49ers Win Games, Hearts : Electric Team Sparks B-Ball Fans On and Off the Court

Times Staff Writer

It's Ladies Night, time to "kill Vegas," and if that has to be done unladylike, so be it. Elbows will fly, sweat will flow and makeup will run, and the only thing more certain than another victory will be that the ladies who play basketball for Cal State Long Beach will be darlings in the hearts of their adorers.

The starting five is introduced. They run onto the campus gym's shiny new floor and guard Faye Paige, the first one out, receives a rose from a team booster.

And then, Cheryl Dowell, a 6-foot-1 49er freshman center, sings the National Anthem.

Dowell's voice shimmers: "ban-ner-er ye-het way-hey-hey-wave ... "

When she finishes, the crowd of 974 goes wild, a smile splits her face and she bounces back to her teammates, who congratulate her as if she had just made the game-winning basket.

No. 7 Ranking

The 49ers, looking for their 11th victory in 13 games and trying to improve their No. 7 national ranking, start slowly against Nevada Las Vegas, displeasing Coach Joan Bonvicini, but recover to lead, 46-29, at half time.

There are no slam-dunks but the pace never slows.

In the locker room, Bonvicini says: "We're lucky to be up by 17. We didn't come to play. Don't let them back in the game. Send them back crying."

But Las Vegas out-hustles Long Beach and cuts the lead to 55-51. An angry Bonvicini, in a white sweater with padded shoulders, jumps off the bench and calls time out.

She berates her starters loudly enough to be heard over the band: "I've got seven other people here who want to play. Come on, ladies, don't you have any pride?"

The ladies sweat.

Fight Erupts

More elbows, one too many, and a fight erupts between Carol Brandt of the 49ers and UNLV's Zina Harris. It is the spark the 49ers need.

Bonvicini calls for an aggressive, full-court defense and the 49ers pull away. Guard Shaundra McMichael, a sophomore from Jordan High School, knocks in two straight jump shots. She releases the ball softly from fingers that have red nail polish.

And Dowell shows that she can do more than sing. She and another reserve, Bettina Turner, both score 10 points, and then the team's star, center Cindy Brown, takes over.

Brown, a junior from Portland, Ore., is 6-foot-2 and a smooth operator around the basket who averages 25 points a game. Bonvicini says she has the talent of USC's Cheryl Miller, women's basketball's most celebrated player. Brown finishes with 33 points.

The 49ers win, 90-73, and the players shake hands, except for Brandt and Harris, who exchange icy glares. In the locker room there is laughter until Bonvicini stops it.

" 'Shut up. Sit down,' " were the coach's first words, Dowell says. "When she starts cursing, we all go, 'Whoa.' We know she's serious. So we all sat down and shut up."

Bonvicini, 32, is in her seventh season as head coach at Cal State Long Beach. Her record after Tuesday night's 79-56 victory over UCLA, is 168-37, a percentage of .820. (The 49ers are 12-2 this season.). She is a former computer operator and programmer who is known as a motivator and an effective recruiter of high-school stars.

To the players, who call her "Joan," she is more than a coach.

"She's kind of like a mom the way she looks after everybody," freshman forward Kim Rice said.

Margaret Mohr, a junior guard from Thousand Oaks, said:"You can't hate Joan because of the nice things she does off the court. You joke around (during tough practices)and say, 'Gosh, I wish I could hate her.' "

Bonvicini, a native New Englander, was a quick, aggressive 5-foot-8 point guard for Southern Connecticut College in the early 1970s.

'Played Real Hard'

"I was good for my time," she said of an era when players were not as tall, strong or talented. "I always played real hard."

That is the way Bonvicini's Long Beach teams play.

Assistant Coach Michael Abraham, 26, said: "Her practices are high-intensity without being high-pressure. She gives (the players)freedom and still gets the kind of performance out of them she does."

The players find Bonvicini, known as a comedienne on the banquet circuit, a source of amusement even when she's not trying to be funny.

They tell of the time she got her head stuck in a neck-strengthening device in the weight room and had to have help to get it out.

"She laughed too," Cheryl Dowell said. "She knew it was goofy. She doesn't take herself seriously all the time."

"Hi, Hagler."

Carol Brandt has a new nickname the day after the Las Vegas game. She watches a replay of her fight in Bonvicini's office.

"She threw an elbow," Brandt says. "I said, 'Why'd you do that?' and she hit me. I didn't think she was that bold. Nobody ever dared hit me."

Brandt, who is from Cerritos, is 6-foot-2 and weighs 155 pounds.

"You should have decked her," says McMichael, the team's fashion plate who has chosen a white jump suit for the team's good-will visit to Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children in Los Angeles.

"I should have, but I was being nice," Brandt says.

At the hospital, sunny, plushly appointed rooms hold children wearing casts and braces. Tiny crutches at their sides, they watch cartoons on TV.

McMichael and Mohr approach a boy in a wheelchair.

"Want a book? It's got our pictures in it," says Mohr, offering the team's media guide. The child seems confused by these visitors.

On Verge of Tears

"What's your name?" asks McMichael, looking at his identification bracelet. It says "Ricardo" and McMichael calls him that. The boy smiles but says nothing, bringing McMichael to the verge of tears.

She quickly leaves the room.

In the corridor, Mohr asks McMichael: "You're not going to cry, are you?If you do, I will."

The 49ers' van, driven by Abraham, heads home south on the Hollywood Freeway. Rap music pounds from the radio.

Guard Missy Rand suggests that they listen to something else but is overruled.

Later, Rand says: "Only three of us are white (Mohr and Rice are the others). That's why we all have Walkmans. But I've learned to listen to their music. If you can't kid about it (race), you know something's wrong."

The Fastbreak Boosters, more than 100 people, are having a party to celebrate the team in a five-level house in Naples. They have raised $2,500 to pay for tutors for the team.

The players are dressed up.

McMichael is startling in a little black number that, except for two straps, is backless. "Shaundra (I-don't-know-where-you-shop) McMichael" is how Bonvicini introduces her.

This is a side of the players that is unknown to the public, says Rand, one of two seniors on the team.

"(People) think just because we play basketball we're not ladies," says Rand, who is wearing a white blazer. "You have to be aggressive on the court, but that's not the way it is off the court. We've been out dancing and guys say, 'Oh, you don't look like basketball players,' because we have makeup on and heels. We don't always wear tennis shoes and shorts, we're not sweaty all the time."

The host, Barry Morse, a cardiologist, pours wine and says he got hooked on women's games five years ago.

'Aggressive and Physical'

"I enjoyed them more than the men's games," he says. "They were so aggressive and physical. Take a friend to a woman's basketball game and it's almost guaranteed they'll come back."

Roberta Wall, a Long Beach city employee who is among the boosters who have paid to be honorary coaches on the 49er bench, remembers having to be dragged to her first women's game.

"I didn't want to watch guys watch girls run around in shorts," she says. "It wasn't like that at all. We're talking about athletes . I thought it would be giggles."

Don Friedman, a federal administrative law judge, can't contain his enthusiasm. "The gals are super," he says. "It's such fun to be with them. They're approachable, they're not superstars. They recognize the fans. If I miss a game, they'll say, 'Where were you last week?' "

Cindy Brown, who is in a red dress, looms over everyone.

"These people don't have to do this," she says. "They're taking the time, showing care, being real open. They invite us in, and say our home is your home."

She looks out a huge window at docked yachts and Alamitos Bay on a late Sunday afternoon.

"Absolutely beautiful," she says, overwhelmed by the foggy view and the adulation drifting through the room.

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