Brian VanderBeek

Shot for the ages

John Potter makes no false claims about his basketball abilities.

He's the first to admit he's slow and can't really jump or shoot well.

And at 37 years old, there's no way he could possibly keep up with the speed and agility of the game as played at the community college level.

So what is Potter doing playing basketball this season at Modesto Junior College?

The answer is simple: He chased a dream hard enough to catch it.

"I did this to be selfish, and that's about 95 percent of it," Potter said. "The other 5 percent is being able to look my 4-year-old daughter in the eye and tell her it's OK to try everything in life and not to be afraid to fail.

"I can tell her I've tried everything I wanted to do, and not have that be a lie."

Potter, a 6-foot, 2-inch guard, played basketball at Central Catholic and Modesto High, then attended the University of Santa Clara, strictly for academics. He admits he probably wasn't good enough back then to play basketball for the Broncos, but at that point in his life it was a moot question.

"I started drinking when I was 14 and by the time I was a senior in high school I was an alcoholic and drank pretty much every day," Potter said. "I went to Santa Clara and partied too much. I tried quitting drinking six or seven times on my own and couldn't do it, so when I was 21, I went to my dean at Santa Clara and told him I was dropping out to go into rehab."

He entered a rehab program at Turlock's Emanuel Medical Center, and on Jan. 19 celebrated the 16th anniversary of being sober.

Potter returned to Santa Clara and earned a degree, then enrolled at University of the Pacific to do graduate studies in business. He had to leave UOP to tend to his family after his parents divorced, and he dove headlong into business.

"I did everything I could to make those businesses succeed," Potter said. "But in the back of my mind, I always wished I would have taken a shot at playing college basketball. I'd come to JC games and I'd hear parents telling their kids that they could have played college ball, but they always had an excuse."

Potter's businesses thrived. He's either an owner or a partner in several companies, most of which are related to packaging and distribution of dried fruit and nuts, and has more than 200 employees in the western states and Mexico.

He found time to coach girls basketball at Modesto High, as did his wife Kristine. Two years ago, during a meeting with his accountant, Potter heard the words that would be the dream of most 35-year-olds.

"He said I could retire right now if I wanted, but what would I do?" Potter said. "He said I could play golf, or travel. I don't like golf and I'm not a travel person. He said I should do something I always wanted to do.

"I told myself I would take a year to get into shape, then I'm going to go find that basketball coach at MJC."

Last spring, at the end of MJC's season, Potter walked into one of coach Paul Brogan's open basketball sessions and announced his intent to try out for the team.

"My first thought was 'Oh, brother,' because I get all types of guys who want to play, like guys who never have played basketball at any level," Brogan said. "I thought he'd be just like all the others. But he played with us during spring basketball. After a while, guys like Nathan Clark, Danny Moulyn and Benny Koochoie were asking me to put Potter on their team."

If nothing else, Potter brings energy to the game. In Friday night's loss to American River, Potter came off the bench with 11 minutes remaining and the Pirates trailing 62-39. Within two minutes, Potter had gotten inside for a layup, committed two fouls, grabbed a rebound, dished an assist and had gone to the floor four times in search of loose balls.

When he came off the floor following his five-minute run, MJC had narrowed the gap to 10 points. Many in the gathering at the MJC gym cheered Potter's effort, then booed Brogan for pulling him.

"The players love what John's about," Brogan said. "It's not about himself, it was about making his team better. He takes charges, grabs rebounds and finds the open guys -- all the dirty work. All the things that I try to get 18- and 19-year-olds to do, he does them."

Midway through the summer, Brogan decided that if Potter could take the physical grind, he'd have a spot on the team. There would be no promise of playing time, but Potter didn't care.

"I couldn't do this without the blessing and support of my wife, and she said for me to go for it," Potter said. "She knows what this is about. She went to UOP out of high school and tried out for basketball, but was cut. At least she went out there and tried."

There also is the matter of being a full-time student, since you have to be taking 12 units to be a full-time student eligible for athletics. Potter's not exactly in a pre-med track. He took Spanish in the fall semester to be able to speak better to the majority of his employees, and the rest of his classes are in the Physical Education and Health department.

There was one other class.

Potter's daughter Payton dragged him to preschool one day.

"She knows what's going on," Potter said. "So I got to go to show and tell. She stands up in front of class and says 'My daddy goes to school, he plays basketball and he makes money.'

"After every game I get a hug from my daughter, she tells me I'm a superstar and the best player out there. I have no worries."

But it has been a physical ordeal. Potter has been hurting from a double sports hernia since the early fall and will have the injuries surgically repaired at season's end.

"It's tearing up his body, and not too many people know about that or can see it," said starting guard Chris Teevan. "As a team captain, to look at him knowing I'm leading a group of players like him, that's better for me than any assist or win."

Potter has played in 16 of MJC's 22 games, scoring a total of 10 points. But then, he's only a freshman.

There will be eight weeks of rehab following his surgery, and then he and his wife will decide if he wants to play a second year at MJC. Brogan already has asked Potter to come aboard as a coach, claiming being a coach is less time-consuming and less physically taxing than being a player.

Right now, Potter is leaning toward being a 38-year-old community college guard.

"I wanted to play college basketball," Potter said. "Money can buy a lot of stuff, but this has been priceless. Besides my daughter being born and getting married, this is the greatest experience I've ever had."

When it comes down to yea or nay, Payton might just cast the deciding vote.

Said Potter: "My daughter asked me when I'm going to retire from basketball so I can be home more."

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at or 578-2300.