Shortly after 11 last Saturday morning, a rack of basketballs sat on the beechwood floor of “The Pit,” the University of New Mexico arena that was built in a 56-foot hole on Albuquerque’s southeast mesa.
The balls awaited the Cal State Long Beach basketball team, which would practice for an hour to prepare for its game that night with Ohio State in the UNM Lobo Invitational Tournament.
First to appear in the empty arena was Coach Joe Harrington. In his first season at Long Beach, he has the 49ers off to their best start in five years. They would be 6-3 after the tournament.
Instead of the suit fans see, Harrington wore pants and a white sweat shirt, sleeves pushed up to his elbows. He took a ball and walked toward one of the baskets, across a caricature of a lobo--gray and black, with a blue eye, a red tongue and snarling white wolf teeth.
‘Winnin’s on My Mind’
With form that has acquired rust since his playing days, the tall, lean 41-year-old Harrington took a couple of shots and missed badly.
“Good thing I’m not playing,” he said.
Harrington’s players descended a long ramp to the court and discarded their warm-up suits.
“Winnin’,” said 6-foot-10 senior center DeAnthony Langston. “Winnin’s on my mind.”
Wins were remote possibilities much of Langston’s first three seasons, when the 49ers’ record was 23-64.
Practice began. Shoes squeaked on the blond wood. The white ceiling lights buzzed. Rows of red bench seats towered over the players.
Harrington watched closely. “Don’t throw any sloppy passes,” he said. “Good, now you’re lookin’ better, now you’re cookin’.”
A long jumper by guard Tony Ronzone swished the net. “That’s a nice shot, Tony, I like that,” Harrington said.
‘I Expect Courtesy’
But when Harrington didn’t like something, he became angry. To Langston, he said loudly: “When I’m talking, I expect courtesy!” Last year’s team was short on discipline, some players say.
At 12:30, the 49ers yielded the floor to Ohio State.
“I just hope we’re aggressive tonight and play up to what we’re capable of playing,” Harrington said after talking to the players in the dressing room. “When we do that, I think we’re a good basketball team.
“I’m very encouraged by the progress of this group and the fan support. We’ve worked awful hard. You’re seeing a change in Long Beach basketball.”
One of the biggest changes has been in the the team’s shooting. Its field-goal percentage last season was 42.5. This season, with the same players, it is 49.
Concentration and confidence are the reasons, according to Harrington, who came to Long Beach from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “I let them play relaxed,” he said. “And we have a wide-open offense, which is what they like.”
Dedication of Seniors
He said the dedication of the team’s seven seniors has also been responsible for a winning record. “They have something to prove,” the coach said. “And they have some pride in that school. I don’t have Long Beach pride yet--but it’s starting.”
Harrington and the players went outside, where rented vans waited in the cold.
Back at the Amfac hotel, senior guard Morlon Wiley, the team’s star, discussed that pride.
“We (seniors) decided, ‘Hey, let’s give the program back something,’ ” Wiley said. “We feel a lot better about everything . . . the community, the coaching staff.”
Wiley went up to his room. Harrington stretched out on a couch in the lobby, within sight of a Christmas tree.
Seth Greenberg, the associate head coach, asked Harrington, as a joke, what Harrington’s record was.
Harrington explained: “Two summers ago at a basketball camp, Jimmy Valvano (the North Carolina State coach) asked me what my record was. I said I didn’t know. He said, ‘That’s why you coach. You’ve got to know your record.’ ”
So Harrington knows now.
“It’s 131-101,” he said.
Expects to Reach Top 20
Asked how good his team is, Harrington said: “There’ll come a day pretty soon when we’ll be a Top 20 team. I don’t know if it’s this year or not.”
The 49ers have lost to two Top 20 teams--Arizona, 94-62, and Georgetown, 82-63--although they gave both some trouble.
The biggest 49er victories so far have been over USC, 85-66, and Loyola Marymount, 117-113, a game in which they came from 22 points behind.
“That tells you about their character and their desire to do well,” Harrington said.
Langston came by and slapped hands with Harrington.
“I’m closer to this team than any I’ve coached,” Harrington said. “I’ve enjoyed these guys off the court.”
Explaining his earlier eruption at Langston, Harrington said: “I get on them heavy for not concentrating. We’re out there coaching and expect positive signs back from a player. It’s important we understand each other on the court. It’s a matter of respect. I expect them to go to class, go to study hall. We’re doing things the way I want to do them, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Before a small crowd that was two hours from growing to 17,000 for the New Mexico-North Texas State game, the 49ers started fast in the 6 p.m. game against Ohio State. They led for the first 37 minutes and seemed on the verge of upsetting the Big Ten team.
But Wiley, who had scored 30 points, fouled out with 3:10 to play and the score 79-79. Ohio State then outscored the 49ers, 14-7, to win, 93-86. Junior forward Andre Purry had 21 points, but Langston and John Hatten, the other center, had only one basket between them and were often overpowered by the Buckeyes’ inside players.
Outside the dressing room after the game, a coatless Harrington ranted about the officiating. Then he stood with a hand on each wall of a corridor, head down, seething.
Inside the dressing room, Wiley had tears in his eyes, caused by the defeat as much as by a head cold.
While other players hurried to go out into the hall, where food had been set for them, Wiley paced the dressing room in bare feet, his uniform still on. He kept shaking his head.
“He’s a great player,” Ohio State Coach Gary Williams said.
At 5 p.m. Sunday, back at The Pit for the third-place game with North Texas State, Harrington said: “I’ll feel better with a win.”
“You don’t take losses too well,” a reporter told him.
The 49ers played a little less enthusiastically than the night before--despite Harrington’s constant imploring--but held off a North Texas State comeback and won, 89-88, when Wiley made a free throw with five seconds left.
Langston scored 23 points, his best game of the year. He credited his girlfriend.
“She told me (over the phone) to concentrate and be more aggressive,” Langston said.
‘That’s Tremendous Play’
Harrington looked at the line on Wiley in the box score--26 points, 7 rebounds, 5 steals--and commented: “That’s tremendous play.”
“We had a good December,” the coach said. “We won all the games we were supposed to win and one or two people didn’t think we’d win.”
And Harrington’s record was now . . . “132-102,” he said with a laugh.
The 49ers changed into blue warm-up suits and watched from the stands as New Mexico beat Ohio State, 74-65, in the championship game they had wanted to play in.
After the game, Wiley was named to the all-tournament team. He walked down to the court and accepted a silver plate and applause.
Walking back up the ramp, he was spotted by North Texas State Coach Jimmy Gales, who said: “Good luck to you, buddy, you might make a pro.”
Wiley smiled and walked out with his award.