LONG BEACH — For Morlon Wiley, it was the time of his life. The Cal State Long Beach guard had scored 37 points--he had been averaging only 10--to give the 49ers a rare victory and an injection of hope just when hope seemed to be running thin.
Before that game against Utah State last week, the Long Beach band had played its customary "Jesus Christ Superstar," perhaps in an attempt to inspire a 49er to rise to such a lofty role--although it had never worked before.
And a "crowd" of 584 in the campus gym did not have high expectations.
"When was our last winning season?" a fan asked another fan.
"I don't remember."
"Frightening, isn't it?"
The last winning season in men's basketball was 1980-81 when the 49ers were 15-13. They haven't had one since and in the last two years have deteriorated into embarrassment. The team is 11-45 under Coach Ron Palmer, who came from Poly High School, where he built champions.
"It's been very rough," said Wiley, a sophomore who hardly knew what losing was when he played at Poly.
So on a night when Wiley played like a superstar--only former All-American Ed Ratleff had had a more sparkling game in 49er history--it was not surprising that there were so few witnesses.
'It's Hit Bottom'
"If people thought they were going to see an exciting player, they'd be there," Palmer said.
At half-time, Leon Madnick, 36, a longtime 49er booster tired of boosting, said: "It's hit bottom; people are tired of coming to a losing program. JC teams in the area could give them a run for their money. I was excited about Palmer coming. Now I wonder if it was the right move."
The 49ers wince at the low attendance--an average of 1,167 for eight games in the gym--but acknowledge that they don't deserve better.
"We drew more people in high school," Wiley said. "But you can't blame anyone (for not coming) because we're losing."
And Athletic Director John Kasser said: "It's no great secret why they're not coming out. You've got to win."
In August, 1984, Palmer embarked on the greatest challenge of his life with no illusions of quick success. It was the consensus that he was starting from zero. "We're looking at this as a four-year investment," he said then.
Two years have passed and on the morning after the Utah State game, Palmer said, "We're a long way from where we want to be," which is what he said last year at this time.
The 49ers lost to Nevada Las Vegas, 94-76, Saturday night to finish 7-22 and in last place in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn., a league that is not among the nation's most powerful.
In more than half of the defeats, the 49ers were competitive, and seven games were lost by five points or less. Like many young, inexperienced teams, when the so-called crunch time came in a game's last moments, they crumbled.
More clutch points were needed, but on a gang that couldn't shoot straight there was no one to consistently provide them. The team's field-goal accuracy was only 43%. In a game against Cal State Fullerton, the 49ers made only 18% of their shots in the first half.
The only players to emerge as serious scoring threats were sophomore center DeAnthony Langston--midway through the year--and Wiley--at the end. They were the only players to average in double figures-- Langston 11.8 and Wiley 11.7.
So the team was constantly at a disadvantage against teams such as UC Irvine, which had five shooters on the floor, and Las Vegas, which had three. On some nights, Palmer had none.
Palmer's search for the right combination of players was season-long. "The lineup changed hour by hour," Wiley said with little exaggeration. Palmer used 14 different starting lineups.
'If You Perform You Play'
"If you perform you play. If you don't, you might not play," said Wiley, who knows Palmer's philosophy well. "But it's hard to have a set lineup when you're losing."
Trying to find a hot hand was difficult and frustrating for Palmer.
"We need shooters, kids we can count on to make baskets in crucial situations," he said. He now knows he may have one in Wiley, who followed his 37-point performance with 22 points Saturday against Las Vegas. Wiley averaged almost 17 points in his last nine games.
The players have had so much trouble coping with their poor shooting that Palmer is considering sending them to the campus sports psychologist next season.
"I noticed changes within a kid because he's not shooting well," Palmer said. "They can get down on themselves so quick. Suddenly, they are different persons on the floor. If something happens negative, they can't prepare (during a timeout) to go back and play. We want the psychologist to set up a class so they can understand themselves, their feelings and attitudes and be able to control them. Great players have the ability to relax and control feelings and adjust to the stresses of a game."
Even if the heads become straight, is there enough basketball talent?
"Yes," Palmer said.