We love our David-beats-Goliath scenarios, but it's important to
note that every once in a while the NCAA tournament breaks both
of David's thumbs, sticks a walking cast on one of his legs,
knots that slingshot around his neck, gives him a pat on the
butt and says, "Go get 'em, Tiger." Sending little Florida A&M
out to play mighty Duke was such a case. The Rattlers, who
qualified by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference
tournament after an 8-18 regular season, bid the NCAAs a hasty
adieu last Friday at the East Regional in Charlotte, losing
99-58. But not before their coach, Mickey Clayton, slid
comfortably into the role of the tournament's shoulder-shrugging
street philosopher. Without much investigation into the Blue
Devils' blue-blooded operation, one can safely conclude that
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has not done any of the following
--Answered the phone in the basketball office several hundred
times in his dual role as coach and office secretary.
--Gone 53 consecutive days without a home game.
--Coached a game that had only one official for the first
half--a female referee who was in the stands to work a women's
game later that evening--because the three-man crew had been
given the wrong tip-off time by conference officials.
March 22, 1999
--Whipped out his wallet and paid cash to get to Charlotte
because his plane ticket was not included among those purchased
for the team by the NCAA.
That's some of what Clayton endured. (There's not really time to
discuss the Rattlers' 0-10 start, the rash of injuries that left
the coach with only seven players, the car accident en route to
the MEAC tournament that totaled his Saturn, though he escaped
unhurt.) Well, they can wreck a man's car but not his sense of
humor. "We've got a great sneaker deal," said Clayton, who left
a trail of rim shots in his wake in Charlotte. "If we buy 25
pairs, we get the laces for free."
Nothing comes free to Clayton, for whom "guarantee games"--games
played purely to make money--are a way of life. He is obligated
to land at least $100,000 in guarantees for his team each
season, which explains why he agreed to all of those road games,
including a season-opener at Auburn that yielded a $35,000
payout and a 94-47 pasting by the Tigers. But an improbable
four-victory run at the MEAC tournament two weeks ago put A&M in
the Big Dance and Clayton on everyone's most-quotable list. On
his brother, Craig, holding up a WE WANT DUKE sign at the
conference tournament final: "He just escaped from a mental
hospital." On the departure of 7'1" center Jerome James, who
joined the Sacramento Kings after last season: "The big dog
left, and the porch is full of puppies." On how he planned to
defense Duke's All-America center Elton Brand: "The difference
between me and other coaches is that I don't even pretend to
have an answer."
Clayton and his team were stung by the predictable harrumphing
that they didn't deserve to be in the tournament. But for a few
glorious days these hardscrabble nobodies from Tallahassee were
right there with all the somebodies, and they collected, along
with their lumps from the Blue Devils, a lifetime of memories.
"I'm from a little, little, little town that nobody ever heard
of," said Rattlers shooting guard Morris Scott after the
sacrificial 40 minutes against Duke was over. "I can still hear
that starting lineup announcement. 'At guard, from Fitzgerald,
Georgia....' Man, I'll never forget that." --J.M.