Editor's note: The basketball game between Pacific Union College and San Jose State University has been rescheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6.
ANGWIN — They are not household names even on their own campus. Their home court, six snakelike miles up Deer Park Road, can hold perhaps 600 spectators on roll-out metal bleachers. No radio station, much less television network, beams their contests beyond the uplands of the Napa Valley.
Basketball as played at Pacific Union College is a world away from the big-time collegiate game where 10,000 or more fanatics, and millions more through television, scream their support of speedy, gazelle-like athletes awaiting their chance to become multimillionaires in the NBA.
The 15 athletes comprising the PUC Pioneers’ men’s basketball squad receive little attention and less renown, a small-college team in a small-school league hoping to improve on a campaign last season that produced but four wins in 28 games.
But other bonds tie this roster together: a chance to continue past high school in the sport they love, the security of the Seventh-day Adventist faith in which many grew up — and the chance once a year to test themselves against a high-budget, higher-profile school, as the Pioneers will do when they travel to San Jose State University on Thursday night.
The framework for the Pioneers’ new season was being laid inside the Pacific Auditorium, a row of wooden arches nicknamed “the covered wagon” for its resemblance to a gigantic Conestoga canopy.
On a Thursday afternoon in mid-October, two weeks before the opening night of the new season, the players had donned their green-and-gray practice shorts and jerseys, worked in the weight room downstairs and finished their sprints before readying themselves for the start of practice.
But their coaches didn’t set them to dribbling or even stretching at first. Instead, Bill Redman and his assistant, Greg Rahn, collected sheets of paper from each athlete — the twice-monthly grade-point reports each player is required to hand in to participate in the Friday scrimmages.
“No weights today — stick to the cardio, OK?” Redman, the team’s new head coach, called out to Mack Bertram, a sophomore shooting guard coming off a back injury last season.
For 21 years, Redman has coached at a succession of high schools, both Adventist and public, in Illinois and California. But what has made his latest stop special, he said, was working with athletes like Bertram whose only flaw, he said, was an over-eagerness to put in extra effort.
“I’ve got guys coming off injuries, and they’re ready to go and I actually have to pull them back, keep them on their rehab (timetable),” he said with a hint of quiet pride. “I know this: I’ve got great kids who are working hard, who are respectful, and I think we’ll be OK.
“As a faith-based school, we’re looking for men who aren’t just basketball players but men of character. I won’t judge them, but if they’re not Christians, they at least have to know what we’re about. The gauge I use is, would I let them date my daughter? Every man on this team, I’d be proud to let them knock on her door.”
Adventism vs. competitive sports
Pacific Union College fields six teams — basketball and cross-country running for both genders, soccer for men and volleyball for women — in the California Pacific Conference, a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. The NAIA’s 255 member schools are overwhelmingly smaller colleges and universities, a world of tiny athletic budgets and near-invisibility in the national sports media.
With about 1,500 mostly undergraduate students on its campus atop Howell Mountain, PUC fits the typical profile of an NAIA member school. Most public attention devoted to the college has turned not to its playing field but its academics, which gained it a place on U.S. News and World Report’s annual ranking of top-tier schools from 1994 to 2010.
Even such low-wattage competition, however, has long been a challenge to one of the Adventist faith’s tenets: the avoidance of excessive rivalry and strife in believers’ daily lives.
“The Seventh-day Adventist Church is opposed to interschool league play (commonly known as varsity athletics) in its educational system,” the church states in one of its official statements on Adventist.org. “The major rationale for this is 1) The inherent hazards of competitive rivalry have the potential to be exaggerated in interorganizational events; and 2) The commitments of time, personnel and finances are usually disproportionate to the number of individuals able to participate.”
Despite the church’s ambivalence about athletic competition, sports teams have become a fixture at many Adventist high schools, and Redman estimated about half of this season’s basketball roster is drawn from Adventist-run academies.
A 2001 essay published in the Adventist Review spells out the rationale for bringing one’s faith onto the ballfield or court. The author, former Adventist pastor Alex Bryan, argued that competition has become inseparable from modern society — in academics, business, even among churches and faiths seeking followers — and that athletes, far from violating their principles, can instead sharpen them.
“In sport, maturity is realizing it’s just a game,” wrote Bryan, now the president of the Adventist-affiliated Kettering College in Ohio. “It’s calling a foul on yourself, celebrating the other team’s success, playing hard without playing dirty, scoring a touchdown without spiking the ball in your opponent’s face.
“Stay away from a competitive situation (including sports) if you can’t handle it,” he said. “But far better (to) grow in personal maturity to the place where you can handle competition responsibility. The genius of bearing the fruit of the Spirit is that it applies in every situation.”
In Angwin, Herbert Ford has seen six decades of transformations at PUC — from his arrival as a college freshman in the fall of 1949 to years as a journalism professor to his current leadership of the on-campus Pitcairn Islands Study Center. Among the changes have been the birth of the college’s sports teams, which began play in the fall of 1995 after the college had fielded only informal squads facing other Adventist schools.
“Those who wish for (interschool) sports to take place felt the interchange between players from PUC and other institutions is an opportunity for sharing Christian values, and I think that’s the basis on which this happens now,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t think there’s anything more complex than that. It’s not a proselytizing situation, but a sharing of Christian values we would hope our students have.”
For the Adventists such as Chris Miller, any challenges on the court pale next to the chance to play for a school uniquely attuned to their beliefs — including the Adventist Sabbath, which calls for the faithful to worship and cease work from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
“It seemed like a good fit,” said Miller, a guard starting his senior season in Angwin. “I played at Compton but it was a bit of a conflict with my religion,” he said of his experience dealing with practices and games that often clashed with the Adventist Sabbath.
“Here, I don’t feel any pressure to be someone or do something I’m not comfortable with. I know I don’t have to choose.”
At the end of a two-hour practice, the Pioneers made one more trip to midcourt — not to play but to pray, heads bowed, arms clasped upward. With the prayer’s end came a quick return to team spirit: the bellowing in unison of “One, two, three, PIONEER!”
Game in San Jose
On a schedule filled with like-minded, similarly small colleges from the NAIA, one game stands out — the road game against the San Jose State Spartans, an NCAA Division I school with an enrollment of more than 31,900.
The differences in sporting scale and ambition are as stark as a comparison between Angwin’s Quonset hut-like home court and San Jose State’s Events Center, a 7,200-seat arena with a new hardwood floor decorated with the likeness of King Leonidas and a heavily armored Spartan bodyguard. Despite a poor 2012-13 season that produced only nine victories and a coaching change, the Spartans, starting their first year in the Mountain West Conference, nonetheless can draw on the school’s athletic budget of $5.7 million.
Even San Jose State’s financial guarantee to its tiny opponent — the payment large schools make to smaller ones, trading a mismatch for a financial boost to the visitors — symbolizes PUC’s place on the pyramid of college sports.
The contract between the two schools includes a $2,500 payment by SJSU to Pacific Union College — a pittance compared with the $375,000 offered by the University of Miami’s top-10 football team this fall to play Savannah State, which lost 77-7 on Sept. 21, according to a contract obtained from SJSU and published reports.
In Angwin, however, coach and players alike appeared calm and level-headed about the upcoming San Jose trip, however huge the apparent mismatch in talent and resources. Whether the calm attitude stemmed more from realism or religious principle, most appeared to accept the game as a time to measure and test themselves rather than vanquish a foe.
“Losing’s never a good feeling, but knowing the level of (competition), it differed so much we were happy with the effort,” Bertram recalled of last season’s game at Santa Clara University, in which the Pioneers lost 75-45 but also held the Broncos to their lowest season score to that point. “... Coach (Kirt Brower, now the PUC athletic director) told us to go out there and give it our all and represent God, and the rest would play out by itself.”
Redman, the team’s new coach, plans to share a similar attitude with his players — one he has held onto since his playing days three decades ago at Lewis College, a Chicago-area Division II team that played crosstown DePaul in a period when the Blue Demons were reaching the 1979 Final Four and 14 NCAA tournaments in 17 years.
“They’re probably not worried about what we’ll do!” he said with a ready laugh. “I’m sure (the Spartans) will do what they do, and do it well.”
The coach readily conceded his future opponents’ advantages in athleticism and especially size — the Spartans feature two 7-foot players with at least a 7-inch edge on any Pioneer — but promised to have his squad play without fear or fretting.
“We’ll tell them: ‘Guys, have some fun. It’s a chance to play against great athletes in a great program,’” he said. “It’s a great memory to play the best of the best. I got to play DePaul and 30 years later, I remember every single minute of that game.”
Pioneers start their season
Breaking down video of San Jose State would have to wait, however. On Tuesday, PUC’s opening game, a home contest against West Coast Baptist College of Lancaster (which subsequently defeated the Pioneers 82-73), was two nights away.
Early in practice, Redman let his charges know of their lack of urgency in no uncertain terms, after players were slow to rotate from one sideline to another during a defensive drill.
“We got a game in two days! Think about what you’re doing! Game speed, let’s go!”
“Gentlemen: If you look this disorganized on Thursday, I will put you back in that locker room and we’ll start all over again.”
“We do not practice the wrong way! You think you’ll flip the switch on Thursday? Well, you won’t.”
Gradually the players picked up the pace, especially with their defense. In three straight sequences, the defensive squad forced an errant pass out of bounds, another pass thrown too long, and then stopped a fast break and a rushed 16-footer that barely grazed metal.
“We play defense like we are now, and I guarantee we’ll win by 20!” their coach said, growing as animated as his players’ side-to-side guarding of ball handlers. The concentration and drive remained even after the team was moved to a side court midway through the session — moved aside to make room for teenage girls from PUC Preparatory School, a few miles down Howell Mountain Road from the college.
After practice, the Pioneer basketballers headed into their locker room amid the thumping of volleyball spikes and kills a few feet away, then re-emerged on the hardwood in their new uniforms — crisp outfits with green lettering and gold trim, “PIONEERS” arced in front.
An umbrella-clad flashgun sent bursts of light onto the floor as the players posed for the new season’s official photos — looking as fresh as their so-far unspotted record.