It's the shoes, Mars, most definitely the shoes—the orange Chuck Taylors, the throwback models from years before. It's also the minigymnasiums, the court time shared with practicing cheerleaders, the interminable bus rides and the lack of sufficient meal money.
In a land far, far away from the lights, cameras and Gucci rows of big-time college basketball, the teams of Division II and III battled for supremacy in two cities named Springfield—one in Ohio, the other in Massachusetts—on successive weekends. In this land the squads are filled with players not quite tall enough, quick enough or strong enough for Division I. New uniforms and steak dinners are hard to come by, the national anthem is sung off-key, and everybody on the team wants to be invited to the postgame interview room.
"Nobody can tell me winning Division I feels any different than this," said North Alabama guard Allen Williams after he helped the Lions beat Bridgeport (Conn.) 79-72 in the finals of the Division II tournament last Saturday in Springfield, Mass. "We got the same championship trophy, the same championship watches. Ask me what time it is."
The victory was sweet, if not glamorous. North Alabama coach Gary Elliott cut down the final strand of the net to a cheering throng of one. The Lion players were on their way to the interview room to answer questions from the six or so reporters who were covering the game, and the band, on loan from a local high school, had cleared out after playing Under the Sea for the fourth time. Nobody from CBS, which televised the Division II final for the first time ever, stuck around long enough to show the tournament highlights to the theme from Chariots of Fire, a la Division I.
"I wonder if that's how Tark [UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian] felt?" said Bridgeport coach Bruce Webster, watching the scene from across the gym.
That Webster's team was even in the title game was something of a minor miracle. Last year the school was in serious financial difficulty, and the budgetary squeeze had forced all faculty members to take a 28% pay cut. Since then Webster, who has coached Bridgeport for 26 years, has been driving for a limousine service on his weekends to make ends meet. "If I'm looking for a [different coaching] job, I'm a better candidate now because I can drive the bus, too," he said.
The championship game was close until North Alabama, which is located in Florence, went on a 9-2 spurt with five minutes remaining, to pull ahead by eight points. With 52 seconds to go, three guys in the stands started singing the school song. Then parents and friends, some of whom had ridden buses for 26 hours to watch the Lions, joined in, and the rest was history. At the buzzer, Northern Alabama's players stomped around the court powwowlike, declaring their dance to be the B‚âàí¬¨‚àÇA shuffle.
"Basketball Phi Athletes," said guard Kevin Simmons, who vowed that his team would celebrate in style later in the evening.
"In Springfield?" someone asked.
"Hey, we learned to make our own fun in Florence," he said. "We can make our own fun here."
Even the losing team found solace in Springfield. "I've been watching my friend who plays for Seton Hall on TV all week," said Bridgeport forward Steve Wills about Pirate guard Oliver Taylor. "We made it to the finals, and for a little while, just a little while, I was up there with him."
After the buzzer had sounded on Wisconsin-Platteville's 81-74 defeat of Franklin & Marshall in the Division III championship game in Springfield, Ohio, on March 16, and after the Platteville players finally stopped mugging for their fans' video cameras, Pioneer coach Bo Ryan paused to contemplate the title his team had just won. "Pardon me if I don't know how to act," he said. "I never coached a championship team on a national level."
Which made him a perfect match for his school, which has never won a national crown in any sport. That Platteville was even in the tournament raised the eyebrows of Division III purists, who believe that only small, private schools with high academic standards should be allowed to compete in the division. With 5,300 students, Platteville is a large (by Division III standards) public university with lower admission standards than most other schools in the division. Some observers even thought that the Platteville players might be getting athletic aid—a no-no in Division III—because, until this season, the Pioneers belonged simultaneously to Division III and the NAIA, which does allow athletic scholarships.
"Not true," said Ryan. "Being in both, we weren't allowed to give scholarships. Believe me, our kids will be paying off loans for a long, long time."
One of them is Shawn Frison, who scored 20 points in the final and was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. A senior business major, Frison does not qualify for financial aid because his mother makes a good living working for IBM in Chicago. He has taken out loans for tuition and room and board, which run about $8,000 a year for out-of-state students, and he works as a gym supervisor as part of a work-study program. "There is a lot of sacrifice involved in playing and going to school here," said Frison. "But I've learned that I'm not owed anything in this world, that I've got to go out and get it myself. I'm a lot better prepared for life because I've been here."
Ryan recruited Frison out of Chicago's Leo High. Frison, whose dreams of a Division I scholarship ended when he underwent knee surgery as a junior, was so impressed by Ryan and Platteville that he talked teammate Robby Jeter, another Chicagoan and the son of former Green Bay Packer All-Pro defensive back Bobby Jeter, into enrolling as well. "He came back from a visit and told me his name was up in marquee lights," said Jeter. "Once I saw the school and met coach Ryan, it felt like home."
Although Frison was Platteville's leading scorer this season with an 18-point average, he wasn't a starter. Ryan deemphasizes the importance of starting, a philosophy that dates back to his high school days when he once was replaced midway through the first half of a game and didn't start the second half. "I was demoralized," he said. "All I could think of was what my friends and parents would say."
Ryan uses a nine-man rotation, substituting so frequently that the scorekeepers usually need a shower after the game. "I'm not trying to start a trend or a basketball revolution," he said. "I'm just doing what I think is best. Somehow it has worked."
Fred Stafford (34) made 10 of 13 field goals to help lift North Alabama over Bridgeport.