With Hollywood looking on, Davis and Croshere honored

None of the legions of Crossroads School graduates who have gone on to Hollywood have been a part of a story as unlikely as the tale of Baron Davis and Austin Croshere.

Not Jack Black when he was running from a gigantic ape in "King Kong."

Not Sean Astin when he was one of the hobbits who saved Middle Earth in "The Lord of the Rings."

Not Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who wrote the screenplay for the Autobots' battle against the Decepticons in "Transformers."

How about this scenario: Two kids from a 400-student, 37-year-old high school, which didn't even have a gymnasium when they played there, make it to the NBA.

"The word that I would use is 'surprising,'" says Chuck Ice, Crossroads' athletic director for the past 27 years.

The odds-defying narrative had its coda Saturday, when Davis and Croshere returned to the Santa Monica, Calif., school to have their jerseys retired before a high-spirited alumni game with players from their era.

Even for a school steeped in celebrities, this night stood out. Other former Crossroads students have gone on to win an Oscar (Gwyneth Paltrow) and a Grammy (Gillian Welch), but they don't have anything on campus to mark their time there the way these two players do now. Davis and Croshere stand out among their peers because they didn't walk the red-carpeted path. You'll find the names of plenty of alumni in the Screen Actors Guild directory, but these two are the only ones who have made it to the top of the world of professional sports. For this Crossroads alum (Class of '88), it makes up for the dearth of NBA players from my college, Northwestern, a founding member of the Big Ten conference with an enrollment 10 times the size of Crossroads.

Croshere has played in the NBA Finals against his hometown Lakers. Davis is a two-time All-Star. And when you go back to where it began, you can't find anyone who says he or she always knew it would happen.

Croshere was a gangly kid from the north side of Santa Monica who won you over with his ability to somehow get it done on the court.

"You didn't think he'd be a lottery pick, but you knew he was good enough to play," says Daryl Roper, who coached both players at Crossroads.

Croshere didn't make the varsity squad his first year. And he didn't set off a recruiting war when he graduated, eventually winding up on the other side of the country at Providence. He just kept working, developing a game to go along with his 6-foot-10 body, good enough for the Indiana Pacers to take him with the 12th pick in the 1997 draft.

"What happened was he had a phenomenal senior year, went to the [Elite] Eight, got picked by the right team at the right time," Roper says. "Three years later, he's in the NBA Finals giving Robert Horry all he can handle."

Davis came from a rougher environment, South Central L.A., but made a splashier impact when he got to Crossroads. He was practicing with the varsity even as a 5-foot-6 eighth-grader. He was so small he needed a boost from teammates to be able to dunk. But then his growth spurt kicked in, and after his sophomore year, he was tearing it up at Nike camp. He led Crossroads to the state championship in 1997, 10 years after the school won its first. After two years at UCLA, Davis was off to the NBA, picked third by the then-Charlotte Hornets.

Their paths crossed most visibly when Davis' Golden State Warriors upset Croshere's Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. There was even a moment of intramural conflict, when Davis and Croshere squared off after a hard foul.

"It really was nothing directed at Baron," Croshere says now. "I just was sitting on the bench and was tired of those guys getting layup after layup after layup. I said if I get in the game, I'm going to go for the ball, but I'm not going to let them get a layup. It just happened to be Baron with the ball. It had nothing to do with him personally."

Davis said he would tell coach Roper.

"That stopped it," Davis says.

This past season, they were teammates in Oakland, and for the first time, the two NBA members of the Crossroads alumni association got to really know each other.

"It was great," Croshere says. "I didn't have much of a relationship with Baron because I was a senior and he was in eighth grade. We always talked when we played each other, but we hadn't spent a lot of time together.

"It was great to see what a great leader he was, what a hard worker he is. His humble beginnings were the same as mine."

Yes, humble. For all the glamorous names associated with it, the campus itself was nothing special. The centerpiece was an alley, the buildings a mix-and-match of houses, garages and storage buildings converted into classrooms. There wasn't a gym on campus. The team practiced wherever it could find space. At the local Boys Club or at a gym in Hawthorne, 45 minutes away. Its only home games were in league play, in borrowed locales such as Santa Monica High School, Brentwood School or Santa Monica College.

"Wherever we could rent a gym, that's where we were," Roper says.

And after a career of chartered planes, Ritz-Carltons and state-of-the-art arenas, Croshere actually misses the days of bus rides and outdoor practices.

"It's like the purest form of the game," Croshere says. "Going back to when you're a freshman, sophomore, and you're on JV. You're just playing for fun, and you're playing to win. You're not playing for scholarships or draft position or a contract year. It's basketball at its purest."

That thing right there, it's never coming down. The people coming in the gym, they'll know that Austin Croshere paved the way for me, and hopefully I paved the way for someone else.

-- Baron Davis

Thanks in part to him and Davis, today's players have an $18 million, 7-year-old gym two blocks from the main campus, a facility so nice visiting NBA teams sometimes use it to practice while in L.A.

"To a huge degree, I think it was their legacy," Roper says. "They put us on the map."

Now the gym has two new decorations, imprinted with the names of Croshere and Davis.

"That thing right there, it's never coming down," Davis said as he gazed at the giant red No. 5 jersey after the event Saturday. "The people coming in the gym, they'll know that Austin Croshere paved the way for me, and hopefully I paved the way for someone else."

There was a theme that came out of this. Continuity and community, and the role sports has played in both. It wasn't just a basketball game; it was an informal alumni reunion and a fundraiser to help pay for future students to attend the school. One of the things that sets Crossroads apart -- aside from students calling teachers and faculty by their first names -- is a dedication to community service. It's built into the curriculum. But how has the school developed its own sense of community?

From the outset, Crossroads founder Paul Cummins knew what sports could do. As soon as the school (which started in a church room in 1971) became big enough, he established a basketball program, and he made it an admittedly disproportionate priority.

Even as the entry competition and tuition accelerated, and La-La land's big names and behind-the-scenes power brokers jockeyed to get their kids into Crossroads, Cummins made sure to save space and scholarship dollars for good basketball players.

"I was kind of a [hoops] junkie," Cummins says. "I grew up playing basketball, and I feel like I personally learned a lot of lessons that carried over into life. I also felt that for a new school like Crossroads it was good to have some team spirit and be good at something."

The small enrollment made fielding a football team out of the question. A basketball team could get good quickly and cheaply. So the sport became the school's de facto social hub. When Cummins wanted to recruit Ice to the athletic director's job and Roger Weaver to be assistant headmaster, he took them to basketball games to let them capture the school spirit. Ann Colburn, the former upper-school director, admits she didn't understand all the fuss about sports when she first got to Crossroads. But by the time she left, she craved one commemorative item: a school letterman's jacket, which she wore to the game Saturday.

This being Crossroads, there were some familiar names and faces in the stands. Former UCLA stars Lucius Allen and Mike Warren were there to watch their kids play. So was Jessica Alba, who is married to Warren's son Cash.

The game itself turned surprisingly competitive, with Davis' team winning by a point despite a couple of well-designed plays by Croshere. Davis and Croshere stepped on the court briefly in the third quarter, with Croshere taking a lob pass over Davis and dunking, and Davis lofting up a few 3-pointers. Mostly they left the action up to their old teammates, who still are in pretty good shape a decade after their playing days, even if they don't play sports for a living like Davis and Croshere.

"We've got guys that graduated from Harvard Medical School, Wharton School of business," Croshere says. "We've got guys on our team that made it on a lot of different levels."

But only two made it to those loft spots, high on the wall above the gym's western basket.

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.