In his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison depicted whites going about their business as if the blacks around them either didn't exist or had no more significance than footstools. Today, according to partisans of Alcorn State University basketball, there should be a sequel entitled "Invisible Team"—the story of the Alcorn Braves, who have won 25 games and lost none but still can't get so much as a tie for 40th in any poll.
Hidden away in the boondocks of southwestern Mississippi, predominantly black Alcorn (pronounced All-corn) is forlorn for more than just geographical reasons. It is an NCAA Division I school, and unbeaten, yet most of the nation's sportswriters and sportscasters persist in saying that Indiana State is the only unbeaten major-college team.
The few who do know that Alcorn even exists scoff when they look over the Braves' schedule, which includes the likes of Savannah State, Bishop, Mississippi Valley State and Tougaloo. Also, Alcorn is ineligible to participate in the NCAA tournament because it has not yet completed the three years of adherence to a 2.00 average entrance requirement. Some people think the school has been penalized for breaking rules, which isn't true.
The one place where the Braves have been getting plenty of notice, though, is the weekly NCAA statistics sheets. According to the latest, they have been out-rebounding opponents by more than 15 a game (best in the nation), outscoring them by 14.8 (fifth), averaging 93.8 points a game (second only to Nevada-Las Vegas) and, unusual for a run-and-gun operation, holding foes to a .435 field-goal shooting percentage (15th).
The star of the team is Larry (Mr. Mean) Smith, a 6'8" junior forward from Hollandale, Miss., who is sixth in the nation in rebounding and 18th in field-goal percentage. One reason for his .606 shooting is that Smith considers any shot taken from more than four feet from the hoop to be cheating.
The only man around who is "meaner" than Smith is Alcorn's scrawny little disciplinarian and coach, Dave Whitney, 49, a former shortstop for the black Kansas City Monarchs. If a player misbehaves at dinner, Whitney will make him get down and do pushups right there, even if it's in a restaurant. Curfew violators get awakened at 2 or 3 a.m. to run laps.
"All these guys were stars in high school," says Whitney, "but they know before they come here what we expect of them. They can be stars here, too, but they have to be stars within our system. We're a fast-break team. We try to run over you, that's for sure. We like a lot of movement. A lot of black teams just run and shoot, but we can do a lot of other things. We don't turn them loose. We stress discipline."
As Alcorn works its full-court presses and fast breaks, it's not always easy to detect discipline on the court, but Whitney insists it's there. Certainly the talent and poise are very evident. Alcorn beat Kentucky State, Whitney's alma mater, in overtime at a neutral site, Jackson, Miss., and in a game at Baton Rouge the Braves rallied from eight points behind with 1:23 to play to beat Southern U in overtime.
Alcorn easily clinched the regular-season championship of the seven-team Southwestern Athletic Conference, and is expected to extend its record to 27-0 in the league tournament this weekend in Baton Rouge. Alcorn is hoping that a perfect record will secure a bid to the National Invitation Tournament—and a trip from obscurity.
One big reason for Alcorn's lack of recognition is its isolation. Alcorn's mailing address is Lorman, Miss., which is about 40 miles south of Vicksburg and 30 miles north of Natchez. Lorman consists of a stop sign, a few buildings and a historical marker commemorating an 1864 Civil War skirmish. Actually, the 2,700-acre campus, set a few miles from the Mississippi, is seven miles west of Lorman, and the road to the school is flanked here and there by pecking chickens and foraging goats. Night life consists mainly of playing pool in the student union and listening to some of Dixie's loudest crickets.