Basketball Jones

Hunter coach Mike Brown loves the game so much, he quit big-time ball.

At Hunter, Brown doesn't need to worry about that. His team is made up of "guys whose basketball dreams never materialized. They're not playing to make it to the NBA. They're playing because they love the game." And for a chance to go back to school. Since his arrival at the Upper East Side campus, Brown has looked to give former Hunter players as well as former players from other schools a second chance at a college playing career and an education.

Prior to his arrival, the Hawks had a two-year record of 16-35. Last year, Hunter finished 28-2, won the CUNY conference championship, and made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division III tournament. They ended the sea son ranked seventh in the nation. "Mike Brown has been at all the major schools and coached under the spotlight," says Carlesimo. "He doesn't need that anymore. I think he's enjoying the relationships he has now with kids who play just because they like to play."

Because of the highly nomadic nature of the CUNY conference ("Kids always seem to play a year or two here or there and then leave to get a job," Brown says), Hunter has only three returning players from last year's team. As a result, the Hawks had a 3-3 record heading into this week's Salem State Tournament in Massachusetts.

"I have been on a lot of good teams, but this year's team is the best I've ever played on," says Chris Matesic, a 6-4 senior swingman and the only returning starter from last year's team. "I think we have a real good shot at a national championship. We have a lot of really good players joining us next semester."

Matesic is a typical Brown recruit at Hunter. Hampered by injuries in high school, Matesic started his college career at Westchester Community College, where he played on a team that went to the National Junior College Championships in 1996, before transferring to Hunter in the spring of 1997. This winter, Matesic will be joined by another promising player getting his second chance at a college career, Troy Pennerman.

The sixth man on the Hawks' 1995 CUNY championship team, Pennerman, 26, had been working as a computer consultant with the Port Authority when Brown found him. He left Hunter initially, he says, to support his kids (he recently had a son with his girlfriend and has two daughters from a previous relation ship), but decided to go back to school to get his degree in computer science. When he found out about Brown's education-first philosophy, he decided to give basketball another chance.

"My family is my priority," says Pennerman, who rejoins the team this week. "But Coach Brown understands that there are other things in life besides basketball, and he is willing to work with us so we can juggle school, work, and playing ball. I liked his style and definitely wanted to play for him."

"I think Coach Brown is learning about basketball again at Division III," adds Matesic. "He's committed to winning and demands a lot out of the players, don't get me wrong, but I think he sees the emotional side of the game now, too. He loves the guys, the team. I can see it in the huddle. I don't think it's as easy to access that at the Division I level. I think the higher you get in college basketball, the more you lose sight of the essence of the game."

While he has not yet closed the door on a return to Division I, Brown seems in no hurry to return to the big time. He calls Hunter "the best Division III job in the country" and says he plans to teach a course at the college on the history of the African American athlete.

"In Division I, there was so much pressure to win at all costs. If the young men got their degrees, that was secondary," Brown says. "The whole thing really wore me down. Here at Hunter, though, kids aren't playing because they want to be in the NBA. They're playing because they love the game. Like I do. I really love it here."

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