During the upcoming season coach Melvin Watkins will occasionally march his 49ers out of sparkling, year-old Halton Arena and hold practice in Belk Gym, the 49ers' old home court, which is known as the Mine Shaft because of its damp air and poor lighting. Watkins, who has spent his entire working life employed at UNC Charlotte, doesn't want the players in his spiffed-up program to forget what things used to be like. "Teams used to beg us to turn on the lights in the old gym," says Watkins, "and we had to keep telling them, 'They're on, we swear.' "
When Watkins played for the 49ers from 1973-74 to 1976-77, they never lost a game in the Mine Shaft and, led by Cedric Maxwell, advanced to the '77 Final Four, where they lost to eventual national champion Marquette. A year later Watkins had his degree in economics and was hired as an assistant coach. He spent the next 18 years working under three coaches—and through numerous rebuilding efforts—until he was promoted before last season. He responded by guiding UNC Charlotte (22-9) to the Conference USA White Division title and a first-round upset of Georgetown in the NCAA tournament. "I guess I've seen this program come full circle," he says. "Maybe we've even gone around twice."
Leading the way for the 49ers this season will be 6'9", 250-pound power forward DeMarco Johnson, who is the conference's top returning scorer, having averaged 18.8 points per game last season. Johnson, a Charlotte native whose family lives 10 minutes from campus, cut his body fat in half during the off-season while hugely increasing his upper-body strength. He's joined by senior point guard Sean Colson, who led the conference in assists last season and torched Georgetown for 24 points in the NCAAs. "We want to be a part of Tobacco Road with all the other great schools around here, like North Carolina and Duke," says Johnson. "If we keep winning, maybe we'll get a chance to join them. We've gotten noticed, and that's the hard part."
On Oct. 31 the team was hit with bad news when doctors discovered that 6'8" freshman forward Charles Hayward from Alexandria, La., the highest rated recruit ever signed by the 49ers, had leukemia. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments and his future playing status is unclear.
Newcomers who will be counted on to help out in his absence are junior forward Kelvin Price, a transfer from Southwestern Louisiana who's now eligible to play, and junior Galen Young, a slashing swingman from Northwest Community College in Senatobia, Miss. Young may be the most spectacular of the additions, as he showed by winning UNC Charlotte's Midnight Madness slam-dunk contest with a jam that shook the rafters at Halton Arena.
At that moment it became clear what all the fuss is about southwest of Chapel Hill. It appears the 49ers put as much effort into building their team as they did in the construction of their arena.