So many basketball teams spend year after year looking for the secret to championship success.
For C.J. Bruton, it’s not a difficult formula to figure out. For a player who has won six championships over nearly two decades, Bruton has learned to appreciate the value of being part of a true team.
“You have to understand that you can’t do it all by yourself,” Bruton said. “I know I didn’t make it this far without my teammates. They helped me look good.
“The fact that I can take them with me into the hall of fame is a tremendous honor.”
Bruton will be the second Indian Hills basketball player to be inducted into the school’s athletic hall-of-fame on Saturday, joining one of those teammates that helped Bruton win his first title. Pete Mickeal, who as a freshman teamed up with the returning sophomore Bruton to lead IHCC basketball to its first national title, was inducted last year.
No one is happier than Bruton to be rejoining Mickeal in another very special group of IHCC athletes.
“We had a great team that was able to do some great things,” Bruton said of the 1996-97 Warriors that featured the hall-of-fame duo.
“Obviously when Pete got there it gave us a great talent that helped push us over the top. He certainly has earned everything that he’s gained in his career.
“To see him make it to Cincinnati, make it to the NBA and make it to an overseas team like Barcelona is a great honor for someone like Pete.”
For Burton, the honor of being inducted into the Indian Hills Athletic Hall-of-Fame is the icing on the cake for a successful two years in Ottumwa. The two-year starter for the Warriors ended his career as the IHCC single-season and career assists leader while also earning NJCAA All-American and JUCO Tournament MVP honors.
But individual honors were never the main reason why Bruton chose to attend Indian Hills.
“My first goal when I went there was to graduate. The second was to win a national championship,” Bruton said. “To be honored among some of the best athletes to ever come through this school is a great honor.”
The long road Bruton took to Indian Hills actually started in a state not too far away. Bruton was actually born in December of 1975 in Wichita, Kan., where Bruton lived until the age of 3, when his family moved to Australia so his father, Calvin Bruton, Sr., would begin a professional career with the Brisbane Bullets in 1979.
Bruton credits his father with teaching him the core values he would use to become a great player himself.
“Coming from a professional background and being the son of a hall-of-fame coach, you know how important that chemistry is to have as a team,” Bruton said.
Bruton would soon learn firsthand what it took to be part of a professional team, debuting with the Perth Wildcats in 1994. That made Bruton ineligible to play with an NCAA squad, making the choices for Bruton much more limited as he sought to become an intercollegiate student athlete back stateside.
Bruton wanted to find a winning program to be a part of. It took one little nudge to lead Bruton down a hall-of-fame path.
“Dave Atkins, who was my guardian at the time, and I were going over some of the schools,” Bruton said. “I told him that certain schools weren’t that good. I wanted to go somewhere I had a chance to win at. He said he had a school that you’ll definitely like.”
And with that, Bruton was on his way to Ottumwa to begin his career at Indian Hills.
“Right off the bat, we had a lot of talent that Coach (Terry) Carroll and (assistant coach Mike) Cappacio had recruited,” Bruton said. “We had a mix of international talent and top high school players that could teach each other the fundamentals of the game. We had high expectations going in and we found our own groove once we got onto the floor.”
For Bruton, adjusting to a brand new team wasn’t the only change to get used to. After growing up in Australia, where the winter months bring triple-digit temperatures, southern Iowa itself was shock to Bruton’s system.
“It was definitely a culture shock for me,” Bruton said. “To spend all those winter months in the United States and realize just how cold and how much snow there was on the ground was definitely shocking.”
Bruton’s ability to adapt did a lot to bring the Warriors together as a team, especially the other international talents.
“A lot of overseas guys probably wondered if this was really for them,” Bruton said. “Once I got into Ottumwa and realized it wasn’t a big city, I knew it would take some adjusting. Everyone at the school really did a great job welcoming me in with open arms. Everyone there gave me guidance for my career.”
On the floor, Bruton averaged 13.2 points and 5.6 assists as the freshman point guard led IHCC back to his home state of Kansas for the NJCAA National Tournament. The Warriors made it all the way to the semifinals before falling short of a national title, which also left a lasting impression on Bruton.
“That was the first chance my whole family, including my grandmother, got to see me play,” Bruton said. “To get knocked out in the semifinals and have that dream end early, it left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.”
“Seeing the faces of those sophomores who saw that dream end, we didn’t want that to happen to my group of sophomores.”
With Mickeal joining the mix for the 1996-97 season, Bruton became much more of a facilitator. The sophomore kept right on dishing out the assists with a second straight season averaging 5.6 assists while scoring just 12.1 points to lead the Warriors back to Hutchinson.
“It’s an amazing thing just to make it back to Hutchinson,” Bruton said. “Once we made it back and we had climbed over so many hurdles to get there, we were much more confident in what we could do.”
IHCC not only made it back to the national tournament, they claimed the program’s first championship with an 89-80 victory over San Jacinto College-Central to win the 1997 title. While Bruton would leave the Warriors to begin his professional career, his legacy would live on in starting a density as Indian Hills continued a run of three-straight national titles.
“It set the tone and raised the bar for the players that were coming into the program. You have to meet that level,” Bruton said. “Guys like Pete, Cory Hightower and the players that followed in our footsteps over the next couple of years had to meet a very high standard.”
Bruton also kept his play up to a very high level after leaving IHCC. Since choosing to return to Australia despite being drafted by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1997, Bruton has become the first National Basketball League championship player to play on five championship teams and is seeking to lead the New Zealand Breakers to a third straight title this year.
Bruton has also played for the Australian national team in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics. This summer, however, Bruton is planning on bringing his family back to the place where he feels he truly began his successful basketball career.
“We’re trying to plan on coming back to Indian Hills,” Bruton said. “My son is 5 years old now and we’ve been to so many different places with him. To bring them back to see where a lot of things started for me and place that was so impactful in my life for the first time is going to be very special.
“I’m going to be very proud to share that with my family. It shows that when you work hard and do great things, great things can happen in life for you.”