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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | DIANE PUCIN

Big Dance Is Meant for Little Guy

March 17, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

BOISE, Idaho — There should be more of this, not less.

There should be more teams like Hampton in the NCAA tournament and fewer Ohio States and Georgias.

Why?

Because when Hampton comes to the dance, you can come to the lobby of a downtown hotel and find "the Force," which is what they call the Hampton band, jamming. There is a piano player who should be on Broadway and two bandmates are singing. This impromptu concert quickly attracts hotel guests and even people off the street who stand by, listen, applaud and begin saying, "Go Pirates."

Why?

Because we get to meet Steve Merfeld, a white guy from Wisconsin who was the manager of the high school team in Bloomington, a town of 700 white people, when he was in grade school. Merfeld is welcomed to the well-respected black university as coach because he loves the game and so does the president, Dr. William Harvey.

We can all talk about race relations and how bad things can be, but now, in the NCAA tournament, we can see how good they can be too. Freshman David Johnson, who is 6 feet 8 and 245 pounds, picked up Merfeld, who says he is 5-8 but lucky to be pushing 5-6, and carried him around the court after 15th-seeded Hampton, an NCAA tournament rookie, upset second-seeded Iowa State.

"We love Coach Merfeld," Johnson said. "White, black, doesn't matter. We love basketball, he loves basketball."

Why?

Because Hampton gave a hometown kid named Marseilles Brown a second chance and Brown accepted gratefully and respectfully.

Brown, Hampton's smart, calm, talented point guard, played at Richmond first. He was Colonial Athletic Assn. freshman of the year. He was on a Richmond team, seeded 14th, that upset third-seeded South Carolina in the 1998 NCAA tournament. Brown also got in trouble, was suspended and then he transferred to the Virginia school.

"It's not important what I did," Brown says now. "But I wasn't mature and I needed to grow up." So Brown came home to Hampton, where his parents laid down the law and where Brown grew up. He went to Hampton without a scholarship and then earned one. And he is earning a degree along with respect.

"Marseilles is a great success story and a kid who wanted to change," Merfeld says.

You want to see more Indianas and fewer Hamptons in the NCAA tournament? Are you crazy?

Don't you want to watch Tarvis Williams? You should.

Williams is listed at 6-9. Merfeld says Williams may be 6-7. He weighs 200 pounds. He is as fluid as melting snow and as tough as ice, and after Williams had four fouls against Iowa State, Williams had three of his six blocked shots.

The last of those blocks landed in the hands of Brown, who sank a jump shot, which drew Hampton within a point of Iowa State. It was at this point when "the Force" played louder and the Boise crowd gave up any pretense of cheering for Iowa State. Merfeld said the band helped the team win. You won't hear UCLA or USC players thanking the band.

Williams didn't play basketball until his junior year in high school. He just wasn't interested until his two older brothers noticed that Williams was both tall and athletic. "They told me I might as well play the game since God had given me some talent," Williams says. "So I did."

Now his talent has attracted NBA scouts, and somewhere next year, here or in Europe, Williams will make money playing the game he only started caring about five years ago.

If we don't get Hampton in the tournament, we don't talk to Merfeld's three brothers--John, the doctor; Tom, the banker; Jim, the businessman. John, Tom and Jim had plane reservations back to Wisconsin on Friday morning. Jim had his NCAA tournament bracket folded up in his pocket. He pulled it out Friday afternoon.

Yep, written in ink on the line for the winner of the Hampton-Iowa State game: Iowa State.

"Come on," Tom says. "We knew they were pretty good. But who knew they'd go and win?"

John, Tom and Jim canceled their Friday flights but didn't make new ones. They've called their bosses and said next week might be a vacation week. "We may," John says, "be flying straight to Anaheim." That would be for the West Regional final, where Hampton goes if it defeats Georgetown.

Rick Mahorn went to Hampton. So did Spencer Christian, television broadcaster, and Biff Henderson, David Letterman's stage manager. These are fun things to learn.

Six years ago Hampton was an NCAA Division II team.

Now the Pirates are playing the 10th-seeded Hoyas. Hampton is less than 200 miles from Washington, D.C., but Hoya Coach Craig Esherick honestly but sheepishly admits that he had never heard of Tarvis Williams before now.

"What don't we have that Georgetown has?" Merfeld repeated a question before answering. "We don't have a full-time trainer, we don't have a strength coach and we don't have a 7-footer."

What Merfeld has is a group of kids who got together two years ago and have repeated over and over: "We think we can."

LeSean Howard, a transfer from Syracuse, and Brown gathered their teammates, the ones unwanted by the big schools, the more famous schools.

"I knew the MEAC wasn't the Big East or even the CAA," Howard said. "But we got together and talked about getting to the [NCAA] tournament. We discussed fulfilling our dreams."

Brown said that when he transferred from Richmond, "I looked at it as a step down. But once I looked around here I saw we weren't a [Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference] team as far as talent across the board. So we set some goals two years ago. They were high goals and some people thought they were farfetched. But why not aim high? That's what we decided. Aim high."

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address:

diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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