- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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MURRAY, Ky. -- You have to know where to look for Sammons' Bakery.
Not that anything is hard to find in Murray -- before or after the dollar store that sits along Highway 641, the town's main thoroughfare, seems to be the most common point of reference on this day.
Even in this small town, Sammons' would be easy to miss. It's tucked on Chestnut Street, in a strip mall sandwiched between a thrift shop and Murray's Home & Auto.
The nondescript bakery officially specializes in homemade buns so good that at 7 a.m. there's a line out the door.
Unofficially, Sammons' specializes in sports talk. If you want to understand Murray's athletic significance and its history, this is where you come.
"We like to call it the think tank of Murray," Nick Britt joked.
"Yeah, but we never solved anything," Chad Stewart responded.
The regulars come here in shifts -- 6, 7 and 8 a.m. -- and linger as long as the coffee is hot and the conversation is good, grabbing one of the small tables covered in black plastic tablecloths for their klatch. They have either accounted for or observed much of Murray's athletic history.
On this particular October morning, Britt, Stewart and Chester Caddas are discussing a new ranking just published by a sports website -- college basketball's top point guards. Local hero and Murray State star Isaiah Canaan is on the list.
No one will argue that he belongs. It's when you probe to place Canaan in a broader picture that it becomes a little iffy.
Is, you want to know, Canaan the best basketball player to come through this town?
"Well now I don't know," said the 81-year-old Stewart, who looks a lot like another man with the same surname -- Jimmy. "We had Popeye Jones here, and he was pretty special."
"And Bennie Purcell, he became the tennis coach here but before that, he played for the Washington Nationals -- the foil for the Globetrotters," added the 77-year-old Caddas.
"But you know, Canaan, he's up there," Stewart said. "He's definitely up there."
On a college campus, there are few who can rival the star power of a high-profile athlete. The literal big men on campus, they walk a strange tightrope, hailed by thousands on the gridiron or hardwood one day and off to class among the commoners the next.
It's a tricky balance anywhere, but especially complicated on a small campus where the number of star athletes often is one.
The one in this town right now is Canaan, the little (listed generously at 6-foot-1) big man on the little (Murray State's student population is 10,000) campus.
During an All-American season, Canaan catapulted into the stratosphere of mid-major darlings recently inhabited by Steph Curry, Gordon Hayward and Jameer Nelson. With his 19 points per game leading the way, the Racers rolled to a 30-1 regular-season record, climbed as high as No. 7 in the rankings and eventually losing in the NCAA tournament's Round of 32.
But of the 15 players selected to the Associated Press All-American teams at the end of last season, Canaan -- a second-team pick -- and Creighton's Doug McDermott are the only ones still in college. Everyone else has either graduated or moved on to the NBA.
That's an inordinate amount of pressure for anyone, anywhere. At Murray, a "Cheers" kind of campus where everybody knows your name, multiply that pressure by 50.
If it all bothers Canaan, he does an extraordinary job at hiding it. Walking around campus in his OVC Championship T-shirt -- a dead giveaway that he is someone for the handful of folks who may not recognize him -- he is happy and at ease. He says hello to everyone, messes around with his teammates as they cut across campus and sits in class, a regular student who just happens to also be a superstar.
"I guess you could say I'm a big deal, but I don't feel that way at all," he said. "I mean I'm just me. I don't see it that way."
The assignment today in Advanced Media Planning is to determine an efficiency frequency for Glidden paint.
It's part of a bigger project in Dr. Allen White's class, where students are trying to figure out how to market paint to a younger demographic.
Sitting next to the window on the far side of Room 212 in Wilson Hall, Canaan laughs.
"I don't even look at paint," he said. "I might have painted a little bit after [Hurricane Katrina], but that's about it."
There is no place to hide in a class of only 11 students. Not that Canaan tries. He raises his hand to ask questions and talks with a classmate nearby as they complete the assignment.
He isn't, White said, just putting on an act for a visiting reporter.
"That's Isaiah every day," White said. "He's just another student. He pays attention. He asks questions. He fits in. You say his name, people automatically know who he is around here but it doesn't affect him, not in the least."
Maybe that's because none of this was expected for Canaan.
Current head coach and then assistant Steve Prohm loved the point guard as soon as he saw him -- "I told Coach [Billy] Kennedy, that's our guy," Prohm said -- but Canaan wasn't exactly beating off suitors with a stick.
Hurricane Katrina hit Canaan's hometown of Biloxi, Miss. (hence his nickname and Twitter handle, Sip, short for Mississippi), when he was 14. He rode out the storm in a Baptist church. Afterward he tried to reestablish a life in nearby Georgia but was homesick and instead moved back to Biloxi, moving into his grandmother's FEMA trailer.
The geographical shuffling pushed him off most recruiting radars. When Prohm first saw him, Canaan was sitting on the AAU bench, backing up Carl Blair.
Blair has gone on to an itinerant career, beginning at the University of New Orleans, transferring to Oklahoma and now playing at Prairie View.
Canaan, meantime, debated turning pro early after his junior season.
"I don't know if he'll go down as the best to ever play here, but he could be the most influential," Prohm said. "What he's been able to accomplish and the attention he's brought to this school, it's just incredible."
Yet, the biggest thing to currently hit campus loiters outside the library like everyone else. He's got time to kill between classes and rather than head back to his off-campus apartment, Canaan enjoys the unseasonably warm day by hanging outside.
More people know him now than last year, certainly more than his freshman season. When he goes out off campus, he occasionally will be asked to sign his autograph, an art he remembers perfecting as a kid.
"Doesn't everyone practice that?" he said with a grin.
There aren't many places to hide in Murray. Canaan is partial to Applebee's and Nick's, a sports bar in town -- "You run out of options around here pretty quick," he said -- and people in town are die-hard fans. The outreaches of the Commonwealth of Kentucky belong, like most of the state, to the Wildcats, but here at least there are devoted Racers fans.
"I hate when people wear their UK gear to a Murray game," one fan says in the Big Apple Café. "This is our team."
Certainly more fans have come out of the woodwork lately.
If anything pushes Canaan toward a cocoon, it is that.
The Racers have set themselves an impossibly high bar. It took Murray 24 games to lose one last season; it took them four this season.
Mix in the fact Prohm is making do with a retooled roster that doesn't include three of last season's top four scorers plus Zay Jackson, suspended for the season after a bizarre encounter in a nearby Wal-Mart parking lot, and you've got a Racers team that has a lot but needs a little time.
"The biggest thing we all have to deal with is living up to what we did last year," said Canaan, whose team is nevertheless 9-1 heading into Saturday's game at Dayton. "It's crazy with the expectations. We're a different team. That doesn't mean we can't be as good, but we're different."
That's really what concerns Canaan the most -- how the Racers finish. He hears about his place in the Murray State history books. It's nice to be mentioned, nice to be considered but he's not terribly hung up on it.
"I just want people to remember me as a good player who made his team better," he said.
Memories and legends do live on here.
Before he became a regular at Sammons' Bakery, Stewart was something of a someone himself at Murray State. The football stadium is named after his father and Stewart himself is in the university's hall of fame, honored for both his athletic accomplishments and his 30 years as a university administrator.
Caddas, meantime, parlayed his Murray career into a long coaching run, with head-coaching spots at Pacific and Colorado State before he decided to retire back in his hometown.
Most everyone in town knows who they are and more, who they were, and they are afforded the sort of respect and deference time and success have earned them.
"People talk about basketball year-round here," Caddas said. "They speculate. They think they know. Now you hear about how Murray is going to top what they did last year. Prohm might coach another 50 years and not have a record like that."
"That's true," Stewart added. "But Canaan, he's definitely something special."
Special enough, maybe, that the little big man on campus might live on here long after he leaves town.