Game 029: at Delaware State 68, Morgan State 53Monday, January 10, 2005
Memorial Hall - Dover, Delaware
On December 18, Delaware State
traveled to Michigan State's
Breslin Events Center to pick up a routine five-figure guarantee check and a whoopin'. But they had grander aspirations: out of the gate, they micromanaged each possession and slowed the game's pace to an interminable crawl, waiting until there were five seconds left on the shot clock before putting it up. Insdoing, Del-State saved their energy for defense. And for 19 minutes, the plan worked: the score was in the high teens, and I looked on at home via the ESPNPlus broadcast completely slack-jawed. The Hornet team on the screen bore no resemblance to the one I'd known, nor the one I had read about in my stack of preseason magazines.
|Morgan State's Sam Brand.|
But as the first half drew to a close, the formerly restrained Del-State guards just couldn't help themselves anymore. Leaving their system-ball cages behind, they started jacking up wild off-balance threes, and the Spartans increased their lead as the DSU defense became unraveled. The team had reverted to its natural state, and the game's result read as just another 18-point blowout as it slid across the newswires.
Delaware State's failed one-night-only Princeton
impersonation furthers the idea that there are certain things you just can't change, no matter what. Take me, for example. Even if I spent a month in a tanning salon or the tropics, or if I bought a pile of hip-hop CD's, or if I started wearing my ballcap backwards, I will always be the whitest, palest, dorkiest guy this side of Napoleon Dynamite
. That's why I still get a little bit self-conscious whenever I show up for a MEAC game.
The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is a 35-year-old strand of prominent historically black colleges
that stretches from Delaware to Florida (the SWAC
is made up of HBCU's in the mid-south). The history of the MEAC
reads like a creation myth, making a roundtable paperwork festival sound like the voyage of Obatala
In 1969, a bold ad hoc group of innovators, long associated with intercollegiate athletics, met to discuss the feasibility of organizing a new conference based along the Atlantic coastline. Dissected from these discussions, a steering and planning committee was formed to fully investigate the idea, present a detailed report with recommendations to interested collegiate institutions; then construct a workshop to outline proposals.
A number of representatives from neophyte institutions later convened to listen to the committee's report, which led to a two day scrutinized discussion about the proposed organization and its procedures. After adopting the program, seven of the institutions agreed to become the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).
This season marks the 25th consecutive year the MEAC will send a representative to the NCAA Tournament - they were granted full Division I recognition by the governing body back in 1980. The conference has enjoyed a bit of success ( Coppin State
advanced to the second round back in 1997, and who can forget Hampton's
shocking win over Iowa State as a 15-seed four years ago?), but for the most part the MEAC are able to stay out of the play-in game only when the Northeast or SWAC (or a surprise sub-.500 conference tourney winner, like Siena
a couple of years back) are propping them up
When the league's eleven teams converge on Richmond, Virginia in March
, the lower seeds will once again knock each other off on the Arthur Ashe Center's green rubber floor. The true fight for the automatic bid will be played out downtown in a Coliseum reduced to an echo chamber, abandoned by the throngs of fans who will have had left after the conclusion of the Colonial tournament. There will be much more pride than glory on the line, as the winner will spend the rest of the week hoping to avoid being named seed "16b" when Selection Sunday comes.
Many fans would simply dismiss it as "horrible basketball," but I say that MEAC hoops are just plain misunderstood. To enter the typical league gym is to travel back a generation or two - but the peeling paint, dusty cage-lamps and faded, drooping banners serve as reminders that time has indeed passed. And the product on the floor isn't the clunky, no-communication, fogbound game you see at the depths of the Ivy League or Northeast Conference - the MEAC provides a flowing, sprawling brand of basketball in which each player attempts to imprint their individual personality on the game. Style points are nearly as important as scoreboard points. Mistakes like steps and bricks and stumbles aren't reasons to lose cool, they're just missed notes in a larger composition. MEAC play is the closest equivalent to jazz I've seen in organized hoops, but it squonks and whinnies like Bitches' Brew
once it leaves the confines of the conference.
The league's schools are "traditionally black," which is to say that none were ever as officially exclusionary as certain lilywhite institutions. But being a Caucasian dude at a Mid-Eastern game is a relatively lonely experience - it's you, maybe a photographer or two, a few press row stringers, and half the scorer's table. When you take your seat in the stands, there are a few glowering stares but nothing overly hostile. One notable exception was a Delaware State game I attended a few years back that came down to a bad call against the Hornets by a white referee, and some truly ugly words rained down onto the court. I quickly slipped out the door before the game was over... folks have the choice to transcend racism, but it's always wise to acknowledge its existence.
Senior 6'3" shooting guard Sam Brand
isn't the only white guy in the MEAC (the other one is little-used Maryland-Eastern Shore
freshman big Tal Cohen
, an Israeli army veteran and feel-good feature story waiting to happen), but he is indelibly woven into the fabric of the Morgan State
team. He plays almost every minute and averages 14 points a game for a team that will likely serve as the league's punching bag, and he is their leader, heart and soul. But even in an age of political correctness, his skin color makes him an easy target for opposing fans when his Golden Bears show up for road games, like the one last night on the outskirts of Dover."Slim Shady! You ain't got no game, son!""I see a ghost, but I ain't scared!"
And after a badly airballed three attempt: "Hey Justin Timberlake! You can't blame that on no wardrobe malfunction!"
The Hornets took control of the game early and threatened to dominate, but Morgan kept piecing together small, short salvos to keep Delaware State from opening up the dreaded 20-point margin. And Brand was in the middle of everything: shouting signals, jumping up and down, running through the DSU defense to distract defensive attention away from fellow guard Christopher Grant, the only member of the Bears who brought his shot to the gym on this evening (15 points on 5-for-10 shooting).
What Brand lacked in explosive basketball skill or statistics (nine points and one assist in 37 minutes), he made up for hundredfold in guts, hustle and heart. All through the second half, he kept getting in his teammates' faces, reminding them that it wasn't over. And with just two minutes to play, when big man Karanvir Aujla converted a three-point play at the line to cut a 14-point lead to 11, Brand stood at midcourt, looked up at the clock and clenched both fists to his chest. As long as there was time left, the game could still be won.
But in the end, the Stingin' Hornets won handily in both the point-scoring and style departments. After the on-court postgame hand-slaps, Brand paused for a moment, drooped his heavily-inked arms, looked down at the yellowing hardcourt and contemplated his team's fifth straight defeat and eleventh overall. He took a deep breath and walked towards the locker room through Memorial Hall's main concourse, the same passageway where small clutches of DSU students were gathered, chatting about weekend plans, showing off their cellphone ringtones.
"Yo Eminem," murmured a do-ragged fan wearing an oversized throwback football jersey. "Nice game."Photo Gallery