Coming soon to a college basketball town near you, the new Washington Generals. Make that the Morris Brown Wolverines.
This small private college in the shadow of downtown Atlanta is trying to make a name for itself--not to mention some much-needed money for its move to NCAA Division I--by becoming a de facto barnstorming team.
As an independent with a tiny home gym, Morris Brown has a hard time getting teams to come to its campus. So the Wolverines are set to start a nine-game stretch of road games that will keep them away from home from Dec. 26 to Jan. 10.
The players, who rarely traveled more than 150 miles for a road game when they were in Division II, will live in hotels in Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Oregon, enduring some ugly losses along the way.
Already, a trip to Tulsa produced an 88-41 rout. At Mississippi, the Wolverines lost, 92-45. They considered it a moral victory when No. 11 Boston College beat them "only" 90-65.
"We're the underdogs of all underdogs," center Amien Hicks said. "We're the biggest underdogs in history."
Much like the Generals, who played straight men to the Harlem Globetrotters, Morris Brown usually takes the court with no chance to win.
"It's tough for morale to play all those road games," Hicks said. "Most people don't give you a chance as soon as you walk in the door. Sometimes, it's tough to get yourself to believe."
The coaching staff has to be creative to keep the kids motivated.
"Every game is chance to leave footprints," assistant coach Eric Rashad tells them. "Everything you do is a chance to be on ESPN, a chance to be a front-page story."
The school boasts that two key members of its staff--athletic director Russell Ellington and sports information director James "Twiggy" Sanders--were formerly with the greatest of winners, the Globetrotters.
Morris Brown, on the other hand, was 6-23 last season--its first in Division I. This season, the Wolverines lost eight of their first nine games by an average of 23 points.
"I guess turnabout is fair play," Sanders said, managing a hearty laugh.
From all appearances, Morris Brown does not belong in Division I. The school can afford only three coaches. There's no money for an academic counselor to take on the road. The trainers are students.
The Wolverines weren't even successful in Division II. Looking up at the ceiling of the 3,500-seat John H. Lewis Arena, the only banner devoted to men's basketball marks a 1941 conference title.
"I guess that's the last time we won a championship," Rashad said.
This year's team is undermanned, undersized, underskilled ... well, just about any "under" you can think of. Making matters worse, two of its best players are hurt, while another is sitting out until next semester after transferring.
"Once they get into the heat of battle, the crowd gets going, the other team comes down and gets a dunk, it tends to wear on the guys," Rashad said. "They know. We gave it our best shot, but we're going to lose."
The Wolverines don't have a true point guard. The 6-foot-6 Hicks isn't a real center, he just plays one.
"We've got this guy playing the post," guard Sam Daniel said, glancing toward Hicks. "He's a great warrior, but if we're going to win at places like Boston College and Oregon, we need someone better in the post."
They also need to do a better job of scheduling. While the 16-day trip falls during a break in semesters, the Wolverines aren't too excited about all the packing and unpacking.
"I look forward to the basketball," Daniel said. "Everything else I could do without."
Why is Morris Brown doing this? Money, of course.
To pay for upgrading its program to meet the minimum standards of Division I, the school took whatever road games it could get--the better paying, the better. A team such as Boston College doles out as much as $40,000 to get another win on its record.
So, the Wolverines fly in, take their beating and pick up the check. Maybe it would be a little easier to take if all that money were being reinvested in the basketball program. Instead, it goes to a variety of purposes.
"We're making money for the school," Rashad said, a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
He's not asking for much. Some portable baskets would be nice. An extra coat of paint would spruce the place up.
"Just something to give it that college feel," Rashad said.
The Wolverines have only nine homes game on their 30-game schedule. When the season is done, they will have visited 10 states, plus the Virgin Islands.
All that traveling makes it difficult for a student-athlete to maintain the first part of his title.
"My mother always tells me to take my books on the road, but there's really no time to study," Hicks said, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, you can get excused from class, but you've still got to do the work." Even at home, the players live in a hotel. Campus dormitory space is limited, so the school reserves them for the incoming freshmen. The basketball players are housed at a motel 15 minutes away.
Without a conference, Morris Brown doesn't have 16 to 18 games--half at home--that most schools use as a starting point for scheduling. Morris Brown doesn't have a league tournament that would at least provide a hope of getting into the NCAA tournament.
"The losing is killing me," Hicks said. "I'm sure the traveling will be great when I look back on it in retrospect. But I can't take the losing."