Odessa's Conwell Is Learning to Ride Herd on Her School Work

Times Staff Writer

The Dos Amigos Restaurant and Bar is exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find on the outskirts of this West Texas city.

A horse stable converted to a restaurant carries a hand-painted sign out front that reads: "No Biker Attire. No Unattended Children." The marquee on the roof advertises bull-riding every other Sunday.

We're talking live bulls, not mechanical ones.

Inside, the sandwich counter is an old hitching post, the ceiling is adorned with rusty license plates, and the walls display portraits of John Wayne and Willie Nelson.

You sense that The Duke could ride in at any moment, tie up his horse and pop in for some fajitas and a couple of cold ones.

Somehow Doreatha Conwell, one of the nation's best female high school basketball players last year, a product of Watts and a graduate of Locke High School, doesn't seem to fit in at Dos Amigos, amid the cowboys and the Texas drawls.

But Conwell is here, enjoying lunch, reflecting on a very successful basketball season at Odessa College--one in which she led the Wranglers to a 37-1 record and a second-place finish in the National Junior College Athletic Assn. tournament.

It's a nice city and the facilities at Odessa College are excellent. The Sports Center here is just two years old and features a clean, 1,800-seat basketball arena and a new weight room.

But it's not the L.A. Sports Arena and it's not USC. That's where Conwell was supposed to be.

Conwell made a verbal commitment to attend USC last spring, but her final grade-point average at Locke, 1.9, was well below USC's 2.5 minimum, and she failed to gain entrance into the school.

So, she wound up at Odessa, where the only admission requirement is a high school diploma, where she was able to accept a full, two-year scholarship, where she will be able to earn an Associate of Arts degree so she can move on to a four-year college, and where they play a good brand of basketball.

The Wranglers, with an imposing front line of Conwell and Sharon Blair, were the top-ranked NJCAA team all season and went undefeated until the national tournament final, which they lost to Connors College of Oklahoma, 73-71, in Senatobia, Miss., last March.

One reason Conwell picked Odessa was because she thought the junior college competition there would be better than it is in Southern California.

Joan Bonvicini, coach at Cal State Long Beach, said Odessa was good enough to be ranked among the nation's top 20 Division I teams.

Except that Odessa College is far from the big time.

"I figure the only thing I'm missing, as far as being in Division I, is the prestige, the publicity and being at home," said Conwell, a 6-foot 3-inch, 175-pound power forward. "But I'm still gaining the same experience and knowledge away from home. There's no other place I'd rather be right now."

There is no place better for Conwell right now. Not only is she improving her skills on the basketball court (she averaged 20 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 4 blocked shots a game this year), she is improving her performance in the classroom.

Conwell's first-semester grade-point average was 2.94, and she's projecting at least a 2.7 for this spring. It appears that, after summer school and another year at Odessa, she'll be able to earn an A.A. degree and transfer to a four-year school.

It's anyone's guess as to where she'll go.

USC Coach Linda Sharp, who called Conwell the best junior college player in the nation, thinks there's a strong chance Conwell will still make it to USC.

Conwell isn't so sure.

"I'm kind of open right now," the 18-year old said. "I really don't know if I'll be going to USC or playing out west. I don't know where I'm going to go. What I do know is that I'll pick the place that will be best for my future."

What's most important is that Conwell will be able to pick a place. Since coming to Odessa, she has learned that hitting the books is just as important as hitting the backboards--that you can't make the team unless you make the grades.

And to make the grades, you must make it to class.

That was Conwell's biggest problem at Locke High. She showed up for all the basketball games and twice was named Player of the Year in California, but she didn't attend class enough to get good grades.

Conwell has the intellect. Her grades in junior high were good enough to place her in the academically enriched program at Locke, and she also was chosen to participate in a special bio-medical science program, which met on Saturdays.

But basketball back then seemed a lot more exciting than osmosis. The year before Conwell entered the 10th grade, Locke won the state championship, and Conwell saw an excellent chance to replace graduating star Cynthia Cooper at the center position.

She worked hard in the gym and became a starter in her sophomore year, but her success on the court came at a high price.

She stopped going to church because playing basketball seemed more interesting. She dropped out of the bio-medical science program so she could play in Saturday basketball leagues. School was no longer stimulating, and her attendance began to drop off. Her grades reflected her effort.

"I made a lot of things hard on myself because I really didn't try," Conwell said. "I did everything I could to become a better basketball player, but no one told me that the books had to come first. I came into high school prepared for basketball, but not for school."

Conwell's problems worsened after her senior season when she began to skip several classes a day. The recruiting process became very hectic, and Conwell couldn't keep up with everything.

Her mother, Lillian, had her phone removed, but college coaches would still appear at the door. People wanted her to attend different banquets, coaches wanted her in their summer leagues, while others wanted her to play in the Sports Festival.

Meanwhile, her mother was trying to get Doreatha to crack down on her schoolwork. When Conwell realized how far behind she was and how her grades could impede her admission to college, she tried to make everything up at once.

It was too late.

"All the teachers knew I had the intellect, but I just didn't use it," Conwell said. "I'd miss class or would be late on a term paper and I'd be kind of ashamed, so I wouldn't go to class the next day for fear that I might be singled out. The later it became, I figured I could make it up somewhere else. But it's not easy to make up a term paper. I didn't use common sense."

The pressures of being billed as one of the nation's top two recruits, along with Chana Perry, who went to Northeast Louisiana, didn't help, either.

"I don't ever want to be in that predicament again," Conwell said. "It was hell, emotionally and physically, and it got me down. I was pulling myself in different directions, and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I know I let down a lot of my friends and the people who expected me to do so well."

Though it was only a year ago, that experience seems distant to Conwell, who says she's changed quite a bit. And for the first time in about three years, she says she likes herself.

"I really like college," Conwell said. "It's doing me a good turn, and I'm making the most of it. I've grown up, and I've learned to face up to my responsibilities, to adapt to different people and situations. Moving away from home and being independent has helped me find myself."

Her grades reflect a better effort in the classroom, but there are still moments when Conwell regresses. She missed several classes at the start of the spring semester and appeared to be hitting a rut.

Odessa Coach Ken Hefner said there are times when she seems withdrawn, both in school and on the basketball court. But overall, he sees a huge improvement from last year.

"Doreatha isn't as strong in her study and work habits as she needs to be, but I think she understands that," Hefner said. "She has to be more self-disciplined and has to motivate herself.

"I think she was inspired when she got her grades back from the fall semester, and she's making her classes now. She's registered for summer school, and she's setting goals that she didn't know how to set before."

Conwell, named the Western Junior College Conference's Most Valuable Player, handled herself fine on the basketball court this year. She's a power forward who has the finesse and skills to play the wing position or lead a fast break.

USC could have used her this year. A strong rebounder and a potent inside scoring threat, she would have taken a lot of heat off forward Cheryl Miller, who often was triple-teamed.

But it's actually better that Conwell went to Odessa. She needed to get away from home, away from the environment that seemed to be dragging her down.

She calls Odessa home now and admits that the city has its advantages over Watts, where she grew up with five sisters and three brothers in a house next to a liquor store.

"I would sit at my kitchen window and learn about life," Conwell said. "I've seen a lot of shootings, gambling and dope-dealings. If you could see what it's like, you wouldn't want to become a part of it.

"There's crime here but not as much as there is in L.A. Here, a person will wave to me on the street because they know me from basketball or have seen me on television, and that feels good. It's better than waving to a bum on the street.

"I'm not quite on the other side of the tracks--I still have a long way to go--but I know how it is to live a better life. I haven't had a rough upbringing because I had such a caring family, but my environment was nothing to be proud of. But somehow I managed. I'm alive and well today."

And doing OK.

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