It's the shoes, Mars, most definitely the shoes—the orange Chuck Taylors, the throwback models from years before. It's also the minigymnasiums, the court time shared with practicing cheerleaders, the interminable bus rides and the lack of sufficient meal money.
In a land far, far away from the lights, cameras and Gucci rows of big-time college basketball, the teams of Division II and III battled for supremacy in two cities named Springfield—one in Ohio, the other in Massachusetts—on successive weekends. In this land the squads are filled with players not quite tall enough, quick enough or strong enough for Division I. New uniforms and steak dinners are hard to come by, the national anthem is sung off-key, and everybody on the team wants to be invited to the postgame interview room.
"Nobody can tell me winning Division I feels any different than this," said North Alabama guard Allen Williams after he helped the Lions beat Bridgeport ( Conn.) 79-72 in the finals of the Division II tournament last Saturday in Springfield, Mass. "We got the same championship trophy, the same championship watches. Ask me what time it is."
The victory was sweet, if not glamorous. North Alabama coach Gary Elliott cut down the final strand of the net to a cheering throng of one. The Lion players were on their way to the interview room to answer questions from the six or so reporters who were covering the game, and the band, on loan from a local high school, had cleared out after playing Under the Sea for the fourth time. Nobody from CBS, which televised the Division II final for the first time ever, stuck around long enough to show the tournament highlights to the theme from Chariots of Fire, a la Division I.
"I wonder if that's how Tark [ UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian] felt?" said Bridgeport coach Bruce Webster, watching the scene from across the gym.
That Webster's team was even in the title game was something of a minor miracle. Last year the school was in serious financial difficulty, and the budgetary squeeze had forced all faculty members to take a 28% pay cut. Since then Webster, who has coached Bridgeport for 26 years, has been driving for a limousine service on his weekends to make ends meet. "If I'm looking for a [different coaching] job, I'm a better candidate now because I can drive the bus, too," he said.
The championship game was close until North Alabama, which is located in Florence, went on a 9-2 spurt with five minutes remaining, to pull ahead by eight points. With 52 seconds to go, three guys in the stands started singing the school song. Then parents and friends, some of whom had ridden buses for 26 hours to watch the Lions, joined in, and the rest was history. At the buzzer, Northern Alabama's players stomped around the court powwowlike, declaring their dance to be the B?A shuffle.
"Basketball Phi Athletes," said guard Kevin Simmons, who vowed that his team would celebrate in style later in the evening.
"In Springfield?" someone asked.
"Hey, we learned to make our own fun in Florence," he said. "We can make our own fun here."