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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Losers? It's All in Point of 'View

March 11, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

In makeshift buildings on the grounds of a former plantation, it embraced people nobody else wanted, fought the fight nobody would touch.

In 1878 it opened its rickety doors to former slaves and their children and soon was turning them into teachers and engineers.

For more than six decades, it was the only place in Texas where an African American could receive a state-supported college education. Today it remains a rock among the sagebrush, still taking those with little money or credentials, still building cornerstones.

Yet when its basketball team steps into the national spotlight Friday in Oklahoma City, many will shake their heads, sigh, wonder:

Who would go to school at a place like that?

Meet Prairie View A&M, one of the worst teams ever to compete in an NCAA men's basketball tournament, heading for a first-round blowout at the hands of mighty Kansas in the Midwest Regional.

And hoping people will understand.

The quality of a school has nothing to do with the quality of its athletic programs. A final score is not an academic credential or a Peterson's rating, it is only a final score.

As if anybody ever understands.

"It makes me mad, it doesn't seem right," said Natasha Gransberry, a senior at the small school 40 minutes northwest of Houston. "Today, if your athletics aren't any good, your school doesn't carry any weight."

Remember how applications to Georgetown soared when Patrick Ewing was its center? There was once an official at Xavier of Ohio who calculated that the school's academic status was based on its ability to advance to the Sweet 16.

Now meet the other side.

Prairie View has produced more African-American three-star generals than any other school in the country. It ranks among the top two producers in Texas for African-American nurses and engineers.

Yet its reputation is marked not only from bad basketball, but perhaps the worst football program in NCAA history.

Not that the basketball struggles can match an NCAA-record 78 consecutive football losses--and counting. But at least the football team has never had to show itself on national TV.

What millions of viewers will see Friday night is one of only 14 teams in history to play in the tournament with a losing record.

The Panthers, who qualified by amazingly winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship, are 13-16.

They lost by 36 points to Southern Methodist, 47 points to Mississippi and 58 points to, well, uh, Dayton.

The Panthers have not had a winning season in 20 years and were 0-28 in 1991-92, shortly after the program was dissolved for economic reasons and then reinstated a month later.

In the last four seasons, Prairie View has won a total of 33 games. This season alone, Kansas has won 34.

The Panthers will be 36-point underdogs Friday, on the wrong end of what some say is the biggest spread in NCAA tournament history.

They are conceding nothing.

"My players are so excited, if I left it up to them, they would have played Kansas Sunday night after we got back from the SWAC tournament," Panther Coach Elwood Plummer said.

No, he's not one of the Blues Brothers, he simply is a guy who does what he can with 3 1/2 scholarships.

"We never go into a game thinking we're not going to win," he said. "This is no different."

At halftime of the SWAC championship game against Texas Southern on Saturday night in Dallas, the Panthers trailed by 20.

Twelve hours later, Plummer's car was being honked off the highway by students and alumni as he drove back to Houston as a champion.

Their campus reception? This being Prairie View athletics, it should figure that the school was on spring break.

The neatest moment for the players?

"When they told us we actually would get rings," reserve guard DeCedric Giron said. "I never thought that as long as I was at Prairie View I would get a ring for anything."

His cynicism is forgiven. For the last three years, you see, Giron has been the Prairie View quarterback.

He has been confronted in the streets by taunting fans from other schools. He has heard enough boos to last a lifetime.

Is it any wonder he helped lead the team's "Soul Train dance line" on the court after Saturday's victory? And with no pep band, even.

"We were dancing to our own selves," he said.

Such is the way at Prairie View, a student body of 6,004 that moves to an inner music while the rest of the world scoffs at their lousy won-loss records.

Ask anybody on campus and that's all they are, lousy won-loss records.

"When somebody teases you, it hurts, but we know we are here changing lives," school historian Frank Jackson said.

Since desegregation resulted in many top athletes' leaving Prairie View in the mid-1960s for schools with more available scholarship money, the students here have looked at things differently.

Their favorite team? A team of student engineers that built a solar car that placed well in national competition.

Their new favorite sport? Bowling. For the first time this year, the school fielded a women's team that finished second in the SWAC.

Not bad, considering there are no lanes in town.

"We are always looked at negatively, but we know what we are in school for," said Alzo Slade, a senior who was voted Mr. Prairie View. "There is a pride here such that we don't get down on our teams. We wonder when everybody else will just stop."

Because some of the players are not comfortable flying, the Prairie View basketball team left for Friday's game at Oklahoma City on Tuesday. By bus. At midnight.

It won't be so bad. They will understand how far they have traveled. They will have time to savor a trip back home. Kansas will not be so lucky.

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