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This March Sanity Is the 'Little Dance'


It's a parallel universe unheard, unseen and unknown by those of us who have come to expect professional entertainment from college basketball games. It's $17.50 for two tickets, one for your wife and another for the boy wearing your Illinois Wesleyan University T-shirt with "1997 National Champions" across his chest. We're in Salem, Va., hard by the Appalachian Mountains and far away from the big-timers' madding crowds. It's heaven.

Parking: free.

A corn dog, a hot dog with chili, a barbecue sandwich, a bottle of water and two big soft drinks: $9.

Times we hear Rick Pitino's name: Zero.

We do hear someone on the public address system ask, "Will the William Paterson bus driver please go to the lobby?"

It's the Final Four.

It's William Paterson University against Illinois Wesleyan; Catholic University against Ohio Northern University. It's Catholic winning the national championship as its coach, Mike Lonergan, bows his head in tears.

It's the NCAA's Division III. The 423 schools in D-3 are mostly small schools, none awarding athletic scholarships. As nearly as it is possible these days, D-3 players are first students, later athletes. The 360 schools with basketball programs qualify 48 for a national championship tournament.

Call it The Little Dance.

There's a little money, maybe enough to pay the Final Four teams' travel expenses. There's a little media, the local newspaper sports section whispering about D3's Final Four on the back page while screaming out front for The Really Big Dance & Office Pool Gala. There's a little crowd, 3,000 people in the Salem Civic Center.

This Final Four in the Virginia mountains is a little thing.

No glitz, no bomb blasts disguised as music, no criminal assaults on your senses.

Just basketball.

It's beautiful.

Let the schools attending The Really Big Dance corrupt the student-athlete ideal by selling their souls to television overlords for billions of dollars. Let the NBA wannabes and their regal millionaire coaches strut and preen.

D-3 gives us better stuff, such as that big man in black, standing by the bleachers behind the Illinois Wesleyan bench.

Jack Sikma is an Illinois Wesleyan alumnus who ought to be in basketball's Hall of Fame. Retired from the NBA for a decade, he's 45 years old. Seven times an All-Star. Has an NBA championship ring. Still the SuperSonics' all-time leading rebounder. In 14 seasons, 1978 to '91, he was a handful of rebounds away from a career double-double, averaging 15.6 points and 9.8 rebounds.

As to how Sikma came to play for Illinois Wesleyan, listen to this wonderful accounting from Dennie Bridges, then as now the IWU coach: "I told our admissions office that if any application showed a young man over 6-foot-8, let me know."

Sikma applied because--hallelujah!--his sister, Suzanne, was an Illinois Wesleyan student. "So I took Suzanne to lunch a couple times," Bridges says.

One of five children of a gladioli farmer in a small Illinois town (St. Anne, pop. 1,153), Sikma could have gone to the big-time. "It came down to how I wanted to live the next four years of my life," he says. He wanted to be a person, not a commodity; he wanted to be a student as well as a player. At the same time, Bridges says, "I promised him he could accomplish everything from our level." Sikma became the eighth player selected in the 1977 NBA draft.

But Jack Sikma is an exception. The rule, delightfully so, is John Camardella, a sophomore forward/history major who came to the Virginia mountains happy to be away from the big-time clamor/glamour.

"In Division I, you see a lot of hype, Nike advertising, showmanship," Camardella says. His team had lost its Final Four semifinal to William Paterson, 67-52. He sat with an ice pack on his left knee, water dripping toward a little Air Jordan logo tattooed above his left ankle.

"All that hype takes away from the game. In Division III, it's a love of the game. We all sincerely love the game. Making it to the Final Four is a bonus that we all appreciate, but there are 350 teams not here--and it's sad that not everybody can experience this."

D-3: Eight-hour bus rides, or as Camardella says with a smile, "Camaraderie."

D-3: Three exams in the hotel the night before the Final Four semifinal--Computer Science I, Environmental Politics, Computer Science II.

D-3: "One year we had two Division I transfers," Bridges says. "Long after a game, I saw them still sitting in the locker room. One said, 'Are we released, Coach?' I said, 'You were released when you were born.' They'd been so conditioned by Division I that they didn't realize they could be people. Our players, after games, spend 20 minutes on the court talking to the fans, sharing our success."

D-3: Dennie Bridges is laughing.

He's a 1961 Illinois Wesleyan alum, the school's athletic director as well as basketball coach. At 62, he has been on the bench 36 years. Three times in the last six seasons, his teams reached the Final Four, finishing third in '96, winning it all the next year, and this time finishing third again. Bridges' career record is 667-319, better than two victories every three times out.

And on this night, the great man is laughing. Though his team is about to lose its semifinal game by a bunch, you look at Bridges on the bench, and you see him having fun as he watches the scrubeenies finish up.

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