COMMENTARY – It was the mid-1990s and Dixie College was hosting a junior college tournament in Las Vegas. With a shoestring budget, Dixie coach Dave Rose liked to put these Vegas tournaments together because they were fairly cheap and some of the best teams from around the country would come.
His Rebels team could sleep in their own beds and the two-hour bus ride to Las Vegas was pretty inexpensive for a cash-strapped program, especially considering some of the other trips Dixie would face that season (Coeur d’Alene, Ida., Northern California).
The one problem Rose ran into was where to play. The Thomas & Mack Arena, UNLV’s home, was out of the question. Too expensive. The Orleans Arena had yet to be built and probably would have been too pricey as well.
So Rose turned to an old coaching friend at Durango High School, who gladly welcomed the college teams so his school and players could get a little exposure themselves.
Each year, this post-Christmas holiday tournament drew lots of Division I scouts, some of the best JUCO teams in America and … very few fans. Many games the boys in the logoed polos and sweat pants (the scouts) outnumbered the fans 2-to-1.
So even though the tourney was cheap to put on, Dixie College still lost money on it. And for a junior college program barely scraping by, every penny counted.
This particular season, Dixie had an excellent team, no surprise as Rose always put together great teams at Dixie. But with a mid-season suspension and some injury problems, the Rebels were short on big men.
Enter Bucky Orton, a 6-foot-6 tight end on Greg Croshaw’s powerful Dixie Rebels football team. Though he attended a small school (Kanab), Orton was big and strong and could fill a need for the Rebels as a back-up big man in the post.
Sound familiar, BYU fans?
Orton was a decent basketball player, but definitely had a football body. What he lacked in finesse and touch, he more than made up for in hustle and determination. He would also go on to become a crowd favorite.
Again, doesn’t this sound like someone we know?
After playing and starring in Dixie’s Rotary Bowl appearance, Orton joined the basketball team for a few practices before the Vegas Tournament. His grit and hustle was a refreshing burst in the Rebels practice sessions.
So as the Rebels went through warm-ups at Durango High’s shiny new gymnasium in preparation for their first game, Orton enthusiastically ran through the layup drills with his teammates.
A quick glance around the gym and players from both teams noticed the referees were nowhere to be found. In basketball, dunking in pre-game warmups is a violation, punishable by a technical foul. But with the refs absent, both teams began an impromptu slam dunk contest.
After a few high-flying slams, Orton’s turn came up in the layup line. Not to be outdone, the 255-pound bruiser soared high into the air, smashed the ball through the hoop and lingered on the rim for just an instant.
Even in this era of breakaway rims, a basketball standard can only take so much. With the weight and ferocity brought by Orton, the backboard surrendered to the laws of physics and burst into a thousand pieces.
Rose, who was sitting in the Dixie bench talking with a couple of radio guys (I was one of them), looked up at the last moment to witness the calamity, then shook his head and buried his face in his hands.
The game ended up being played in an auxiliary gym and Dixie’s hoops program recovered from the considerable expense of replacing the basketball standard. And in fact, Orton helped the Rebels immensely as they made a run to the JUCO national tournament.
But for a few moments on a chilly Vegas evening, Rose must’ve vowed to himself that he’d never take on a mid-season, football-playing bruiser again.
Of course, that was nearly 20 years ago.
Now Dave Rose is the immensely successful head coach at a big-time Division I basketball program that perennially qualifies for the NCAA Tournament and has staff members whose entire duty is to make sure BYU has the right kind of players in the right positions so that adding mid-season, football-playing bruisers will never be necessary.
And Dave Rose also has Bronson Kaufusi. The 6-7, 260-pound freshman is a crowd-favorite. He comes up a little short on the finesse side of things, but makes up for it in hustle and enthusiasm. And yes, he’s a mid-season, football-playing bruiser.
And he’s helped BYU, including a five-minute outing against San Francisco in which he got an offensive rebound, a steal and scored five points (much to the delight of the BYU student section).
The similarities to Orton are uncanny. The two are abut the same size and are getting their tuition paid for by the football program, not the basketball program. Both guys were multi-sport stars in high school who have something unique to offer the basketball programs. Both served LDS missions before their basketball stints.
And neither one would make a living off their basketball skills. Football is another story. Orton went on to star at Utah State and spend a little time in professional football before turning to coaching. Kaufusi already had a great freshman season for the BYU gridders and still has three more years as a key member of the BYU defense.
It’s a rare thing for a player at the level that Kaufusi (and Orton, for that matter) to play two varsity sports. But it is also fun and refreshing.
That being said, let’s just hope the referees are on time for all the BYU games.
Andy Griffin is a sports commentator. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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