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North Idaho Basketball Team Quietly Thrives

The NBA deadline to trade players came and went Thursday, and the Portland Trailblazers decided to keep the ones they've got.  Blazers general manager Kevin Pritchard said management wants to cultivate its talented young squad, and work toward a spot in the playoffs this year.

Lots of young guys work out every day, hoping their skills will land them a spot on an NBA team like the Blazers.

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho has become the unlikely home of one of the best men’s junior college basketball teams in the U.S.

The North Idaho College Cardinals won their first 17 games. But the record is secondary to the program’s role of developing players who are chasing hoop dreams. Correspondent Doug Nadvornick went to the gym to see what they're learning.

As coach Jared Phay stands at half court and watches his North Idaho College team practice, his blood pressure rises. The Cardinals are preparing to play Salt Lake Community College, the seventh-ranked junior college team in the nation.

Phay’s not satisfied with his team’s effort. After watching a sloppy play, he’s had enough. He wants to make sure his 18 and 19-year-old players understand the challenge of facing one of the best teams in the league.

Jared Phay: “And I’m telling you right now they’re tough. K? They’re not more talented than us. They’re not more athletic. But they’re tougher than us! We’ve got a little bit more time to get tough. K? Let’s go!”

Phay’s kick-in-the-butt has had its intended effect. The players work harder. And by the end of practice, they’re proving why they’ve had success so far in their league.

That league is the Scenic West Athletic Conference. Its members are two-year schools from Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Colorado.

Jared Phay says there’s a lot of talent in the league. But he says some of the players just weren’t ready for major college, or Division 1, programs.

Jared Phay: “Either they didn’t qualify academically or they just got overlooked by some Division 1 schools or just needed a few things that they needed to work on. So they can come here for a year or two and then hopefully move on to a four-year school.”

Phay says four of his Cardinals will move on to bigtime. Two of those players are even seven feet tall.

And then there’s Shawn Henderson, the team’s leading scorer. He’s 6-3 and slender, from Seattle. He says four-year schools recruited him in high school, but his grades weren’t good enough to get him admitted to those colleges. His big break came after a state tournament when NIC assistant coach Corey Symons came knocking.

Shawn Henderson: “I’d never heard of Coeur d’Alene or NIC until after state and he found me and gave me the rundown and it sounded like something I wanted to do. So I decided to take a visit and see what it was like over here and I liked it.”

In fact, Henderson likes his new home state well enough that he’s staying here to continue his education at the University of Idaho.

Henderson is one of several Seattle players in the NIC program. Phay has also snagged players from faraway places like Detroit, Paris and the Caribbean island of Martinique.

On game night, the pep band almost blows you out the building. The team’s gym is old school. Brick facades. Not very big. The fans are close to the action.

The Cardinals start fast. Shawn Henderson hits a long three-point shot and North Idaho leads early. But things go downhill from there. Henderson doesn’t make another shot the rest of the game. Salt Lake draws even, then takes a six-point-lead at halftime.

Things get worse in the second half.

The Cardinals play hard, but not well. North Idaho makes a late run, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.

PA announcer Dick Haugen: (buzzer) “Final score: Salt Lake 73, North Idaho College, 62.”

A frustrated Coach Phay follows his team into the locker room. The loss surely won’t derail what so far has been a successful season. But clearly his players have more to learn. They’re only freshmen and sophomores. In a quiet moment, Phay acknowledges that’s the challenge of working with junior college players.

Jared Phay: “Maturity is sometimes a concern but it’s also quite a learning process. At times it’s nice to be part of that process.”

For Phay the reward comes when one of his players fulfills his dreams by going to a bigtime basketball program.