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Lobbying for Support : Efforts by Northridge Basketball Players to Woo Fans Hinge on Team’s Ability to Win

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Anyone here with a large gambling debt? The Capones are at the door.

Take a look. There are 3 guys filling up the peephole. The two squeezed off to the side have to be at least 6 feet, 3 inches tall. The other guy is even bigger. Much bigger. Odds are 10 to 1 his name is Guido or Jimmy the Weasel.

Well, since their hands are void of weaponry and, at the moment anyway, they happen to be smiling, let’s open the door a crack.

“Hi,” the behemoth says. “We’re members of the basketball team. My name is Todd, this is Karl and this is Derrick. We have a game on Friday and we’d like you to come out and watch us play.”

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Todd?

OK, so they aren’t thugs. Just 3 scholarship basketball players from Cal State Northridge walking the corridors of campus housing facilities in search of a few new fans.

It will take a second to come up for a response for this.

“OK, thanks,” stammers the occupant as she accepts a flyer promoting the game.

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“We know it’s Thanksgiving,” Derrick says. “But you can come and eat at the game. Free food. Just tell them Coach Cassidy said it was on him. All you can eat.”

“Yeah,” Karl says. “Have them put it on his tab.”

The offer is met by a rather confused look. “Well, good luck with the game,” the young woman says as she closes the door.

“People aren’t being very friendly tonight,” says Karl Becker, as he, Todd Bowser and Derrick Gathers make their way to another door at Northridge’s University Park housing unit.

You think Dan Quayle didn’t utter the same words a few times during the course of his campaign? Well, Becker and Co.'s quest for popularity is no less challenging.

“There are 30,000 students who go here and probably half of them don’t even know we have a competitive basketball team,” says Rusty Smith, a Northridge assistant coach. “It reached a point where we sat down and said, ‘You know, we’re really tired of having 45 people in the gymnasium for a basketball game. Lets do something about it.’ ”

The approach they have taken can only be described as grass-roots. Before an exhibition against the University of British Columbia on Nov. 4, players split into groups and went door to door trying to drum--or, in one case, sing--up support.

An only slightly less organized effort was under way early this week in preparation for Northridge’s regular-season opener tonight against UC Davis. This despite the fact that the vast majority of the 1,800 students who live in housing facilities within a mile of CSUN’s main campus are likely to be away during the long holiday weekend.

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“Maybe even if they don’t come at first, they will after we win a few games,” said Bowser, the Matadors’ 6-8, 280-pound center.

Smith and fellow assistant Dave Fehte, the organizers of this walking public relations movement, were at first hesitant to ask the players to do the legwork. They soon learned their fears were unfounded.

“Actually, we’ve had a lot of fun doing it,” Becker said.

Smith recalls several players serenading a group of girls who were standing on the balcony of one apartment.

“They said, ‘Will you sing a song for us?’ ” Smith said. “We tried.”

While time will tell if the personal touch will get fans to games, the players are optimistic.

“People see me walking around the building and they say hi and ask when our next game is,” Becker said. “They know we’re out there trying to grasp them and pull them in. It makes them feel like a part of the team, too, because they feel wanted.”

What would help the cause more than anything is a winning season. The prospects of that appear fairly strong for 2 reasons: CSUN’s schedule and an influx of newcomers who should make an immediate impact.

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First, the schedule: It’s weak--from both an interest standpoint and in terms of strength. The Matadors’ nonconference opponents are not only by and large bad teams, they also aren’t household names--even by Division II standards.

UC Davis is an exception, but tonight’s game is followed by a dull home-and-home series against Bethany Bible and Sonoma State. Northridge travels to the Bay Area on Dec. 1-2, then returns home to play the same teams Dec. 8 and 10.

Three of CSUN’s toughest home tests before the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. season will be games against State University of New York at Buffalo on Dec. 30, Millersville (Pa.) Jan. 6 and Biola on Jan. 10.

Cal State Bakersfield and UC Riverside, last season’s co-champions, are expected to again be the top teams in the CCAA. Bakersfield has only one starter returning, but Coach Pat Douglass has managed to draw top junior college talent from across the country.

Riverside has 3 starters back, including Maurice Pullum, a 50% shooter from 3-point range. Coach John Masi reportedly has added an inside game to go with his usual slew of bombers, landing Shawn Sheehan, a 6-7 center from Victor Valley, the leading rebounder among the state’s JC players last season. Chris Ceballos, a 6-5 transfer from Cal State Fullerton, is another talented inside player.

Where does Northridge fit in? According to one preseason publication, seventh. Bad news in an 8-team conference, but CSUN players and coaches aren’t buying it.

“All it does is make us work that much harder in practice,” said Gathers, who is one of several new players expected to contribute heavily to the Matador cause.

Gathers, a 6-3 junior, transferred to Northridge from Santa Monica College, where he sat out last season. He is the brother of Hank Gathers, one of Loyola Marymount’s top players, and he has a jump shot that rivals his brother’s.

Outside shooting was an ingredient sorely missing from the Northridge mix last season, but Gathers should fill the void. He made 3 of 4 from 3-point range against British Columbia.

He will be teamed with senior Darren Matsubara and sophomore Jemarl Baker in what is essentially a 3-guard backcourt. Matsubara, a transfer from Hawaii Pacific, gives the Matadors quickness and shooting ability at the point-guard position. Baker, a part-time starter as a freshman, has a decent jump shot and is a superior defensive player.

The starters inside will be Bowser and Alan Fraser, who was a top reserve on last season’s team that finished 15-12.

Bowser is entering his third year as a starter. He averaged 14.3 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds a game last season. Fraser will start at power forward and also play center. He averaged 4.7 points and 3.9 rebounds a game last season.

Also likely to see playing time at the forward positions are Kris Brodowski and Leroy McCullough, a pair of JC transfers. Becker, the top reserve at guard, is also new to the CSUN program.

Becker (6-3) and Brodowski (6-7) were teammates on a Cypress College team that was one of the best in the state last season. McCullough (6-4) played for Pasadena City College.

Northridge’s success depends largely on how quickly its players adapt to one another. Of the team’s top 9 players, only 3 played for CSUN last season.

To that end, Coach Pete Cassidy is hopeful that the time the players spend with each other off the court--flyers in hand--will pay dividends during games as well.

“The more they associate with one another and the more close-knit they become, the better their chances of being successful,” Cassidy said. “A close team tends to pull for each other more and get more tenacious when the going gets tough because it’s we instead of me .”

And, if CSUN’s effort to recruit new fans is successful, visiting teams could be faced by an even greater opponent: the players and fans forming all of us.

“The more fans there are, the more hollering and screaming there is, the more intensity there will be, and the better we’ll play,” Gathers said. “That, I guarantee.”


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