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Original Issue

Basket makers by the Acres

Oral Roberts' Dick Acres and sons hope to reach the Promised Land

The Oral Roberts University campus in Tulsa is an ecclesiastical Disneyland. There's the 200-foot Prayer Tower rising out of the Oklahoma countryside like some relic of a forgotten World's Fair; a shiny, golden, fine-arts auditorium that suggests an evangelist's tent; and a saucer-shaped bookstore right out of Futura, hometown of the Jetsons. In one corner of this fortress of righteousness is a huge basketball arena that seems to have been modeled after a Reese's peanut-butter cup. How big is the locker room? Big enough to cover three Acres: Dick and his sons Mark and Jeff.

Dick is the Titan coach. Mark and Jeff are seniors and the team's starting center and forward, respectively. Despite the fact that Mark, 22, is 6'11" and 225 pounds and Jeff, 24, is 6'9" and 210, they're known as God's Little Acres. In 1983-84, Dick's first full season as Oral Roberts coach, the 21-10 Titans won the Midwestern City Conference and made the NCAA tournament for only the second time in their 19-year history. This season, with basically the same squad, Oral Roberts has lost to Tulsa, LSU and Texas A & M by a total of eight points. And North Carolina's 87-65 rout last Saturday in Chapel Hill must have rattled even the Acres' faith. God might not be dead, but He seems to be forgetting the 1-4 Titans.

Then again, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. And Oral Roberts' success is often not measured in wins or losses but in Acreage. Mark and Jeff are the Titans' salvation, fundamentalists who know their fundamentals. Mark, whom some coaches compare favorably with the Indiana Pacers' Steve Stipanovich, is a two-time Midwestern City co-player of the year. He averaged 20.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in 1983-84, leading the conference in the latter two categories. The scrawnier Jeff punched in with averages of 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. This year, it has been the other way around: Through last week Jeff had scored at an 18.8 points per game pace on 71% shooting, and Mark was averaging 15.6 points on 47% shooting.

EXPECT A MIRACLE is the slogan painted on each side of the court at the Mabee Center, which once served as a studio for the TV sermons of Oral Roberts himself. Here on the buckle of the Bible Belt, Roberts, the faith healer and college president, has an abiding faith in the power of the holy hoop. He believes that the game can be an instrument in spreading the Good News. He played a little hoops himself back home in Ada, Okla. until he collapsed on the court one day when he was 16. Doctors said it was tuberculosis. After Roberts had undergone six months of ineffectual treatment, his sister packed him off to a faith healer. He came home cured and imbued with a desire to become a healer himself.

The Big O helped recruit Mark and had a hand in luring Pa Acres away from Carson High in Los Angeles two years ago to become an assistant to Ken Hayes, then the Titans' coach. Roberts also gave the O.K. when Hayes was replaced by Acres nine games into the 1982-83 season. Acres became the Titans' fifth coach since '73-74, the last season they made the NCAAs. None of the others had been up to the task of leading ORU into the Promised Land of the Final Four. There wasn't much excitement in Mabee. Even the fans became Oral retentive. "They can be overly polite," Mark explains.

If a cantaloupe could sprout eyebrows, it might resemble Mark's face. His laconic nature has earned him the nicknames Brainwave, Waldork and Space Ghost. "Mark had 35 points against Texas A & M last year, but on the film, you wouldn't see more than 20," says teammate Brian Miles. "He does things in slow motion, but he gets them done."

Jeff is perkier. And what he lacks in bulk and menace, he makes up for with versatility. In his five years at Oral Roberts, Jeff has played every position on the floor. Tonsillitis and knee surgery cut short his 1982-83 season and gave him an extra year of eligibility.

As a child, Jeff would sit with his mother in the Carson High bleachers and watch Dad coach. Mark was indifferent to the game. He'd poke around among the supports beneath the stands looking for loose nickels. "I found plenty," Mark says. "That's what kept me coming back."

Dick put an adjustable backboard in the driveway of the family's house and painted 36 white numbers on various spots on the asphalt. "Number one was the lefthanded hook," he says. "That's how the boys learned to use' their off hand." One day Jeff challenged the Carson High players Pa brought home to a game of Around the World. They were amazed to be outshot by a sixth-grader.

Jeff was too good for Mark, too. They'd play Around the World for baseball cards, and Jeff usually wound up with the bigger pile. "I remember a few fistfights over a Reggie Jackson 3-D card we got out of a box of raisin bran," says Jeff. "I think that's why Mark wound up bigger than I. All that beating up on him made him grow faster."

These days Mark beats up on the opposition. "Space Ghost realized he'd never break the NCAA scoring record," says Miles, "so now he's trying to set one for personal fouls." Mark has been called for 21 in five games this season and has fouled out twice.

Dick, on the other hand, looks like a man at peace with his Maker. He has the angular features of Mr. Spock, the reserve of Mr. Green Jeans and the amiability of Mr. Rogers. His approach to coaching is restrained and underplayed, rather like a modern evangelical preacher. In the heat of a game, however, he often engages in Elmer Gantryish rantings. At other times, his tone is breathy and conversational, like the soothing message of a Dial-A-Prayer.

He hadn't had the opportunity to coach his sons since before they entered high school. Back in California, they played for Carson rival Palos Verdes High. As a senior, Jeff scored 44 points in a quadruple-overtime victory over his dad's team.

"Stop that kid!" Dick barked at his players.

"That kid?" his wife, Sandi, groaned in the stands. "He's your son!"

Sandi looks as if she could be the headmistress at a staid finishing school for girls. But when screeching in behalf of her sons, she sounds as if she could shatter a glass backboard at 50 paces. Sandi was the first Acres taken with Roberts. Sunday mornings in Palos Verdes, she'd go to church with the boys while Dick stayed home and watched TV. But before leaving she'd switch channels to Roberts' show. Dick became addicted. "Sometimes she'd forget," he says, "and I'd turn it on after she'd left."

Sandi and Dick met 30 years ago in an English class at UC Santa Barbara, where Dick was the star center on the basketball team. His father, an auto mechanic, refused to watch him play. "Dad wanted me to be home picking weeds," Dick says. "He didn't think I should be kicking that D-A-M-N ball around."

"Don't say that!" gasps Sandi.

"It's true," says Dick. "That D-A-M-N ball has taken me a lot of places."

Most recently to Tulsa. It was after Carson won the California 4A championship in 1982 that Hayes asked Acres to be his assistant. When Hayes was fired, the team voted to boycott, which put Mark (Jeff was redshirted at the time) in the funny position of having to strike against his old man. But Mark and a few other Titans came back to practice a week later and eventually all but two players returned to the team. At one point they scrimmaged a pickup team including 7-year-old Matthew Acres, the team trainer, the sports information director and a high jumper from the track team.

In Acres' coaching debut against Kansas, the patched-together Titans fell behind by 10 points in the second half. Nothing was dropping in. It was as if the opening in the basket had healed over. But Mark led them back. His late layup sent the game into overtime. And with one second left in OT, he scored the layup that won the game, 73-71.

These days the Titans could use more of that kind of miraculous medicine. Taken Orally, of course.



Jeff (above), a 71% shooter, has an 18.8-point average, three points per game better than brother Mark's.



The family hasn't always prayed together, but it most certainly plays together: (left to right) Mark, Sandi, Matt, Dick and Jeff.