Street Crime Put Brian Brundage in Sing Sing; Basketball Sent Him to College

updated 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Brian Brundage still squirms when he remembers that night last December. He had just been introduced to the crowd at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., when the hostile Gonzaga fans let him have it. "Jail-bait! Jail-bait! Jail-bait!" they chanted. His teammates were angry, but Brundage himself, a 6'8" junior center, kept his game-face on and just shrugged. "Those fans," he said later. "They're just narrow-minded. I did what I did, and I paid the penalty for committing a crime."

Yes, Brundage did the crime: mugging, grand theft auto, burglary, assault. He also did the time: 3½ years in prison. Now, at 26, he is making his comeback. Not a basketball comeback; he hardly ever played the game before going to prison. The coach at his high school begged him to try it, but Brian wasn't having any. "It just wasn't cool," he explains. Instead he put together his game behind bars, and he realizes it may have been his salvation. "If it hadn't been for basketball," he says, "I probably never would have gotten this far."

Born in Manhattan, Brundage never knew his father, and his mother died when he was 4. After a succession of foster homes, he, his brother and three sisters wound up living with their grandmother in Queens. At first Brian stole nothing bigger than candy bars, but later his appetites changed. By age 13 he had joined a street gang called the Seven Crowns, and when he began coming home drunk at 4 or 5 in the morning, his grandmother placed him in a series of homes for troubled teenagers—finishing schools, as it were, for petty criminals refining their style. "I learned a lot of things in those homes," says Brundage. "Everybody said, 'Yeah, man, if you do it this way you're not gonna get caught,' but actually all they taught me was how to get into trouble." No excuses, though. "You always hear about kids from broken homes getting into trouble," he says. "I know I don't have anyone to blame but myself."

By 1975 he had moved on to the Spofford Juvenile Center, which out on the streets is called "Great Adventure." Says Brundage: "I was probably the only person they ever kicked out of the place. I was into loan-sharking at 100-percent interest. If kids didn't pay me, I just beat them up."

Brundage was big, and his size was his leverage. One of his favorite ways to obtain pocket money was to haunt the corridors beneath New York City's Grand Central Station. First he'd pick out a well-heeled victim. "Then I'd just walk up, grab 'em from behind and put them in the yoke," the yoke being a choke hold wherein the left forearm knifes across a victim's throat and the right hand pushes his head down, closing the windpipe. "I'd just choke them till they fainted," says Brundage. "Then I'd take everything they had."

Cars were his specialty. He would steal several a week, and his MO was simplicity itself. He would sneak into one of Manhattan's innumerable high-rise garages, where attendants leave the keys in the cars. "I took Jaguars, Mercedes, whatever I wanted," he says. "It fed my ego. I had a big ego, and I had to feed it a lot." Girls in his neighborhood asked him, "How can someone as young as you drive a Caddy?" His reply was vintage Horatio Alger—filtered through the creed of the street. "I'd say, 'You work hard, you can get anything you want.' "

In 1978, at 17, Brundage was busted for carrying a concealed gun. A year later he was arrested again for robbing a former roommate. "I tied him up, put him in the bathtub and took all his stuff," says Brian. "I figured he would be intimidated and wouldn't call the police."

Brundage figured wrong. Labeled a career criminal by the judge, he was sentenced to three to six years for robbery, violation of probation and grand larceny. Arriving at Elmira prison, he found a lot of old friends he'd known in the homes. But the pleasure of reunion wore thin when he discovered that prisoners at Elmira spent almost all day in their cells. Brundage had no regrets when he was transferred six months later to Coxsackie, another maximum security facility. "The prisoners there convinced me to play basketball," he says. "They said, 'Man, if you make the team you'll be out of your cell most of the day.' At first, it was just a hustle." But Coxsackie, nicknamed "the gladiator school," took its hoops seriously. On the courts, boxing-out often gave way to boxing. "It was real physical," says Brundage. "If someone got slapped up a bit, the refs would just let it go."

Eventually, Brundage was transferred again, this time to the medium security prison at Fishkill. An 11th-grade dropout, he earned his high school equivalency diploma there and found himself a hot commodity on the basketball court. The Fishkill inmates had an organized league with its own inmate draft, and for 2½ years Brundage was the No. 1 pick. "I was the biggest guy around," he says. "Everyone wanted me on their team. It was fun. Made me feel wanted."

After 3½ years behind bars, Brundage got his parole in 1982. First he found a short-lived construction job. Then he became a pillow salesman. When that fell through, he was determined not to get into trouble again. "I had lost my desire to commit crimes," he says. "That was out of my life. I didn't want to end up back in jail." To remove himself from the path of temptation, he decided to get as far from the streets as he could. That summer, nearly broke, he got on a Greyhound bus to Los Angeles. It was a parole violation, but Brundage wasn't worried about that. "It was so far away, I thought they'd never find me," he says.

He had settled into a cheap motel in Inglewood, when a schoolyard pickup game led to a tryout with Los Angeles Southwest College, where coach Leon Henry got him admitted. "I didn't tell anyone but the coach about my past," says Brundage. "You tell people 'Yeah, I been in jail for robbery,' they tend to shy away." Besides, everything was breaking his way. He found a small apartment. He landed a job as a student counselor. He had a girlfriend and a 3.0 grade point average. "On the court the guys really looked up to him," says Henry. "He was a natural leader."

Then Brundage got picked up for driving without a license. A routine check showed that he was wanted in New York for jumping parole, and Brian was on his way home to Sing Sing. His teammates were stunned, and his girlfriend dumped him. But coach Henry and the LASC president wrote to the judge who would hear Brundage's case. "We said he was an asset to the team and the program," says Henry. Impressed, the judge let Brundage go after six months. Returning to L.A. with a new sense of freedom, Brian was no longer a man hiding a secret. "When he got back," recalls Henry, "he loved talking about the time he spent in prison. It was cathartic for him. Like someone who was really trying to get clean." Brundage was named team captain in 1985 and led LASC to a division championship while averaging 16.5 points a game.

Meanwhile, Brian's size and intensity had attracted scouts from several four-year colleges. Brundage chose Oregon State, and though he has struggled to adjust to the college game, he has no regrets. "I'm not doing a spectacular job," he admits. "But I'm working very hard at it." Which is just fine with Beavers coach Ralph Miller. "We never really expected him to be an outstanding player," says Miller. "He's about as raw a talent as you could get in college. Remember, he's had so little experience compared to the other guys."

Basketball experience, anyway. Jeff Maher, a graduate assistant coach and one of Brian's roommates, vividly recalls the first time he laid eyes on Brundage. "I walked into the room and there was this huge guy with a doo-rag on his head playing chess," he says. "Turns out he's an excellent chess player." The prison system, of course, affords a man plenty of time to work on his moves, and both Brundage and his teammates are relaxed enough to see the humor in that. "The guys are cool," says Brian. "They don't care about my prison record. They want to play basketball, and they want to win. If I can help, that's great."

Off the court, Brundage seems to have handled the college transition with ease. Majoring in sociology, he has a respectable 2.4 grade point average and expects to graduate in 1988. "I want to be a counselor for kids who have gotten in trouble," he says. "Not kids who are too old. A lot of times kids get in trouble for the attention. After awhile it becomes a way of life, and once it does, you're through. You get sucked into the prison system, that's it. I want to help them before they get into the revolving door."

About turning pro, Brundage is a realist. "I really don't even think about that," he says. "At my age and the development of my game, that's a dream I don't dream. I never thought I'd be at a Division One school playing basketball. That's good enough for me. I'm sure I'll get plenty of memories out of this to tell my grandkids." Among them, no doubt, will be the memory of walking out of that revolving door on the other side, a free man with a new life before him.

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