College Basketball, at Least for Now, Is Patterson's Calling

The call came at 6 a.m., TST (Tasman Sea Time), an hour when the only sounds were the bleats of sheep roaming the rolling countryside.

Leone Patterson rose to pick up the receiver. On the other end was Chapman College women's basketball Coach Brian Berger and two of his players, trying to make a connection some 6,500 miles away.

"They all said hello and then they started arguing with each other," Patterson recalled. "I was in no condition to understand what they were talking about. I really didn't know what they wanted and it was too early in the morning to care."

While the three were talking, Patterson quietly went to sleep.

Three years ago when the call came, Patterson's life was in order and in New Zealand. Her goals were well defined.

She was preparing for her final year of teacher's college, after which she would be licensed to work. She was ready to follow her father and brother and sister into the academic world.

She also was a fine basketball player, and was having fun as a member of New Zealand's national team. And it didn't interfere with school because the team rarely traveled farther than Australia. For recreation, Patterson also surfed the Tasman Sea that breaks by her home on the southern tip of North Island near Wellington.

Her life, though not exactly a thrill-a-minute, was well-patterned and comfortable.

Then came that call, one that not only altered her career but has torn her from her family.

Berger recruited the 6-foot Patterson on the recommendations of Panther players Heather Grayburn, a native of New Zealand and Rhonda Faulkner, who spent a summer there playing basketball.

Berger wanted Patterson to fill a void on a Panther front line weakened by injuries and graduation. Trusting his players' judgment, Berger offered Patterson a chance to play basketball without seeing her play.

"I've had my players go on scouting trips for me," Berger said. "I trust what they think. They told me she had the ability to be a good player."

Patterson accepted the chance to play in the United States. In her first season--1983-84--she was named to the All-California Collegiate Athletic Assn. first team, the first freshman to receive the honor. In her second season, she was an honorable mention selection and this season she was the conference's Most Valuable Player.

With the exception of one week, Patterson was in the top 10 of the five conference statistical categories--scoring, rebounding, assists, field goal percentage and free throw percentage. With Patterson leading the way the Panthers tied Cal Poly Pomona for the CCAA championship, and tonight starting at 7:30 she will lead the Panthers against the Broncos in the NCAA Division 2 West Regional final in the Hutton Sports Center at Orange.

"She works harder than any player I've had," Berger said. "If she doesn't shoot well during a game she'll practice for hours after. I've been locking the gym up around midnight sometimes and I'll hear the bounce of a ball and I know it's Leone."

Her dedication to basketball is admirable, but it has done nothing to ingratiate herself with her father, Desmond. You see, the Pattersons turn out teachers the way the Barrymores turn out actors. Desmond started as a teacher was promoted to principal and today is a school inspector. Two of his children, Murray and Lynnette, both teach. If it was good enough for dad . . .

But, apparently it wasn't good enough for Leone, who jumped at the chance to see more of the world.

Leone's mother Roma said she and her husband struggled with the idea of their daughter leaving.

"I thought this was a good chance for her to see a different side of life," Roma said from the family's home in Porirua, New Zealand.

But Desmond thought her career should come before sports.

"I let her know the pros and cons of the situation," he said. "She may be jeopardizing her teaching career for something that could end with an injury."

Even Roma, a former center on the New Zealand national team in the 1950s, was worried about the treatment she would receive in the United States.

"I worried that if she got hurt or if she wasn't as good as they thought, they would just dump her," she said. "But I didn't worry too much since I have a sister who lives close by. She lives in San Francisco."

Though Desmond did not give his full-fledged approval, he paid Leone's way to California. Patterson was supposed to play at Chapman for a season then return home to finish her education. That was the plan. But then something happened. Patterson changed.

"Leone had always been a very private person," Roma explained. "When she was young, I used to go up to her room and she'd be brooding about something but she wouldn't let me know what it was. But after she came back from America she was a lot more open. I think she matured a lot in that year."

As a result, she decided to return to Chapman.

"Leone had told me she was going to tell her father she was coming back to play at Chapman," Grayburn said. "But when she left on the plane home I wasn't sure she'd go through with it. When you get back home it's hard to leave again. She told me she was very nervous about telling her father. He thought she was going back to teacher's college."

Patterson said it was one of the hardest things she had to do.

"But I found out I was more assertive," she said. "I didn't ask him. I told him I was going. I think he respected me for growing up."

But like any expatriate, Patterson had some difficult transitions to make. Americans who meet Patterson inevitably think she is Australian because of her back-of-the-throat accent. New Zealanders like to be confused with Aussies about as much as Canadians like to be called Americans.

While Patterson said the mixup in America was expected, the treatment she received when she went home was not.

"I went in to buy a diet drink and I must have given the cashier too much money," she said. "He told me that I should take care of my money when traveling in a foreign country. I was shocked. I had lived there my whole life and after one year they thought I was from somewhere else. It made me feel like I had no country. In America I'm an alien and it seemed the same in New Zealand."

It was more than speech patterns that distinguished Patterson from her countrymen. Her behavior, in sports at least, was worlds apart.

"When I went back after a year I was playing on the national team and I was giving high-fives and shouting and screaming. They thought I was crazy," Patterson said. "You have to understand that New Zealand doesn't take sport as seriously as Americans. They are more into sportsmanship. When they go to watch a basketball game they clap for both teams. When I first started playing here I couldn't believe that you actually booed players. If you did that in New Zealand they'd run you out of the gym."

Patterson is unsure what will happen when she runs out of the gym for the final time at Chapman.

"I'm not sure if I want to stay, but I'd like to be able to at least make the decision," she said.

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