|Monday, February 24
Winning at BYU is a black-and-white decision
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
Behind the visiting bench at Arizona State, there walked a proud BYU alumnus, a black basketball player wearing his letterman's jacket and inspiring his old coach to the brink of tears. Out of nowhere, Cougar head coach Steve Cleveland had a vision validating everything. He reached out to Silester Rivers, wrapped his arms around him and squeezed him so tight.
"I just had to tell him what it meant to me to see him there," Cleveland said. "This was something that a lot of people didn't think we could do."
Back in the beginning, these were Cleveland's favorite moments as a high school and junior college coach: The kids stopping back to visit, telling him they would do it all over again. Yet, this was different. This was BYU. This was a black player. And for the longest time, this had been a struggle. Rivers hadn't just worked to restore the program to respectability in his two seasons (1998-2000), but turned the tide on the turmoil surrounding the coach's commitment to changing the complexion of the BYU basketball program.
All at once at Arizona State in December, it washed over Cleveland: His plan to recruit more black players more relentlessly wasn't just worthy; it was working. It wouldn't just be enough for Cleveland to take this job six years ago and get the best Mormon recruits to return to BYU, the university founded and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He sold the school on reaching back to his own roots with inner-city players, with a recruiting pool that had long been ignored by his predecessors in Provo.
All those years of Mormon recruits, the Danny Ainges to the Shawn Bradleys, brought the Cougars a rich basketball history, if not a dubious and telling claim: BYU has the most NCAA Tournament appearances (19) without a Final Four appearance.
It wasn't just that Cleveland wanted to make his basketball program reflect the church's growing black membership around the world; nor that Cleveland had comfort coaching mostly black players in his junior college background. It was the purely practical purpose of getting great basketball players and winning again.
"This is a sport dominated by African-American players, and we need them to compete on the highest level," Cleveland said.
And so, five years ago, Cleveland awoke one night covered in a cold sweat and asked himself: "Do I want to bring in another African-American and have him fail?"
That had been the worst week of his coaching life, when his first two black recruits -- Ron Selleaze, his top scorer, and Michael Garrett, his point guard -- violated the university's strict Honor Code policy with a marijuana possession arrest at a campus party. They had come with Cleveland out of Fresno City College, where they played basketball for him before he was hired at BYU in 1997. Eventually, charges were dropped against Garrett, but he and Selleaze left school. Cleveland believed he was to blame.
"At that time, it was the most devastating thing in my 27 years of coaching," Cleveland said. "I had never been through anything so public in my life. I felt personally responsible because I didn't feel I put them in the proper position. I could've done more to prevent it. I should've been more pro-active. We learned our lesson."
After that night of soaked doubt, Cleveland reported to the BYU basketball office the next morning, gathered his assistants and told them: "We're not going to stop doing this." As he remembered thinking, "We've got too much to offer, and I told my staff that morning that we were going to continue to bring in non-LDS kids. It was the greatest decision I ever made."
Five years later, Cleveland has recruited four more black players to BYU, including starting junior point guard Kevin Woodberry and redshirt freshman Jermaine Odjegba. Cleveland was the improbable choice for the BYU job six years ago, an unknown junior college coach transforming into an inspired hire: Cleveland turned a 1-27 team into a Mountain West Conference power, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2000, in 2001 and 2002 and bringing BYU to the brink of the NCAA's again this season at 18-6 and 7-2 in the conference.
"If they want to advance into the tournament, they've just got to have that great African-American player to go along with the great Mormon player," says Jeff Chatman, an honorable mention All-America in 1988, and the only four-year black player in program history. "In the NCAAs in '88, we lost to a big, fast Louisville team with Pervis Ellison, LaBradford Smith, Felton Spencer and Kenny Payne. We had Michael Smith, who was an All-American and a No. 1 pick. But that wasn't enough.
"When Steve Cleveland went to the tournament in 2000, Cincinnati overwhelmed them with Kenyon Martin and Steve Logan. We didn't have anyone to keep up with them."
Says Rivers: "This isn't to say you if you took the best 12 white guys, you couldn't compete on a national level. But you're not going to have the best 12 every year at BYU. Duke has four, Utah has three, and Stanford has a couple. (Ex-coach) Roger Reid could get away with (all white players), playing a bunch of cream puffs out of league. But Coach Cleve is playing two Pac-10 (opponents) and some other great competition every year now. He needs players who will help him compete at that level."
If BYU is going to recruit the non-LDS athlete, Cleveland has to sell kids on making peace with the university Honor Code. If the black athlete can live with 996 out of every 1,000 students white, a student body and a community centered on the conservative Mormon culture, the Honor Code can be a difficult final hurdle. The code covers everything from premarital sex to caffeine, alcohol to tobacco, graphic movies and music to cursing.
"It takes a disciplined young man," Cleveland said.
If a recruit is interested with even the most ordinary party life available on the rest of the country's college campuses, he'll never want BYU. And probably never make it there.
"For me, the most difficult part was the honor code," Rivers says. "I've had never been in a situation where students are telling on others students. If you say the wrong word in public over the weekend, there's a pretty good chance on Monday you're going to hear about it."
Rivers warned Woodberry of this too, when he assisted Cleveland with recruiting this new season's point guard out of Dixie Junior College.
"You mean I can't wear my earring?" Woodberry asked rhetorically. "People will be offended if I wear a cross with Christ on it? The biggest thing, though, is that people should really mind their own business. You're going to tell somebody you heard me cussing? It's none of your business what I'm talking about. I don't like that at all. It's something I've had to adjust to. But if I don't want to do the rules, I didn't have to sign here."
Still, Woodberry says, "I'm happy here. The biggest thing, I guess, is that I wish I could shoot more."
From Chatman in the 1980s, to Rivers in the 1990s, to Woodberry today, they agree that most classmates aren't as consumed with reporting Honor Code violations as they are welcoming black students into campus life. Chatman says, "They treated me like a king there." Woodberry has had his own cheering section at the Cougars' Marriott Center from Midnight Madness in October, all the way into late February.
"Kids sense this isn't that easy for the black athlete, and they embrace them here," Cleveland says.
When Woodberry wears his doo-rag on campus, he does laugh that, "Everyone looks at me like I'm a monster." Still, he allows that he's as different to these students as they are to him.
Which has its benefits, of course.
"With the females especially, just to see a black guy is something they're not used to," he said. "And they're attracted to black guys down here. The girls are chasing you at BYU."
Said Chatman: "Because a lot of the white people at BYU didn't have much exposure to us, they were curious. They went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. I converted halfway into my senior year, but after I joined the church, the treatment didn't get any better because I was a Mormon."
Chatman had the rare experience of a four-year stay at BYU, something that could be repeated for the first time with a black basketball player should the freshman Odjegba stay the course at BYU.
When Ainge arrived in 1977, he roomed with a black player, Keith Rice. Through the years, Ainge has stayed close to the program, even sending his own son to Cleveland on a basketball scholarship this year. Ainge is a link to the most glorious time in BYU history, his coast-to-coast drive and lay-up to beat Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA Tournament the most unforgettable moment in Cougar lore. It brought BYU to the Final Eight, where it lost to Virginia. The Cougars have never come so close to the Final Four again.
"My experience at BYU with African-American players is that the ones that go there and have great success, because they're really good players, have a better experience," said Ainge, the Wooden Award winner his senior year in 1981. "Not just at BYU, but everywhere, sometimes the race card is pulled when people don't get their fair shake -- don't get as many minutes, or shot attempts, or as much freedom as other players. Typically, those are the players who aren't quite as good.
"That's a problem. You've got to play the best players. You can just play an African-American, because he's African-American. If that African-American doesn't have a good experience, it's a bad experience for BYU because that guy can say bad things about BYU, because, 'The coach didn't play me, and it's because I'm black,' and all that. And so, that happens. You can just get African-American players, because they're African-American? White, black, it doesn't matter. That's what BYU should be doing, trying to get the best players they can."
What makes this program unique are the voluntary Mormon missions that leave LDS-member athletes constantly shuttling in and out of the program. A player's mission cuts into the program for two years at a time, so junior college players can be crucial to filling the gaps. Ultimately, this is where most of the black players will come. Right now, Cleveland is recruiting "10-12" black JC players, hoping to sign one or two more for next year.
"For us, we had to come to the JC athletes to help with the missionary cycle," Cleveland said. "You've got to constantly be paying attention or that can get out of hand and hurt you. That's what happened to the program before I got here."
Beyond the Mormon church, BYU still struggles to get the elite high school star to consider the school, a reality that transcends black and white. Perhaps, it always will.
"I realize that we're not in a situation where we're going to have 8-10 non-LDS in the program," Cleveland said. "That's not going to happen."
The Honor Code hangs over BYU, a tough road to basketball glory with so many far easier ones out there.
"You definitely have to have the desire for the discipline to follow the rules," Rivers said. "All guys aren't cut from the same mold. BYU is not for everyone. But the chance for success after school is so much better. I'm in Arizona, and I get could get a job anywhere in the community because of how close the church is. For me, BYU made for a better life."
And on that December night Rivers had come walking into ASU's arena with his letterman jacket, a 64-60 BYU victory wouldn't be secured until Kevin Woodberry had grabbed a rebound and made a free throw in the final seconds of the game. Steve Cleveland was a step closer to bringing BYU back to the NCAA Tournament, back to a greater glory.
And all around him, from Silester Rivers to Kevin Woodberry, his vision for changing the face BYU basketball crept closer to validation.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.