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Adversity bonds Morgan State

3/18/2010

BUFFALO -- They will raise four fingers on their hands on Thursday and play with a patch sewn onto their jerseys.

There is no way Morgan State’s basketball team will forget about Anthony Anderson.

The Bears just want to make sure no one else does.

Anderson has never played a game at Morgan State but the 19-year-old has been the most critical cog in the Bears’ run to the MEAC championship and an NCAA tournament date with West Virginia.

On the first day of practice this season, a rundown Anderson told head coach Todd Bozeman he wasn’t feeling well. In rapid fire, the redshirt freshman went from the court to the infirmary to the hospital to a life-altering diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia.

His blood count still too low, Anderson couldn’t make the trip for the first-round game but he is still present in the locker room.

"I think about him 10, 15 times a day," senior Troy Smith said. "When I feel down, when I’m tired I think of him. I may not have energy at that moment, but he can’t get his energy back and he’s there fighting. He’s taught us all how to fight."

Anderson’s story alone would be enough for most teams to handle. His, however, is just one tale of adversity Morgan State has lived with this season. The father of sophomore Ameer Ali committed suicide at the start of the season and Smith’s 5-year-old daughter, born blind, needed surgery to remove a tumor.

"Life is about second chances," Smith said. "Even if you don’t do something wrong, sometimes you need a second chance. We all feel like we’re getting one."

The Bears couldn’t have picked a better coach to shepherd them through these murky waters. Nearly 15 years ago, Bozeman, then the head coach at Cal, was shamed out of the game after paying the family of Jelani Gardner $30,000.

He sat out an NCAA-mandated eight-year show-cause ban plus another seven in hoops purgatory as athletic departments shunned the man with the scarlet letter. He worked in pharmaceutical sales, coached a 9-and-under AAU team ("I went from coaching a Pac-10 team to having a parent tell me how to coach," he joked) and waited for a comeback that only he and his father ever saw coming.

"I had close friends that said, ‘Hey look, dude, do something else," Bozeman said.

He wouldn’t -- or more -- he couldn’t.

He believed that if he admitted to his violation, took ownership of it instead of following the usual coach-in-trouble pattern of blame others, fault the NCAA and then deny, deny, deny eventually things would break for him.

And so Bozeman held on until Morgan State threw him a line in 2006.

Three years later he took the Bears to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1977. This season, Morgan State is back after a demolition derby run through the MEAC. Despite losing the league’s player of the year, defensive player of the year and its starting point guard, Morgan State finished 15-1 in the conference and 27-9 overall.

"The guys know my story," Bozeman said. "I tell them that I made a bad decision, that there are consequences for your actions. I tell them things are going to happen. It’s all how you deal with it that will determine your fate or level of success."

The Bears come to their game against West Virginia with a different attitude. A year ago, they were happy to be in the field and were summarily throttled, 82-54 by Oklahoma.

This time there is a difference. Sure, Morgan State is happy to be back in the tournament, but the Bears are not satisfied.

They’ve survived too much. They want more.

"From his own experiences, coach always tells us, ‘You can think you have everything, but you really have nothing," Smith said. "He thought he had it all, on top of the world and then it’s taken away from you. At the end of the day, you have your family, your friends and your teammates. That’s who we’re playing for."