Welcome To Basketball Hotbed Of Laramie, Wyo.
Feb. 3, 2001
By Ed Graney
LARAMIE, Wyo. - It's a railroad town from the 1860s, a small Western gem nestled in a valley between two mountain ranges. Used to be, there were 23 saloons and one church, meaning a man's breath was rarely as fresh as the air he breathed while praying on Sunday. Then a university was established in 1886 and a community was reborn.
But always, this place 7,220 feet above sea level retained its simple charm.
It works if you're a rancher or haul lumber for a living.
But a college athlete from California?
"The main street in town is Grand Avenue, where the maximum speed limit is 30 miles per hour," Chris McMillian said. "Sometimes, I get up to 50 or 60 and have to catch myself . . . But you know, if I had picked a school in a big city with a better night life and social scene, there would have been problems.
"I like to have a good time."
So he forgot about dance clubs and all-night parties and the ocean.
He chose Wyoming.
The best basketball team in the Mountain West Conference, the one that hardly ever loses at home, has persuaded some very talented players from all parts of the country (and world) to embrace this mellow existence for the greater good of, well, winning.
The first-place Cowboys host San Diego State today at 3 PST in Laramie's Arena-Auditorium.
"We sell to recruits how important this program is to the people who live here," third-year coach Steve McClain said. "It's the only show in town. If you want to play in front of a big crowd in a big-time arena and have everyone in the city know who you are, this is the place for you.
"But if I walk into a kid's home and he needs things besides basketball and academics, I don't stay very long."
He has obviously stayed long enough.
Wyoming's starting lineup: McMillian (Brea) and David Rottinghaus (Charles City, Iowa) at guard, Josh Davis (Salem, Ore.) and Marcus Bailey (Cheyenne, Wyo.) at forward, and Uche Nsonwu-Amadi (Enugu, Nigeria) at center.
The sixth man is forward Ronnell Mingo (Los Angeles). Another top reserve is forward Ugo Udezue (Enugu, Nigeria), cousin of Nsonwu-Amadi.
"You really can't compare Laramie to anywhere else," said McMillian, a junior. "But there aren't many places where you can be out having dinner with a girl and people constantly come up wanting to talk and shake your hand and ask about the team. It makes you feel good . . . and the girl usually doesn't mind, either.
"The people still remind us about the good old days, about Fennis Dembo and Eric Leckner. They want to experience that feeling again."
It was 1987, and Dembo and Leckner were two of the WAC's best, leading the Cowboys to 24 wins and into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. The coach was Jim Brandenburg, who left for SDSU the following season. Since then, Wyoming has advanced to the NCAAs just once.
But the drought figures to end this season because Wyoming already has won three conference road games, and the only thing tougher than leaving here with a victory is the beef jerky.
And it's not just this season, either. The Cowboys count no seniors among their top seven players. They are very good this season and potentially could be great next.
"We're actually very fortunate," McClain said. "We put these kids in an environment where it's very easy to focus on the task at hand. There aren't a lot of distractions here. It's pretty much about using each day to improve yourself as a student and player. Everyone recruits to their own situation, and I have found a lot of parents like the one we offer."
Which is this: a place where the biggest attraction each year is the fireworks display to commemorate Jubilee Days, where you can take exit 311 off I-80 and slip quietly into an Old West of gunfights and saloon shows and men acting the parts of lawless scoundrels from a different time.
"I look at it like I was meant to come here," McMillian said. "We all were . . . meant to be in Laramie."