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On those days when he's feeling blue, when he hasn't been able to get anything done because the telephone just won't stop ringing, Arthur J. McAfee will sit back in his office chair and study the 25 glossy 8 X 10 photos on the bulletin board just opposite his desk. Every one of his Morehouse College basketball teams is there, the bad ones as well as the good, and it always comforts McAfee to look at the rows of faces and think about how many of the players later became doctors, lawyers or successful businessmen.
"I don't have a TV show, and I don't have a shoe contract," says McAfee, chuckling softly, "but when I look up there and see 25 years, I know it hasn't been a bad life. It could have been worse." At 60, McAfee is a slightly overweight grandfather whose hair is mostly gray, but whose affinity for jazz and basketball remains as ardent as ever. He has never regretted becoming a coach instead of a dentist, as his parents wanted. His favorite artifact isn't the trophy that Morehouse won last season by finishing fourth in the NCAA Division II tournament but the inscribed roll of tape that one of his daughters gave him last March, after his 300th win at Morehouse. During games, you see, McAfee always twists a roll of tape.
Last season, McAfee had little reason to fret on the bench. The team was his best ever, with a 26-7 record. This season's squad could be even better. Of the 12 players on last year's roster, all but one are back. They will be led by the splendid 6'5" junior forward Harold Ellis, who averaged 25.8 points last season and was voted to the Division II All-America second team.
No wonder McAfee often sits back these days and envisions the kind of success story that could be written by his 26th Morehouse team. "I want a national championship, and I want it badly," says McAfee. "It would mean a lot to me as a coach, and it would mean a lot to the school. You think about it, certainly, but you have to focus on the next game as being the most important one on your schedule. We didn't do that once last year, and we got embarrassed."
He was talking about a 101-91 loss to unheralded Miles College on March 2 that ended Morehouse's 29-game home court winning streak. The Tigers recovered nicely, though, ripping off five straight victories to earn the trip to the Division II Elite Eight in Springfield, Mass. Before the national quarterfinal game against Gannon, McAfee asked Edwin Moses, the Olympic hurdler and a Morehouse alum, to address the team. Morehouse leaped over Gannon, 75-69, but stumbled against Cal State-Bakersfield, 85-60, in the national semifinals.
Ellis may be the best player McAfee has ever coached, but he also typifies the kind of athlete who comes to Morehouse: a late bloomer who didn't receive much attention in high school. In fact, Ellis was cut from the team as a sophomore and junior at Atlanta's Douglass High, didn't become a starter until late in his senior year and received scholarship offers from only Georgia State, Morris Brown, The Citadel and Morehouse. "In high school, I never got a chance to really play," Ellis says. "I felt like I had the ability. But I was either cut or was just a practice player. I've come a long way since I've been out of high school. Coach McAfee gave me the opportunity."
"Ellis ended up being much, much better than people anticipated," McAfee says. "They weren't knocking his door down."
Ellis entered Morehouse because his late grandmother happened to attend the same church, Pilgrim Baptist, as Grady Brewer, McAfee's 31-year-old assistant, former player and heir apparent. "She told me I needed to come see him play," Brewer says. "I told her I had seen Douglass play and didn't remember Harold. But she insisted, so I went to one of his practices. She was right. He could play."
Ellis is a strong leaper who gets most of his points from near the basket. This season, though, McAfee may move him into the backcourt, so Ellis will need to improve his shooting range and ball-handling skills. "But I'm still going to take it inside whenever I can," Ellis says.
McAfee came to Morehouse in 1965, even as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the school's most noted graduate, was stirring passions and touching souls as the leader of the civil rights movement. McAfee didn't take the job at Morehouse—an all-male, historically black liberal arts college 10 minutes from downtown Atlanta—because of King, but he has spent the last quarter of a century trying to instill in his players the values for which King stood. Morehouse's academic requirements—basketball and football can't recruit any players whose SAT scores are lower than 800 (the NCAA minimum is 700)—are stiffer than many of its rivals' in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and McAfee estimates that more than 90% of his four-year players have graduated.