We love our David-beats-Goliath scenarios, but it's important to note that every once in a while the NCAA tournament breaks both of David's thumbs, sticks a walking cast on one of his legs, knots that slingshot around his neck, gives him a pat on the butt and says, "Go get 'em, Tiger." Sending little Florida A&M out to play mighty Duke was such a case. The Rattlers, who qualified by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament after an 8-18 regular season, bid the NCAAs a hasty adieu last Friday at the East Regional in Charlotte, losing 99-58. But not before their coach, Mickey Clayton, slid comfortably into the role of the tournament's shoulder-shrugging street philosopher. Without much investigation into the Blue Devils' blue-blooded operation, one can safely conclude that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has not done any of the following this year.
?Answered the phone in the basketball office several hundred times in his dual role as coach and office secretary.
?Gone 53 consecutive days without a home game.
?Coached a game that had only one official for the first half—a female referee who was in the stands to work a women's game later that evening—because the three-man crew had been given the wrong tip-off time by conference officials.
?Whipped out his wallet and paid cash to get to Charlotte because his plane ticket was not included among those purchased for the team by the NCAA.
That's some of what Clayton endured (There's not really time to discuss the Rattlers' 0-10 start, the rash of injuries that left the coach with only seven players, the car accident en route to the MEAC tournament that totaled his Saturn, though he escaped unhurt.) Well, they can wreck a man's car but not his sense of humor "We've got a great sneaker deal," said Clayton, who left a trail of rim shots in his wake in Charlotte. "If we buy 25 pairs, we get the laces for free."
Nothing comes free to Clayton, for whom "guarantee games"—games played purely to make money—are a way of life. He is obligated to land at least $100,000 in guarantees for his team each season, which explains why he agreed to all of those road games, including a season-opener at Auburn that yielded a $35,000 payout and a 94-47 pasting by the Tigers. But an improbable four-victory run at the MEAC tournament two weeks ago put A&M in the Big Dance and Clayton on everyone's most-quotable list. On his brother, Craig, holding up a WE WANT DUKE sign at the conference tournament final: "He just escaped from a mental hospital." On the departure of 7'1" center Jerome James, who joined the Sacramento Kings after last season: "The big dog left, and the porch is full of puppies." On how he planned to defense Duke's All-America center Elton Brand: "The difference between me and other coaches is that I don't even pretend to have an answer."
Clayton and his team were stung by the predictable harrumphing that they didn't deserve to be in the tournament. But for a few glorious days these hardscrabble nobodies from Tallahassee were right there with all the somebodies, and they collected, along with their lumps from the Blue Devils, a lifetime of memories.
"I'm from a little, little, little town that nobody ever heard of," said Rattlers shooting guard Morris Scott after the sacrificial 40 minutes against Duke was over. "I can still hear that starting lineup announcement 'At guard, from Fitzgerald, Georgia....' Man, I'll never forget that."