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Sparse Start for Black College Event

Times Staff Writer

Joel Ward sat courtside Thursday afternoon inside the cold and cavernous Sports Arena, appearing entertained and tormented at the same time.

While a security guard assigned to watch the bay entrance nodded off to sleep, two vendors cracked peanut shells as they waited beside empty lines and full buckets of popcorn.

On the basketball court, Morehouse College and Lincoln University were involved in the tightest game of the three-day Black College Hoops Classic, an eight-team event created by Ward to showcase the nation’s historically black colleges and universities.

But a late withdrawal by a potential sponsor brought advertising to a halt and meant that most of the amenities had to be trimmed.

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That left only a trickle of fans in attendance this week, including at the double-overtime consolation game between Morehouse and Lincoln.

“This is quieter than the other two days,” said one vendor. “This was supposed to be the big day.”

Ward, a pastor at St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles, had been planning the tournament for a year, but a lack of funds left him scrambling to cover the $550,000 in expenses. To afford the arena’s $120,000 rental fee, plane tickets, hotel rooms and other expenses, the church and Ward took out loans.

“I was grateful to pull this event off,” said Ward, a Morehouse graduate who moved to L.A. from Detroit nine years ago.

The players, many of whom were making their first trips to Southern California, were surprised by the small crowds, but left satisfied.

Will Belton, a junior guard for Morehouse who scored a career-high 39 points in the 91-85 victory over Lincoln, said the team visited several local attractions since arriving Dec. 22, including Hollywood, Rodeo Drive, the Beverly Center and a Christmas dinner at the Proud Bird restaurant.

“It has been a great experience for us,” said Belton, who was most impressed with Staples Center. “If we can find a way to get more sponsors and more media, this can be a really big thing.”

Ward’s goal was to fill the seats with thousands of inner-city families and expose them to the opportunities available at historically black colleges, which are primarily located on the Eastern seaboard.

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Morehouse, located in Atlanta, has numerous high-profile alumni, including the late civil-rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., actor Samuel L. Jackson, producer Spike Lee and former track star Edwin Moses. Lincoln is in Pennsylvania.

Virginia Union, located in Richmond, Va., won the tournament final, 60-44, beating Bowie State, a fellow Central Intercollegiate Athletic Assn. school located in Maryland. Virginia Union is a three-time NCAA Division II champion and its graduates include Detroit Piston forward Ben Wallace and former NBA player Charles Oakley.

Organizers hoped to draw 5,000 spectators for each game, but when the sponsorship dissolved they proceeded with the bare necessities.

Still, music from a disc jockey blared from speakers mounted on a stage behind one of the baskets and rappers took their turns belting out lyrics between games.

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Peter Price, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward for Morehouse, is one of two players on the team who had been to Southern California. He grew up in the San Bernardino area before moving to Portland, Ore., in high school. Since his arrival, he said, he has discovered that being in the company of other morally conscious young men can be a positive influence.

“You really get to emphasize the positives rather than the negatives,” he said. “Everybody is focused on getting an education and trying to uplift their community. It’s, bar none, a life-changing experience.”

Ward said exposing young men like Price to such opportunities has always been his primary goal, and the setbacks this week have done nothing to change his mind.

“It’s my intention to do this next year,” he said.

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