blacks make up less than 3 percent of the population. But Worrell was in this situation last year in Iowa.

"It was a shock, from being around black people all the time to being in a place where I don't know if [blacks] made up 1 percent of the students," Worrell said of his stay at Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs. "It was a wake-up call, but it changed me for the better. Cumberland is not Iowa, but it's almost the same thing."

Dominick Taylor, a 5-10 freshman from Louisville, Ky., said there are no black barbers in Cumberland, so many players rely on guard Sides for haircuts. If Taylor wants to go out, he can forget it. "There's only one club in town, and that's for high school kids," he said.

So, one week into his freshman year, he called his mother. She bought him a ticket on a bus that he took home to Louisville.

"I tried to cope, but it wasn't happening," said Taylor, who pulled himself together and returned to campus. "I wasn't used to the atmosphere. I'm used to something to do. Here, it's schoolwork, basketball and home to your room."

Making the grade

At junior college programs, the challenge is to change the habits of players who struggled academically in high school.

"Most are deficient in putting the time and effort into it," said Trojans assistant coach Mike Baker, who played for Kirk in 1973-74. "You'll find that with a lot of our guys. Just being around the kids, you can get an idea of what kind of intelligence they have. But because they're great athletes, they're kind of scooted through."

The pace and small size of a two-year campus benefit some players.

"The class size at the community college level is 25-30," said George Killian, the NJCAA's executive director for the last 29 years, "so there's a lot of individual attention."

Worrell, who attended Goldsboro (N.C.) High School through his junior year, had a grade-point average of 1.79 at that point, so far below the current NCAA cutoff of 2.5 that recruiters didn't bother.

"I'm sure a lot of people looked at him, but once they saw the transcript, that was it," Iowa Western coach Jim Morris said.

Morris said Worrell thrived at Iowa Western. In addition to averaging 14.6 points and 9.3 rebounds, he had a 3.4 GPA last year. Each day began with a team breakfast, continued on to class and practices, and ended with study hall.

"He flourished here academically," Morris said. "He was very conscientious, and the teachers liked him. What Derrick needed was structure."

When Worrell decided to transfer to Allegany, he conferred with Randy Tilley, his coach during his senior year at Southern Wayne High School.

"He and I went around and around about it," said Tilley, who received assurances about Allegany from North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge.

"Sometimes, you don't know if the program is clean and if they're going to prostitute the kid," said Tilley, who then gave his blessing to the move.

Playing by the rules

The coaches at Allegany say another key to a successful turnaround is a brand of raw discipline that has not wavered during Kirk's regime.

Get caught smoking marijuana, as two Allegany players did last year, and you're out. Report for practice late. Out. Wear a banned hairstyle. Out.

Referring to a Cumberland community that supports the team with its money and its attendance, Baker said: "People around here don't like that. They're used to the stuff they grew up with, and those are things that go with overall discipline.

"You have to have a line where kids can and cannot go. If things are important to you, then the earrings and the cornrows can go."

Some think of the restrictions as being close-minded. "They don't accept what others believe. They don't want to know you on the inside," said Rashaan Johnson, a Monmouth signee and one of last year's five Trojans freshmen who didn't return.

"I wonder if Rastafarians were ever denied coming there because he [Kirk] didn't like that look," said Johnson, a Takoma Park resident who attends Montgomery College without playing basketball.

Questioning academics

Nan Putnam, an Allegany associate professor of English, challenges the idea that basketball players are not allowed to slide through classes in the same manner as some in high school.

"For the county and the school, they are great ambassadors," Putnam said of Kirk and his coaches. "My main concern is that while he [Kirk] will say that they emphasize academics, I'd say that that's not completely true, having had some of them in my classes. Many do not complete their A. A. [degree] here. I know there are quite a few who don't."

Putnam has taught at the school for 28 years. Twelve years ago, the NCAA began requiring associate's degrees for junior college transfers who failed to qualify in high school. Since then, Allegany said, 58 of 60 sophomore players have graduated.

Lowell Markey, 53, a political science professor at Allegany for 11 years, commended the basketball program. "I'm aware of a couple of players who had some real academic-skill problems. I think the coach can take pride in the fact that those young men were pulled into acceptable college-level performance before they left here.

"If we bring in someone without skills and give them skills," Markey said, "that's what this school is all about."

That's what Worrell and several other Trojans are banking on. They will get the preparation they need, give a few wins to this town, and leave.

"I'm just waiting for the payoff," Worrell said. "That's what keeps me pushing on. I know that I have a chance to play Division I. That's what I'm waiting on."

Pub Date: 12/15/98

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad