For a tournament team, North Alabama took a surprisingly modest reputation into last week's NCAA Division II championship at Springfield, Mo. In 31 basketball seasons, the Lions had a 371-372 record, and only 12 winning years. The 1978-79 team had nine losses and was unranked. Had been all year. Only once before had North Alabama earned its way into a postseason event—the 1977 Division II tournament. Naturally, the Lions didn't win. "Actually, we embarrassed ourselves," says Coach Bill Jones. "We were scared little country boys who went up to the city and were too tight to play."
Despite this history of ineptitude, North Alabama somehow played well enough to win three preliminary games and gain the final four. Then, on Saturday night, the Lions crushed the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay 64-50 to win the national title—the school's first in any sport.
Located in Florence, in the northwest corner of the state, North Alabama had anticipated such heady stuff since Jones arrived in 1974. Before then, the team was a well-kept secret. The first thing Jones did was rent billboards around town and advertise Lion basketball. Next, he did a radio show on Thursdays, and then Lion games were picked up by WVNA radio and broadcast across the state. Jones' first team won 12 games, the second a school-record 19. Suddenly TPT-3 Cable TV began to air Lion games, too. In all, average home attendance shot up from fewer than 600 in 1974 to this year's 3,500. "We did work at promotion," Jones confesses. "It's the only way to go."
Perhaps Jones should have been hired to promote the Division II finals, too. When North Alabama and Bridgeport (Conn.) appeared for their semifinal game Friday night, there were fewer than 2,000 people in the Hammons Student Center. One reason for the poor turnout may have been that Drury, a local school, was playing in the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, only 145 miles away. Another may have been that the Drury games were on local TV. Besides, who's North Alabama? Let alone Bridgeport, which lost the game 85-82.
Obviously, the semifinal to watch was the nightcap: Cheney (Pa.) State vs. Green Bay in a rematch of last year's final. Cheney had won that game and, with a 22-6 record, was making its fourth consecutive Division II appearance. The Wolves had three starters back, including Forward Andy Fields, the 1978 MVP. "This is a very meaningful thing," Coach John Chaney said. His players were taking it very seriously, too. They rarely left their rooms. They kept quiet. They ate together, wearing coats and ties. And they prayed together before meals and didn't dare to excuse themselves from the table until everybody was finished. In discussing his players at one point, Chaney broke into tears. "I'm going to miss the seniors," he said. "They've given me so much."
One thing Cheney didn't give Chaney was a win over Green Bay. It was easily the most exciting game of the tournament. In the last nine minutes the lead changed seven times. With 41 seconds to play, the Wolves trailed 44-43 but had George Melton on the line shooting a one-and-one. Melton missed. Green Bay's Rory Lindgren pulled down the rebound, was fouled and sank two free throws to put the game out of Cheney's reach. The final score was 46-45. Afterward, Chaney moaned, "It was straws that got us here and a straw that got us beat."
Green Bay was a prohibitive favorite over North Alabama in the title game. In 10 seasons under Coach Dave Buss, the Phoenix have won 219 of 287 games, the fourth-best percentage in the country. Green Bay has no offensive star, just five well-drilled players who pass with precision and take carefully selected shots. Lindgren is deadly from the baseline but shoots so infrequently that he averages fewer than 10 points a game. Green Bay's bread-and-butter play is a shuffle pass underneath to Ron Ripley, a 6'10" center who hooks well left or right and mauls the basket like the Incredible Hulk, often flinging the ball up hastily and then leaping for it and slapping it down toward the hoop.
Buss' teams also have led the nation in scoring defense the last three seasons. This year Phoenix foes averaged only 50 points a game and shot a miserable 36.9%. The secret is what Buss calls a "matchup zone," which all but closes down the lanes.
Buss refuses to divulge any information about his zone. "Why should I?" he says. Then again, Buss obviously isn't a congenial sort. Green Bay checked in at a Springfield hotel on the opposite side of town from the hotel where the other three teams and all the Division II officials stayed. And after the win over Cheney, Buss lashed out at those who thought 40-point ball games are something less than thrilling. "This is meat-and-potatoes basketball," Buss growled. "You can't leave for a Coke because you might miss the turning point."
North Alabama eliminated Bridgeport thanks mainly to an 18-4 scoring burst early in the second half that was triggered by Otis Boddie, Perry Oden and Bobby Montgomery. Boddie, a 6'2" junior guard, had offers to attend Mississippi State, Tennessee and Washington State, among others, but he chose to stay close to home. After his brother Aaron, who played for Union College in Jackson, Tenn., had a heart attack during practice and died on the court, Otis felt he should live at home with his three younger sisters and his mother Martha, then working as a custodian in the North Alabama gym. Martha Boddie works elsewhere now and goes to Flowers Hall only to see Otis play.
For three years he has led the Lions in scoring, and next season he should become the Lions' alltime leading scorer. He still lives at home. "I belong living with my family," he says. "Long as Mom can see me play, I ain't going no where else."
Reaching the final capped an astonishing turnaround for North Alabama, which was 8-7 and going nowhere fast following a galling 80-66 loss at home to Troy State on Jan. 22. The next day Jones reportedly blew his top at practice. "Oh, I just told them kind of loudly that they could give a little more," he says. Assistant Coach Tommy Suitts took Oden aside and told him to start shooting whenever he was open. Oden did, and his average rocketed from six points a game to 20.2.
As a result, the Lions won nine of their next 11, losing on the road to Division I Tennessee State in overtime and to Livingston 78-77 on a shot that dropped at the buzzer. They finished 17-9 and in second place in the Gulf South Conference, and gained an at-large bid to the Division II regionals.
Of the 3,768 who turned out for the championship game, about 400 were Green Bay rooters, who kept chanting, "We got 'Bama." But they were drowned out by some 500 Lions supporters, who kept shouting, " 'Bama's got you." Which 'Bama did.
In defeat, Buss offered no excuses. "Throughout the tournament I told my kids, 'If you're going to play rotten, do it in the final, not in some regional.' "
Out on the court, swarms of North Alabama fans were dancing about. In the midst of the laughing faces a somber black woman, fiftyish, stood out. She was Martha Boddie and she was wiping tears from her face.
Hometown hero Otis Boddie won one for Mom.