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.
Naturally, the setting appeals mostly to youngsters from Mississippi hamlets. For example, the basketball players hail from such towns as Holly Bluff, Belzoni, Walnut Grove, Rolling Fork and Mound Bayou. It is to Whitney's credit as a recruiter that three starters are from relatively big cities: Ronnie Smith from Jackson, Miss., Cornelius Jenkins from Jacksonville, Fla. and Alfredo Monroe from Kansas City, Mo.
Alcorn is the nation's oldest land-grant college for blacks. Oakland College, a Presbyterian school for white males, was on the Lorman site from 1830 to the start of the Civil War, when the students took up arms. Oakland didn't reopen after the war. In Reconstruction days (1871) a mostly black state legislature voted Alcorn into existence and named it after a white governor, James L. Alcorn. Alcorn University became Alcorn Agricultural & Mechanical College in 1878, then Alcorn State U five years ago. Its most famous alumnus probably was civil rights leader Medgar Evers ('52), who was a star halfback for the Braves. His brother, Charles Evers ('51), is the mayor of Fayette, down the road toward Natchez.
Alcorn has not turned out nearly as many pro athletes as Grambling, which is a 2½-hour drive away, in Louisiana. In fact, Alcorn's most prominent basketball alumnus is Willie Norwood, a second-round draft choice of the Detroit Pistons in 1969 who played seven seasons in the NBA.
Last Saturday night Alcorn played its 15th road game this season, traveling to Grambling. Earlier in the week the Braves had battered Bishop by 17 points in their own modern 8,000-seat gym, lifting their record to 24-0, but Grambling figured to be a much tougher opponent. In their first meeting, at Alcorn, the score had been 40-40 at the half, but then Larry Smith scored 28 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the second half as Alcorn won by 14.
Tow-truck operators were doing a thriving business pulling cars out of icy ditches on Interstate 20, but more than 4.500 fans squeezed into Grambling's outdated little gym—making it toasty. even hot.
Grambling played a tough zone defense (most Alcorn rivals do, in an attempt to offset the Braves' rebounding edge), and with Grambling Guard Martin Lemelle throwing in jump shots from the sidelines, Alcorn led only 44-43 at halftime. With 45 seconds left to play in the game, the score was tied at 74.
Then, Alcorn Guard Ronnie Smith took an inbounds pass, and Grambling freshman Kenny Simpson made the mistake of trying to steal the ball. Simpson missed, flew by—and Smith dribbled to the basket. Somebody had to pick him up, which left Center Alfredo Monroe open underneath. Smith fed him for the winning basket. The final score was 76-74.
So Alcorn had its 25th win without a loss, and Whitney had the 280th victory of his college coaching career. Mr. Mean had 17 rebounds but only eight points. Unless he unveils a perimeter jump shot in his senior year, it's doubtful that Larry Smith will make the pros.
"This was a bad game," he said. "I didn't get the ball inside that zone. Just couldn't score. But we won again. I think we definitely should go to the NIT. I don't know what else it takes. If we all play like we've been playing, I think we could go all the way."