COLLEGE BASKETBALL NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT : Not Yet Over the Hump : Tiny Campbell Getting the Most Out of First Bid

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three seconds remain in the game--that's the way it works in the dream of Campbell University guard Steve Martin. Three seconds and two points are all that separate the Fighting Camels from the most shocking NCAA tournament upset of all time.

Somehow, Martin slips past Duke guard Bobby Hurley for the inbounds pass. This being a dream, Martin doesn't ask how.

Realizing only a fraction of a second is left on the game clock, Martin takes several hurried steps and then calmly heaves a 70-foot shot toward the basket. The ball glides silently through the still air of the sold-out Greensboro Coliseum, its wild arc taking it dangerously close to the bottom of the overhanging scoreboard. As the buzzer sounds, the ball falls toward and then through the hoop, snapping nothing but the tips of the net.

Pandeominium. No. 1-ranked Duke loses to itsy-bitsy Campbell University, the Mayberry RFD of Division I schools. Fans rush the floor. Blue Devil Coach Mike Krzyzewski, his chances of a second consecutive national championship now gone, buries his head in his hands. Campbell Coach Billy Lee exults.

Martin does nothing. As the crazed crowd envelops him, Martin simply approaches the Duke players and shakes their hands.

And then he wakes up.

Martin has been consumed by the dream ever since the NCAA pairings were announced Sundayevening. He can't sleep. He can't study. He can't concentrate at practice.

"It's my 48-hour dream," Martin said.

Lee's basketball fantasy is a bit more prolonged. Born and raised in Mount Olive, N.C.--"pickle country," he said--Lee, 42, used to shoot baskets in his backyard and pretend to be Art Heyman, a former Duke All-American. Lee not only starred in his imaginary games, he announced them, too.

Now this, his and Campbell's first NCAA tournament bid, against Duke, no less.

"I've been dreaming about this for 20 years," Lee said. "If we win, we got an easy sail the rest of the way. It would be the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. We would definitely be the tallest hog in the trough."

As for particulars, Lee isn't quite sure how his dream ends. Part of the problem is that Lee doesn't sleep much. This week, as he prepared for Thursday's game against the Blue Devils, Lee kept waking up in the middle of the night, his mind racing with ideas. Rather than toss and turn, he sneaked out of the bedroom and watched videotapes of Krzyzewski's team.

Film buff that he is, Lee said he also planned to have a special team screening of the basketball cult classic, "Hoosiers," the story of tiny Hickory High and its improbable march to an Indiana state championship.

"It's going to be just like 'Hoosiers,' " Lee said of the first-round game. "We'll run the ol' picket fence play."

It's going to take more than that. Oddsmaker Danny Sheridan gives Campbell a trillion-to-one shot against Duke, prompting Lee to ask, "Where that one come from?" Good question.

Until last Saturday, when Campbell earned an automatic NCAA bid by winning the Big South Conference tournament, the Camels were a national unknown. Now they've become an instant curiosity piece, the antithesis of big-time basketball.

Dick Schaap and his "ABC World News Tonight" crew were here Tuesday. So accommodating was Lee, he let Schaap's cameraman and soundman roam the court during practice. Players ended up dodging boom mikes in four-on-four drills.

The Campbell sports information office was deluged with interview and NCAA ticket requests. At last look, the phone count had surpassed 500 calls. Extra office workers were hired to handle the volume.

Faxes and telegrams have begun to trickle in, including a good-luck message from someone at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. And guess who contacted Lee? None other than his childhood hero, the great Heyman of Duke.

There isn't much to the Campbell campus. In fact, if you don't pay attention, you can miss it altogether on U.S. 421.

Founded in 1887, the Southern Baptist school has about 3,700 students. The law school is well regarded, as is the pharmacy school and the undergraduate trust management program. But the cultural center of the state, it isn't.

There is no stoplight in Buies Creek (population, 2,085), only a single intersection. The "business district" consists of three barber shops, two gas stations, a volunteer fire department and no restaurants. If you want food, you eat at the campus coffee shop. Hurry, though--it closes at 5 p.m.

For fun, said junior forward Mark Mocnik, "you travel."

Lillington, located about four miles away, has a McDonald's. Ten miles down the road in Dunn is a movie theater. A mall can't be found unless you drive to Raleigh, 30 miles distant.

"But we've got a 'Short Stop,' " said Mocnik, referring to Buies Creek's answer to 7-Eleven.

The closest thing to a billboard is the portable sign announcing Friday evening's Fish Fry sponsored by the Lions Club. And near a Harnett County News rack is a small poster that details the dates and times of the Harnett County Rabies Clinic.

Still, Lee and his team love it here. When the basketball office burned down last summer, some of the townspeople hurried to the building and helped carry computers out of the smoldering frame. Lee has come home after work and found baskets of fruit or freshly baked brownies on his doorstep.

It is a town and a school in love with its Camels.

Shortly before the tournament pairings were released, fans gathered at little Carter Gymnasium (better known as the "Billy Barn," capacity 1,500) and began chanting: "We Want Duke, We Want Duke." Lee winced.

"Hey, there's a fine line between guts and ignorance," Lee said. "I'd rather play the Lakers than Duke. (Duke) ought to be No. 1 and No. 2. Someone asked me what it would take to beat Duke. I said a good case of the flu wouldn't hurt."

Lee wanted to take his team to the West Regional, where No. 1-seeded UCLA was sent.

"I was chanting, 'Let's go to Idaho,' " he said. "I wanted to play UCLA (which actually went to Tempe, Ariz.)."

Instead, the Camels got Duke. They didn't have much of a choice. Because of a school rule that prohibits them from playing on Sundays, the options were limited.

"We're definitely in a sword fight with a pocketknife," Lee said. "When we found out we were playing Duke, we were shaking like a wet dog in the wind."

Lee's team doesn't have a player taller than 6 feet 6. There are no seniors. Last week, Lee didn't have enough bodies to conduct a practice. Rather than cancel the workout, he told an assistant coach to put on a pair of sneakers and do what he could.

But what they lack in size, they make up for in attitude. Rather than approach the game with dread, Lee and his team are enjoying themselves. When an actual camel saddle arrived at the Campbell basketball office, courtesy of an overzealous fan, Lee didn't try to hide his pleasure.

"Good night, nurse," Lee said. "I've never seen one of these in my life."

The Camels leave at noon today for Greensboro. It is about a two-hour bus ride, plenty long to consider the unlikeliest of dreams.

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