BY PARRISH ALFORD
BLUE MOUNTAIN – It should not alarm Blue Mountain basketball fans that one of the school's first recruits in men's basketball was a tennis player.
Kenny Whitis traveled two time zones from home and left the urban Southwest for rural Northeast Mississippi and a chance to play basketball.
He made the decision on little more than some study of the school's Web site and a phone call. The phone call was significant, however, because it came from Jerry Connor, Whitis' high school coach.
And the coach of the first men's basketball team at Blue Mountain College.
“It was a chance to play basketball, basically,” said Whitis, who played point guard for Conner at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix.
There was an immediate history between Whitis and Conner, and that's important in a program that has no history at all.
“He's very familiar with running the style of basketball we want,” Conner said.
That style has been described as “controlled chaos,” an up-tempo style in which Conner will run platoons on and off the floor, with sometimes no more than 60 seconds on the court before being replaced.
Whitis didn't have many basketball opportunities out of high school and decided to give tennis a try at Paradise Valley Community College.
Opportunity is also a driving force for J.C. Hayles -the opportunity to play college basketball. Playing it close to home is pretty cool too.
Hayles, a Houlka native who played at South Pontotoc High School, was excited by the news that Blue Mountain was fielding a team.
Founded as a Christian girls school in 1873, BMC began its association with the Mississippi Baptist Convention in 1920. It had enrolled only male ministerial students before going coed officially in 2005.
Adding men's basketball came at a cost of $400,000, a figure that includes player scholarships, coaching salaries, uniforms, equipment, travel and other items. It does not include the volunteer labor that went into renovations for athletic department offices and locker rooms.
“It's not an inexpensive proposition to add another program,” Cowerd said. “We've been very fortunate to have the help of the volunteers and some generous donors, who are interested in the athletics program.
“We know in the long run it's going to have a very positive impact on Blue Mountain, because we're already experiencing a higher energy level on campus, and we haven't even played a game yet.”
There's a higher energy level off campus, too.
“Lots of people, like in the grocery store in Ripley or around town, have come up and asked, Do you play for Blue Mountain?' Everybody has been wanting a schedule,” Hayles said. “I'm real optimistic about everybody coming out and seeing what it's all about.”
Conner is also optimistic. He believes the curious could indeed turn out and give the Toppers a capacity crowd Nov. 10 when they take on Belhaven in their first home game.
The ladies begin the day at 2 p.m., and the men follow at 4 p.m.
The men open the season Oct. 30 at Belhaven, and the women open Nov. 1, also at Belhaven.
Conner was born in Sardis but moved to Phoenix when he was seven. He continued to learn about the area as he came back to visit grandparents in the summer.
Eventually Conner played baseball at Grand Canyon College where he was a teammate of Mississippi State coach Ron Polk.
A year in limbo
For the last year Conner has been in coaching limbo. There's been plenty to do, it just hasn't involved whistles and wind sprints.
“I enjoyed the past year. I got to see a game just about every night,” he said.
There were games at all levels, greetings and hand shakes, reminders that Blue Mountain does enroll male students and yes, there's men's basketball beginning next season.
The were other things to that go along with starting from scratch too, like filling a schedule and ordering balls and uniforms.
“Overall there's been a lot of enthusiasm for what we're doing,” he said. “It was one of those things where so many people said, It's overdue. We're really pleased to have a four-year school here in our area that is not a Division I school. There will be a chance, a place where some of our youngsters probably will go and play.'”
Conner, 66, started the program at Shadow Mountain in 1974 and amassed more than 500 victories and two state championships. He coached Sacramento Kings guard Mike Bibby.
He is hopeful that his frenetic approach to tempo will keep fans coming back. He believes it will help the Toppers compete in their debut season, but “I don't have any illusions about coming out and dominating the TranSouth Conference,” he said.
The Toppers compete at the NAIA level, and the TranSouth is an 11-team league composed mostly of Tennessee schools.
“I'm excited, because it adds scholarships that weren't available in the area,” Pontotoc coach Jon Ginn said. “That's 10-to-12 more opportunities to continue your education and experience the thrill of playing after high school.”
The first BMC roster includes 11 players now, eight of them from Northeast Mississippi. One more is from suburban Phoenix, and one is from Guin, Ala. Three more are expected to join for the second semester.
“There's some curiosity there. It's brand new, and he's bringing a style of play that's upbeat and will be fun to watch if he can get the players he needs to run it.”
Eager to get started
Whitis' time on the outside court with the waist-level net didn't replace his desire for the indoor court with the 10-foot rim.
“I didn't have to think about it too much. I wanted to play basketball and would pretty much have gone anywhere,” he said. “Here I get to go to college for free. I like it. It's a small town, and the professors are nice. It's cool, because we get to be a part of history as the first men's team.”
Like Whitis, Hayles turned to the internet to educate himself. He knew all about Blue Mountain but found a web site to read about Conner complete with the coach's accomplishments and pictures of Mike Bibby.
Hayles is the type of player Conner hopes Blue Mountain can reach, the athlete and competitor capable of advancing past high school, who might fall short of the major college benchmark.
“I hope we can furnish that type of niche here in Northeast Mississippi,” Conner said.