Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Street star adjusts to USI

This article is © 2007 EVANSVILLE COURIER & PRESS

Date: Friday, December 28, 2007 Section: Sports Page: C1 Edition:

Source: JACOB BENNETT, Courier & Press staff writer
Photo by JASON CLARK, Courier & Press photographer

On the playgrounds in Harlem, they know him as "Africa."

Out there, they don't hand out nicknames to just anyone, but Anthony Pimble earned his.

At famed Rucker Park, he stepped onto the green court with red paint and played alongside some of the best ballers in the world - and onlookers sitting in the beat-up bleachers inside the chain-link fence left talking about the 6-foot-6, 185-pound wingman with the really dark skin and the chicken legs that could take him to the moon.

There are playgrounds full of players like Pimble, guys who hoped their basketball skills would give them a chance at something better. Some got busted. Some got F's. Some got jobs because they got girls pregnant.

Pimble got out. First to a community college on the opposite side of the country, then to a Division II basketball school in Middle America.

And he brought the crowd to its feet the first time he stepped onto the University of Southern Indiana court, jumping over a ball rack - and a freshman teammate - to dunk.

His coach at USI says it's too soon to talk about where his legs might take him next, that he's still got a lot to learn. But the people back home who still ask about Africa say it's not too soon to dream.

Anthony Pimble grew up in an 18-story apartment building called the Lewis Morris, 1749 Grand Concourse, the Bronx. He had a little brother, Rashaun, seven years younger, and a single mother, Rosalie Pimble, 16 years older. Rosalie's eight brothers and sisters helped raise the boys while she worked minimum wage jobs and squeezed in nursing school classes.

Sometimes Pimble would watch the Rucker Park streetballers on TV, because basketball was one thing you could do in New York City without much money. He didn't really dream of getting out, or of being like Herman "Helicopter" Knowings or Earl "The Goat" Manigault, guys who made their names at the Rucker - a court named after a city parks employee who founded a basketball league that stressed the value of education.

An aunt asked the basketball coach at his middle school if her nephew could play. It would be a good outlet for his energy. Soon he was traveling with guys from the Square to nearby parks and gyms, playing against guys on high school teams and AAU clubs.

"You hear their names watching TV and you think, 'I was just in the park with them the other day,'" Pimble said. "'Maybe I could get good and get on some TV stations.'"

He elevated past a senior into the starting lineup; his grades dropped. He kept jumping for the rim, falling woefully short, until one day after his sophomore year he dunked for the first time. Soon, there wasn't a dunk he couldn't do.

Some of the guys he knew started stepping on the neighborhood's landmines - fights and other bits of trouble - and it was only a matter of time, Pimble figured, before they tussled with the wrong guys, ones who carried weapons.

"It's not a good neighborhood," said his friend Joe Bynum, who lived near 188th Street and Webster Avenue, where Pimble moved his sophomore year. "I don't know if you understand, but it's like the hood. People doing illegal things. Drug trafficking, robbing, stealing, doing drugs, cutting class. Anthony would always tell us, 'I'm not going to be a part of none of that.' He gets a lot of respect out here for not going down the wrong path. They like to see people do good. Even if they do bad, they like to see others prosper."

Rosalie Pimble suggested the Job Corps. Make a little money from the government and learn a skill while finishing high school credits. He could stay home or live on a campus.

Pimble and his mom went to a nearby Job Corps office to enroll, but they didn't bring all the necessary documents. Later that day, he told Bynum what he was considering.

Bynum had another idea. He had just graduated from Bronx Regional High School, a basketball dynasty that gives another chance to students in academic or other trouble. Thanks to Bronx Regional, Bynum was about to move to California to play junior college ball, until he got some unexpected news: He was going to be a father. He canceled his trip, got a job, and transferred his hopes onto Pimble.

"With his talent, Job Corps is not where he should be," Bynum said. "I told him to transfer to (Bronx Regional) so he could get more looks, more schools to see him play. 'You can use your skills and take it to the next level.' He's got a good head on his shoulders. He just needed a little more umph. He just needed a little guidance."

And a little commitment to his school work. Pimble sat out his junior year to get his grades up. But he was about to become a star.

Playing with the stars
That summer, 2003, his AAU coach got a call from a man named Tony Rosa, who coached the Harlem Mustangs in the Entertainer's Basketball Classic, a tournament featuring local stars, NBA players and rap musicians. Rosa needed a player for a youth division team that played on a court at 145th and Lenox.

A few weeks later, the Mustangs were short of players. Rosa asked Pimble to come out but wouldn't promise playing time. But when Pimble took the D-train from his apartment to the park at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, across from a housing project on the former site of the Polo Grounds, he learned he would start - NBA players Ron Artest and Theo Ratliff were running late.

There were movie stars in the bleachers and rappers on the sideline when Pimble took the court alongside Danny Artest, Antwan "Antifreeze" Dobie and Adrian "Wholelottagame" Walton, who played briefly at Fordham. Mic'ed up courtside were Jeff "Hannibal" Banks and Khalil "Boobie Smooth" Scott, the guys who for years cheered great plays, heckled lame ones and gave many stars their trademark nicknames.

"I had the bubble guts a little bit when I first started," Pimble said. "I wasn't worried about who was there. I didn't want to get embarrassed."

No worries. He threw down a dunk on his first fast break, and a star was born, said Gregory Marius, the event's inadvertent founder in 1980 when his rap group The Disco Four took on the Crash Crew while the Sugarhill Gang and the Treacherous 3 watched.

"To catch an offensive rebound and dunk it on a defender's neck, that's what caught everybody's attention," Marius said. "The first time I seen him do that, everybody had to look twice, 'Who was that?' From that moment, everybody knew who he was."

It took Hannibal and Boobie Smooth a couple of games to decide on a nickname, Pimble said. By that time Artest and Ratliff were in the lineup. Alongside them was Africa.

After Bronx Regional won the Public Schools Alternative League Championship in his senior year, Pimble said he had a miscommunication with a junior college coach and sat out the 2004-2005 season.

He moved with his family to New Jersey and worked in a suburban Shop Right supermarket, combing through the snowy parking lot for stray shopping carts. "There were, like, a billion carts," he said.

He started going to junior college showcases to keep in shape. But he had his mind made up: Ventura College in California. His friends Elijah Muldrow and Gary Nunez played there, and they arranged for him to talk to coach Greg Winslow.

Winslow said a lot of the players he lands want to be like Rafer Alston and Jamaal Tinsley, streetballers who overcame tough New York City backgrounds to land NBA riches. Winslow knows that's not going to happen for most of them, but he also knows an education would be as important.

"There's a ton of kids who are looking for an opportunity," Winslow said. "Most of them need an opportunity away from home. Somebody had to break the cycle. They probably won't all own homes, but for some guys, being in an apartment and being safe is like hitting the lotto."
It took Pimble half a season to adjust to life in college and California, and, Winslow said, to the college team concept, more structured than streetball. But Pimble came on at the end of his freshman year. "He was a crowd-pleaser," Winslow said. "The guy's a freak athletically. He can jump to the moon. There's something in his legs. You wonder how he can get up in the air so high on those chicken legs."

Making it to the Garden
That summer Pimble played for the Mustangs at Rucker Park for the fourth year, this time alongside Florida star Joakim Noah. They won the EBC title and Pimble was chosen for the EBC all-star game at Madison Square Garden on July 23, 2006.

His mother, a lifelong Knicks fan, was pregnant with twin girls. She thought she might have them in the Garden. Her son's monster game didn't help, as it turned into a dunk contest between Pimble and Ryan "Special FX" Williams.

The Dime Magazine recap: Africa throws down a sick windmill, and the crowd is going nuts! Special FX is matching Africa highlight-for-highlight. Africa pulls out a 360, after which he hangs on the rim like Spyda from AND1. Africa cops MVP.

Finding love and a team
In Pimble's sophomore season at Ventura, Division II coaches started showing interest.
So did K'Lah Houston, a friend of a teammate's girlfriend.

Houston thought he was cute. Coaches saw his athleticism and these averages: 15.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals.

Pimble had seen Muldrow go off to Arkansas Little-Rock and Nunez to Northwestern Oklahoma. He knew he would leave soon, so he didn't want to get serious with Houston. But they were hanging out at the same places together, and eventually spending much of their time together, alone.

He still needed to get serious about his next college. He went online and looked up their records over the last five years: Grand Canyon University in Arizona, Chaminade in Hawaii, Kentucky Wesleyan. But there was one program that stood out: Southern Indiana. USI had won at least 27 games in the last five seasons, and hadn't lost more than seven. He visited the campus in April and decided he didn't need to visit anywhere else.

Houston thought she might be pregnant. She didn't tell Pimble until July, a few days before he was supposed to fly away for good. He took her to the store to buy a pregnancy test. It was positive. She tried the second one in the package. Also positive.

She wasn't so positive.
At the very least, she was nervous. She'd just had her son, Dion, in September. She wasn't sure she could handle another. Pimble told her not to worry. He would be a good father.

He finished some summer classes to make sure he had all the credits he needed to play at USI. She flew to New York in August. He showed her where he lived, showed her where he grew up, showed her Manhattan. Soon, she would be on her way to Vicksburg, Miss., where her mother had moved seeking a more laid-back and affordable lifestyle. He flew to Evansville.

It was a big change from New York City and Southern California. He was lonely and bored. He thought about leaving. Houston discouraged him. She told him he would be fine once the season started.

"It's kind of hard, but he has to do what he has to do," Houston said. "I'd rather have him there than here doing something he's not supposed to do."

Pimble flew to Mississippi on Sept. 28 and came back two days later.

Two weeks later, he blew away USI fans with his creative dunks at the Midnight Madness preseason kickoff.

He still gets calls and instant messages from his friends back home. They don't believe him when he says he only dunked about eight times in the first six games - he used to get that many in a game.

But he knows he can attack the basket - now he's learning to guard on the perimeter, to dribble once and pull up quickly for a shot, to disrupt long inbounds passes. He has to know all these things if he is to keep playing after his USI career. He's too thin for the NBA right now, friends and coaches say, but a lower-level professional league isn't out of reach.

Even if Pimble doesn't play professionally, Winslow thinks he will be in good shape. He will have four years of college under his belt, and a degree at least within reach. "That will open doors Anthony might not have even thought of," Winslow said.

Inspired by his son

On Dec. 10, he got a new reason to strive to be the best. Anthony Lamar Pimble Jr. was born in Vicksburg, Miss.

In the two games since, he has totaled 29 points, six dunks and eight steals. He leads the Great Lakes Valley Conference in steals. In his last game, Dec. 19 against Ferris State, the PAC Arena crowd showered praise on him no fewer than four times, including three dunks - an alley-oop from sophomore guard Darren Cloud, a fast-break gorilla slam and a particularly filthy one-handed windmill on a fast break. He was also cheered appreciatively for his epic effort on a steal in which he tipped the ball away, fended off a guard who tried to get it back, and dribbled the ball between his legs, inches off the floor as if giving CPR to keep it alive.

He was even impressive when he turned the ball over, surprising Norman Plummer under the basket with a rocket behind-the-back pass that would have killed at Rucker.

USI coach Rick Herdes chastised Pimble immediately after for not making the simple pass, but admired him after the game. "That was a good pass," Herdes said. "It hit Norman right in the hands. I couldn't have made that pass. You're so quick, you don't know how quick you are."

Pimble said his only regret was that he didn't bounce the pass to give Plummer more of a chance. Then he said goodbye.

It was Christmas break, and tomorrow he would meet Anthony Jr. for the first time. Tonight he had to pack. He hustled out into the night, backlit by the light of the moon.

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