Friday, February 3, 2006
Food, folks and fun in Natchitoches
By Kyle Whelliston Special to ESPN.com
NATCHITOCHES, La. -- In an old rodeo hall in Louisiana's upper left-hand corner, Northwestern State assistant coach Mark Slessinger led the Demons through a Friday night preparation for a Saturday afternoon game. The team walked through several plays, then read the Texas State scouting reports aloud inside a tight circle of folding chairs. And then came the surprise guest.
"I want to introduce you to someone," Slessinger said, passing out sheets listing the 50 home and 50 away BracketBusters teams, on which NSU was listed as a road team. "Kyle's going to talk to us about BracketBusters, which is coming up on Feb. 18. As we've talked about before, they're making the selection about who's playing whom this coming Monday."
I'd only come as an observer, but I was suddenly and unexpectedly on the spot. As Slessinger stifled a laugh along the near sideline, I entered the ring and gave the first-ever impromptu pep talk of my life.
"Some of you guys might have read articles that say nothing that happens in this conference matters," I began with a nervous mumble, before slowly ramping up toward adrenaline-charged rhetoric. "But you know and I know that there's some great basketball in the Southland. You're going to be matched up with a really good team, and it'll most likely be one of the 13 games that gets on TV. That'll be a huge opportunity to show the country just how well you guys play."
My speech was met with stares -- not the blank looks that denote a lack of understanding or intelligence, but the sideways and cockeyed glances reserved for outer-space creatures. As I rattled on, I wondered whether they knew what televised wins, or an NCAA Tournament appearance, would mean to their school and themselves. Did they grasp the magnitude of what they were on the verge of?
They were just waiting for me to stop talking so they could get at a tableful of freshly-delivered pizzas; I might as well have been a Northeastern alien.
Thirteen of the 15 current Demons are Louisiana natives, most coming from from towns with names like Glenmora, Boyce, Opelousas and Marrero. The tight-knit, eight-man senior core grew up in the program together, all coming in a year after the school's last appearance on the national radar: a 71-67 victory over Winthrop in 2001's inaugural 64-vs.-65 play-in game.
These Demons endured their growing pains, starting with a miserable 6-21 season in 2002-03. Sophomore year was a decent improvement, as Northwestern State went into the conference tourney as a seventh-seeded 11-17 team. Their junior season saw another leap forward, as the regular-season Southland champions won 21 games before eventual NCAA 15th-seed Southeastern Louisiana broke their hearts in a 49-42 title game defeat.
All of which would make this "the year."
Thus far, the Demons' seniors have made the most of it. On Dec. 5, NSU went into Gallagher-Iba Arena and knocked off Oklahoma State, the No. 2-seed that had eliminated SELU from the 2005 NCAA Tournament. While on the road, they also prevailed over Mississippi State and took Wichita State to the wire. Then they went out to Hawaii's Rainbow Classic, where they beat Oregon State and forced Iowa State into double overtime. When they played their first D-I home game on Jan. 11, the Demons were already up to double-digits in wins.
But there's nothing about this team which indicates that they're on any sort of mission. When they're on the court, the Demons play at a languid, below-average pace, without much intensity or outward emotion. In the victories and near-misses that have occurred far from home, they've played as loose and easy as a Bayou breeze, seemingly unaware of the enemy atmospheres.
"It's not a really big deal to these guys who's on the other side of the court," Slessinger said. "They're friends and buddies, they've been so close for all these years. If there was a disagreement between them, or someone didn't do something right, that really affects them. Playing at Gallagher-Iba doesn't."
And there's no hostile crowd that can match the pressure of dealing firsthand with the double-barreled wrath of two major late-summer storms. Due to Natchitoches' geographic location, Northwestern State's athletic facilities served as temporary upstate shelter for Katrina evacuees from the New Orleans area in early September; they were used again a month later when Hurricane Rita forced residents of Lake Charles and East Texas inland. And although the evacuees have moved on, the aftermath of 2005's hurricane season is just starting to sink in.
"I don't think anyone understands what's happened to this state," NSU head coach Mike McConathy said. "We're talking about massive, massive cuts. We're years from being back to normal in Louisiana ... it's not front page news anymore, but that doesn't mean it's OK."
Five months later, there is no full accounting for the massive economic damage that Katrina and Rita exacted on Louisiana. As a result, the shocked and battered state has operated at a virtual standstill. The Pelican State's institutions of higher learning have had to learn how to do more with less. That includes college athletic programs.
"Even if you budgeted for equipment or supplies before the season, you can't use the money," said McConathy. "[The state] has frozen everything except for travel and recruiting. Anything else has to be approved, and if it's deemed not to be necessary, they won't allow you to buy it. I'm not being critical of the administration -- that's just the situation we're in."
One of those items that didn't make the cut was footwear; the basketball shoes that the Demons players have worn all year didn't come from the cash-strapped athletic budget, they were purchased with money donated by the boosters of the NSU Athletic Association.
"Yes, we've made it work, and yes, it's been hard," McConathy said. "It's a completely different situation than coaches elsewhere have to deal with."
Northwestern State's limited availability of funds has led to shrewd resourcefulness in its fund-raising efforts. Game day visitors to Prather Coliseum are greeted by a giant, hulking metal smoker pit -- for five bucks, you can buy a raffle ticket (benefiting the NSU Athletic Association). The drawing will be held at halftime of the Feb. 25 McNeese State game, and if you just so happen to be the lucky winner, you can try your luck in the cutthroat world of Louisiana barbecue.
Food has also played a significant role in boosting attendance: In order to attract fans to a game with 2-14 (0-5 Southland) Texas State, the athletic department staged NSU's first annual chili cook off ("Demons + Chili = A Winning Combination," read the flyers posted around campus). At stake was an engraved Brass Spoon Trophy and $100.
The dozen contest entries proved just as inventive as Northwestern State's marketing. Among the steel potfuls available for free sampling was a chili made with chocolate ("Takes the fire-outta-the-ears out of it," said the cook) and one made with four different kinds of hot sauce. There were plenty of secret ingredients, too: One entrant 'fessed up to lacing his chili with a 24-ounce Budweiser. The eventual winners, three ladies in matching red cowboy hats, were too smart to talk about their secret recipe.
Going into the Texas State game, NSU held a red-hot 6-1 record in conference (13-6 overall), and an RPI in the high 70s -- one that matched last week's average temperature in Natchitoches (pronounced NA-ki-tish). But as the game began, the white-clad Demons fell victim to their own dispassion, allowing the last-place team in the conference to hang with them.
As an emergency response, McConathy unleashed one of the secrets of his team's success: a two-unit, five-at-a-time wholesale substitution system that cycles over approximately every five minutes, or when there's trouble. If the Demons on the floor see a full phalanx of five men waiting at the scorer's table, it's time to sit down.
"Our starters were a little shocked with 18 minutes left in the first half when I subbed for them," McConathy said afterwards. "But they gave Texas State two easy layups. They got the message."
The Demons shook off their slow start and won going away, 89-71. The victory was McConathy's 100th at Northwestern State, although it was soured a bit by the inevitable RPI drops that occur in the Southland Conference (NSU fell 20 spots). As time expired, the fans held aloft printouts that read, "Thanks for 100 wins, Coach Mike."
As Northwestern State left the floor through a giant inflatable purple tunnel emblazoned with "Fork 'Em Demons," they joined together in a celebratory Hawaiian chant (picked up on their Rainbow Classic trip), punctuated with a distinctly Louisianan "Aieeeee!"
"Great job out there," said McConathy to his players, as they huddled together in the locker room. "But most of our turnovers came from thinking ourselves to death. That's not like us. Just go out and play basketball. My ACT score's less than my shoe size -- nothing we do is difficult.
"And guys, we're eating at The Landing at 5:30. We've screwed up all these other postgame meals, we thought we'd straighten it out with a little better of a meal. How does that sound to y'all?"
The cheer that went up from the happy home team was louder than the one at the end of the game. Wins are just fine, but down here, food means everything.
Two short days later, ESPN revealed the pairings for the 13 BracketBuster TV games; the players and coaches gathered Monday afternoon to watch the announcement.
And just after 3 p.m. CT, the words splashed on the screen: little Northwestern State would travel to Logan, Utah, to play No. 41 RPI Utah State. The Aggies from the WAC had won six straight and sport the sixth-highest shooting percentage in the land (49.9 percent). They hadn't lost at noisy Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in nearly a year. Most important, the game would be on TV.
"Well, that's one more state off the list," senior guard Tyronn Mitchell cracked confidently.
"There were 13 of 50 road teams they could choose from [for TV], and they chose us," Slessinger said. "And all 50 are very good programs. We took that as a great compliment to our school that they would give us this opportunity. From a recruiting end, from a national exposure end, this is just another piece in a dream season, regardless of the inevitable outcome. It's probably one of those deals that we'll appreciate a lot more down the road, when we're not in the middle of the fight."
Whether they make it to the NCAA Tournament or not, the Demons of Northwestern State are just a bunch of guys from small Louisiana towns who like to be around each other. Together, they've lost, won, travelled long distances and yes, eaten a lot of meals. And until March, they'll play great team basketball together.
"They're playing for each other, it's their team," Slessinger said. "During a game, they all know going in that at least one guy will have a good night, and that gives them all peace of mind. Their collective identity gives them the confidence to achieve.
"Do they understand the magnitude of what they're doing? Maybe not, but in 10 years they will."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.