NCAA BK

Division-III hoops star cleans up well

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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NAPERVILLE, Ill.

The celebration was over, the players were going home. A few young boys were on the court, shooting baskets. The handmade signs cheering on the Cardinals were still taped to the outside of the locker room door. And then the door opened and out came a janitor, hunched over a basket he wheeled slowly along the edge of the court, out to a dingy laundry room.

Derek Raridon washes laundry after a recent game. "You don’t want to touch this," he says of the dirty clothes.

Greg Couch

"You don’t want to touch this," he said, pointing at the pile of players’ sweat-drenched jerseys, shorts, socks. He threw it all into the washing machine.

Derek Raridon had just scored 18 points to lead North Central College over Augustana in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin tournament semifinals Friday. One more win, and the Cardinals would advance to the NCAA Tournament, Division III style. He celebrated for a minute, then took an ice bath, then went back to the locker room, put on sweats and ... went about doing his team’s laundry, so it would be ready for the tournament championship game the next day.

Raridon is just your typical college basketball star/janitor/double business major making minimum wage. At any time during the school year, or even the summer, you might bump into him on campus cleaning windows, moving furniture, putting down new carpet, cleaning up stadiums by hand with the rest of the maintenance staff, including some North Central baseball players. It’s not out of hardship or punishment. Raridon is here to clean up college sports.

Well, that might have overstated it. But that is what he stands for.

Raridon, and the North Central team, and all of small-college Division III, really, are a needed reminder about sport.

Real sport. Pure sport.

This is the other side of college sports. The inside. The heart. It’s still beating, no matter how much trouble the big-timers keep causing in the name of sport. God bless the NCAA Tournament, but what you’ll see during March Madness is actually just the illusion of sport. It’s hype and office pools and players dancing to cameras. Some purity will be mixed in, too, honestly.

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If buzzer-beaters and big upsets are your thing, take a look at this collection of game-changing moments.

But this week, Sports Illustrated is reporting a mess with UCLA basketball, one of the game’s staple programs, alleging drug use, bullying and other bad behavior. Syracuse had allegations of sexual abuse. Georgetown players fought Chinese players during a goodwill tour. The Xavier-Cincinnati game was stopped with 9 seconds to go, and left unfinished, when players started brawling.

"We got disrespected a little bit before the game; guys calling us out," Xavier’s Tu Holloway said afterward. "We got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court. And we went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game."

Raridon is hardly a gangster, but instead a finance and economics major who likes to get a few hours of work in at 6 a.m. before classes start.

Instead of throwing punches, he throws in laundry and detergent. And also knocks down 12 points a game.

"If we would have lost, I would have had to do Augustana’s laundry, too, so they could be ready (for the championship game)," he said Friday in the laundry room. "That’s when it really hits you. They beat you, and then you have to come in here and do their laundry."

Division III players are not on athletic scholarships. Their behavior is not based on years of being treated like rock stars. North Central has fundraisers and booster clubs, and eats Wendy’s for pregame meals.

"Our whole team is full of competitive guys who want to win every night out," Raridon said. "You’re not going to be on TV every day, but you’re still here, battling with your teammates. And you get to play teams who are just as competitive."

Todd Raridon, Derek’s dad, is North Central’s head coach. He took Nebraska Wesleyan to the Division III national championship game in 1997, before coming to North Central in west suburban Chicago. By the time Derek turned 16, he took a summer job as full-time janitor at North Central.

Derek Raridon averages 12 points a game for North Central College.

Steve Woltmann

And he has stuck with it.

"It’s a good job," he said. "I’ve learned a lot from my boss about hard work. He’s the guy who gets here at four in the morning, every morning. I show up at six and think I’m tired. I feel like I can do any, a lot of general repairs in my house."

Imagine how his teammates act around their forward/custodian.

"Yeah, people will leave empty water bottles, or cut off their tape and leave it on the floor. If they see me working maintenance outside or see me vacuuming, they’ll give me a hard time. If I’m cleaning windows, they’ll put their hands on the windows, tell me I missed a spot."

Raridon isn’t complaining, and doesn’t seem to see his job as some sort of plight. Instead, he just seems like a normal college kid trying to earn some spending money. In fact, that’s exactly what he is. Yet that’s not what we’re used to seeing anymore from our athletes.

North Central could not make jumpshots Friday night. Neither could Augustana. So both teams started pounding the ball inside, and banging around when they got there.

A typical Division III player wants to be his best, of course. Raridon will tell you he’d love to be on TV in March Madness. But Division III players, usually talented but a little too small — or in Raridon’s case, too skinny — take a certain pride in why they are playing sports.

They aren’t going to the NBA, but that’s OK.

Raridon’s dad said he believes in the ideal, too, which is why he has coached at that level for so long.

On Saturday, playing for the automatic bid into the Division III NCAA Tournament, North Central had to take on rival Wheaton College. It was close until the middle of the second half, when North Central decided to make 3-pointers on every ... single ... possession. Four of them came from 5-foot-11 point guard Kevin Gillespie.

He works as a roofer during the summer. Another player works at a golf course. Another is an official for youth basketball games.

When North Central won, the fans, roughly 2,000 of them, rushed onto the court, even though there were no ESPN or CBS cameras to show it.

Raridon said it was the first time North Central students had done that.

The Cardinals, who are 20-7, will play Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology of Indiana Friday in the first round of the NCAAs in St. Louis. It’s the first time North Central has gotten to the tournament since 2006.

Raridon remembers his dad taking the Nebraska team to the national championship game. As a little kid, he was disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to sit on the bench. Now, he’s in the tournament.

And after they won that conference championship game Saturday? Coach Raridon said his son was given the night off of his duties.

"No," Derek said. "I did the laundry that night, too. I wanted to."

Tagged: Xavier, Tu Holloway

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