The best college basketball team in Virginia makes 11-hour, game-day round trips on a bus, practices in a gymnasium sometimes warmed by kerosene heaters, and is coached by a man nicknamed the White Shadow, who also teaches bowling. You may have guessed that it's not the University of Virginia, not Virginia Commonwealth and not Virginia Tech. It's Virginia Union, located in Richmond, the nation's only undefeated men's team—kerosene-heated or otherwise.
After winning last weekend's Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament in Norfolk, the Panthers enter this week's NCAA Division II South Atlantic Regional with a No. 1 ranking and a 30-0 record, a remarkable achievement inasmuch as the 73-year-old, 14-team CIAA is the top black basketball conference in the country and probably the finest in all of Division II. Its tournament is unrivaled, a 40-year-old, four-day event rich in tradition. The CIAA sold out every session at the Scope, and the 10,500 fans who watched Union beat Norfolk State 67-65 on Saturday saw a tournament final as good as they come.
"This tournament is like a giant homecoming for the black colleges," says conference commissioner Bob Moorman.
"I haven't missed one since I got out of the NBA in 1969," says ex-Celtic Sam Jones, who played his college ball at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central College). Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem), Al Attles (North Carolina A&T) and Bob Dandridge (Norfolk State) are some other CIAA alumni.
This year the conference consisted of three divisions: Northern, Southern and Oakley, the latter being Charles Oakley, Union's 6'9", 245-pound senior center who is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as far as Division II basketball goes. "He's just too big, too strong, too good for anybody else to handle," says Hampton's Hank Ford, who coached the Washington Bullets' Rick Mahorn, the CIAA's last big man to make any impact on the NBA. In the Panthers' three tournament games, Oakley averaged 27 points, shooting 26 of 38 from the floor, and 18.3 rebounds—numbers that nearly matched his season averages. The presence of Oakley, who was voted the state of Virginia's player of the year over Division I stars like VCU's Rolando Lamb and Calvin Duncan, attracted a mini-pilgrimage of NBA scouts who were eh route to the Sun Belt tournament in nearby Hampton. The consensus is that the Oak will be a late first-round or early second-round pick.
It is equally certain, meanwhile, that the name of Dave Robbins—full-time coach, part-time bowling instructor, van driver and kerosene lamp carrier—is being tossed around in the offices of a few Division I athletic directors these days. No one seemed to notice Robbins when he arrived at Virginia Union from predominantly black Thomas Jefferson High in Richmond in 1978 and won CIAA championships his first two years and a national championship his second. Thirty and zero should get everyone's attention, however, and many of his CIAA colleagues will surely sit up and take notice if the first white head coach in the history of the conference also becomes the first to graduate to the Division I ranks.
"If Dave gets a big job it will be based on his color as well as his success," says Moses Golatt of St. Paul's (Va.), one of Robbins' closest friends among CIAA coaches. "I'm not saying he doesn't deserve it. I'm just being realistic."
There may have been others who deserved it. Case in point: There were 71 years of coaching experience and 1,217 victories out on the court when Winston-Salem's Clarence (Big House) Gaines (734 wins) and Elizabeth City State's Robert Vaughan (483) did battle in a Thursday afternoon quarterfinal (won by W-S, 81-69). Yet neither coach has had a Division I nibble.
"By the time things opened up a little for black coaches I was 50 years old," says Gaines, now 61, "and nobody wants a 50-year-old coach. Certainly not a 50-year-old black coach."
Given the opportunity to show some discrimination of their own, however, the CIAA coaches took full advantage in Robbins' case. Three times he has been named college coach of the year in Virginia over men like UVa's Terry Holland and VCU's J.D. Barnett, yet, until this season, he was overlooked by his own conference. This year he shared CIAA coach of the year honors with David Corley of Livingstone College (12-15 overall for the regular season) and Warren Reynolds of Shaw University (14-6).
"There's a kind of resentment about our program because Dave was so successful right away," says Robbins' assistant and best friend, Jim Battle, who is black, "but I would think color has to have something to do with it, too."
Robbins, 42, doesn't try to make sense of it. "It honestly doesn't matter," he says. Neither, he claims, does his $1,500 recruiting budget (four years ago he spent his entire allotment on Oakley, a much-sought-after player who didn't have the 2.0 academic average needed to get a Division I scholarship), or the fact that he's required to teach recreation classes—he sets up wooden planks in the gymnasium to approximate a bowling alley. He's had enough to worry about just keeping his players, in particular, Oakley, happy.
Though Oakley and 6'4" sophomore swingman Jamie Waller are Division I-caliber players, Virginia Union affords them Division II—caliber life-styles. "My kids learn to wait in line a lot," says Robbins. Oakley is not a good practice player, possibly because Robbins, a former wide receiver at Catawba College who tried out with the Denver Broncos in 1966, is a taskmaster who sometimes runs punishment drills on game days. Oakley is an individualist who grew up hard, early and mostly on his own in Cleveland, while Robbins admits he's something of a scold. "Frankly, my players aren't overly fond of me," he says.
Oakley will need to learn some things to survive in the NBA. He is a work in progress, a no-frills power player who must refine some offensive moves to handle the strong forward position he'll play as pro and accustom himself to playing man-to-man instead of zone. "But you have to like his body, the way he runs the floor, the way he rebounds, the way he shoots," says New Jersey Nets scout Al Menendez. "It's all up to him now."
Robbins might move up a level as well. From the Virginia Union campus, drive down North Lombardy, make a left on Franklin and there lies the campus of VCU, about a mile away. Persistent rumors have Barnett leaving to become the coach at Auburn. If so, Robbins will be a candidate for the VCU job. Should he go there or to another Division I school, Robbins will have left his mark—make that his shadow—on the CIAA.