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Beanpole Las Vegan rises above obstacles

Inside of a minute to play with the national championship on the line, the ball was in the hands of No. 42 in the bright yellow jersey. The string bean kid, who stands 6 feet 11 inches but weighs just 165 pounds. He was running the court on a fast break. He was ahead of the defense, a cluster of spindly arms and legs.

He should have dunked it, but his legs were tired.

The shot went up. The whistle sounded.

Goaltending!

There were 39.9 seconds to play.

There would be no more baskets.

Joel Feigler, the string bean kid from Las Vegas, had scored the go-ahead basket in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II championship game. The sophomore had scored 17 points, made the all-tournament team, helped Phoenix College — not to be confused with the University of Phoenix, where one can learn how to type — win its first national basketball championship in 93 years of trying.

The championship game was played Saturday at Mary Miller Gymnasium on the campus of Danville Area Community College in Danville, Ill. Which is the hometown of former UNLV basketball star Keon Clark, but not exactly an epicenter of March Madness.

And yet for Joel Feigler, the beanpole kid from Las Vegas, scoring the winning basket in a national championship game was a bit of madness onto itself. Because last year, even after a stint at a prep school, he barely got off the bench.

And about 18 years before that, he was born with a birth defect called pectus excavatum, which caused his breastbone to grow inward instead of outward, and caused him to have a rod inserted in his chest when he was in first grade, followed by another procedure to take it out when he was in third grade.

Che Jones, the Phoenix College assistant coach who played and coached at Las Vegas High and wore Wildcats colors — black and red — for good luck in the championship game, said it must have been difficult for Feigler growing up here during summertime, when kids go to Wet ‘n’ Wild and take their shirts off. Because you know how mean kids can be.

Feigler said that was a little tough. But not as tough as being 6-11 and lousy at basketball which, he says, he pretty much was before this season.

“I didn’t really care about basketball,” he said of being 6-11 at Durango High, and less than spectacular in basketball. “I just played because I was tall. It was like it was expected. If you are tall, people expect you to be this and this and this …”

People expect you to be great at basketball, or at least good at it. Joel Feigler was neither, not then.

But because you can’t coach height, you have to be born with it, he found himself sitting on the bench at Phoenix College last season.

During the offseason he had this epiphany, that playing basketball probably would be more fun than sitting on the bench and watching others play it, and so he got serious about improving.

And he did improve.

“Slowly, surely, he started to look like a player,” Jones said.

He started 30 of 36 games, averaged 17 minutes, shot 64 percent from the field, scored 19 points against Pima Community College and, two nights later, scored 16 against Tohono O’odham C.C., which isn’t exactly Duke but still tried to get in his way and block his shot. Scoring 35 points in those two games showed how much Feigler had improved.

Those were the last two games before the national tournament.

“It was like the last 10 games of the season he said, ‘I’m going to be the man’ ” Jones said. “Every time the ball came in the middle he’s like Keon Clark; he’s blocking everything.

“We wouldn’t be national champions were it not for Joel Feigler.”

So now a lot of Division II schools are looking at him, and some of these Division I teams, too, Grand Canyon and teams of that nature.

Che Jones says wherever Joel Feigler winds up, he’ll wind up fitting in, because now he even takes his jersey off in the locker room in front of the other guys.

“I told him you need to make this your story,” Jones says about Feigler having that rod in his chest when he was young, and Jones is right, overcoming that — and overcoming other social stereotypes concerning one’s appearance — is a pretty neat story.

So is blocking everything that came into the middle against Essex County College, N.J., in the national championship game, running the floor on that fast break, scoring the winning basket.

“I should have dunked it; they bailed me out on the goaltend,” the string bean kid told the reporter from the Danville, Ill., newspaper.

“It was still going to go in.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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