Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Bearcats try to move on after turmoil
By Dana O'Neil
VESTAL, N.Y. -- The first day, he didn't sleep. The second day, he couldn't wake up.
As the turmoil churned around him and the lid broke off the simmering Binghamton basketball scandal, Mark Macon went from insomniac to Rip Van Winkle, from lying awake the first night after he was told he was temporarily in charge of what remained of the tattered basketball program to sleeping for 18 hours the next.
When he finally found a normal sleeping pattern, Macon opened his eyes to a team that had been dismantled, a university that had been embarrassed and a basketball season about to begin -- whether he was ready or not.
"I told them one thing: Stick together," Macon said. "We can only control what we can control."
Three months later, the Bearcats are 7-12, a mighty drop-off from the 23-9 record they built a season ago en route to an America East crown and the NCAA tournament. But considering the Band-Aided roster Binghamton is playing with, it's about seven more wins than some people anticipated. Included in that tally is a stunning Jan. 2 victory against La Salle, considered by many in the preseason to be a sleeper in the A-10 and nationally.
In a recent game against Stony Brook, Macon at one point rolled out two scholarship players, a Division III transfer, a player at Binghamton as part of a dual-degree program with the University of Turkey and a local kid turned walk-on hero.
Even wilder? The Bearcats won.
"I'm really happy for these guys," said Stefani Knopick, a junior on the women's soccer team. "I didn't think they'd be very good at all, but they're working really hard and they deserve it. We've all been affected by this, so it's good to see something good going on."
It would be nice to say that the Bearcats' pluck has erased the sting and stigma from the string of bad news and horrific decision-making that landed the school on the front pages.
It would be a lie.
Although the community continues to support the team willingly -- a decent crowd of 2,578 (without students, who were still on break) took in the game against Stony Brook -- and appreciates this hardworking team, Binghamton fans are still incredulous at the mess and shame the athletics department brought to the university.
"We were embarrassed," said Frank Saraceno, a season-ticket holder who has worked in the university's information technology department for 31 years. "This is a strong academic institution, and it affected all of us."
|Interim coach Mark Macon has seven scholarship players left on the Binghamton roster.|
It began in July 2008 when, witnesses say, Serbian player Miladin Kovacevic beat a student into a coma; he posted bail and fled to his native country. It continued in November that same year when Malik Alvin was accused of stealing a box of condoms from an area Walmart and knocking into a woman as he tried to flee the scene. Then in March 2009, a woman working in the major gifts office alleged "egregious acts of sexual misconduct" against two athletic administration officials.
Then, in September 2009, the wheels spun off entirely.
Emanuel "Tiki" Mayben was charged with distribution and possession of cocaine, and two days later, Mayben, Alvin, D.J. Rivera, Corey Chandler, Paul Crosby and David Fine were dismissed from the program. Mayben, Alvin and Rivera were the team's three leading scorers last season.
Two days after that, athletic director Joel Thirer was forced to resign. And in October, coach Kevin Broadus was put on paid leave after he admitted committing a secondary violation.
By the end of October, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher announced that the executive committee of the board of trustees would conduct an independent audit of the entire athletics department.
"You would talk to other people, and they were almost afraid to come to Binghamton," said Knopick, the soccer player. "They only heard the bad things."
The black cloud continues to loom. The internal audit still is not completed, and the program remains in limbo. Broadus, who received a five-year extension to his $217,0000 annual contract in June, may or may not be back as coach depending on what the audit reveals, and the NCAA may or may not pile on to the penalties.
(Because of the pending audit, neither university president Lois DeFleur nor interim athletic director Jim Norris would speak with ESPN.com).
"I would like the audit to be over so we know what's going on," season-ticket holder Matt Cunningham said. "I was angry. I think a lot of people were. It was like people got egg on their faces, and a lot of people got run over for it. Enough already. It's time to move on."
Which is what Macon is trying to do.
The dire straits of the Binghamton team -- which held open tryouts in the fall to try to put together some sort of roster -- can be summed up in one entry in the game notes: "Four levels of walk-ons for revamped Binghamton team."
We were embarrassed. This is a strong academic institution, and it affected all of us.
-- Frank Saraceno, Binghamton season-ticket holder and university employee
There are seven scholarship players left: one returning starter, two more with any sort of playing experience, three freshmen and one junior college transfer. Then there is Mahamoud Jabbi, a transfer from Division III SUNY-Oswego; Umur Peten, the Turkish player enrolled in the dual-degree program; walk-on and local boy Jimmy Gray, who joined the team in August, and Mike Horn, Javon Ralling, Preston Pena and Charlie Fackler, who all earned their roster spots at the tryouts in October.
Expected to compete for the America East crown before self-imploding, the Bearcats instead are taking baby steps. Macon, a fan of amusing albeit head-scratching analogies, likens his team to a snail on a skateboard rolling downhill.
"When we started, the brakes were on," he said. "Now we're moving slowly, but the brakes are rubbing."
Macon, Temple's all-time leading scorer, could just be the best man for this crazily messy job. He is a disciple of John Chaney, a man who never saw a mountain he couldn't scale or impossible odds he couldn't beat. Chaney made a career out of fashioning his teams piecemeal out of players no one else thought much of.
Not long after he was given the interim job, Macon reached out to his mentor, not so much for basketball advice but just for life advice. The wise old Owl delivered.
"He said just keep it simple and be a voice," Macon said. "I'm not a screamer by nature, but he told me I had to have a voice."
His voice appears to be resonating. A talented player who also played with the sort of work ethic Chaney demanded, Macon is rubbing off on his team.
Regardless of their pedigree, by all accounts the Bearcats play hard.
Against Stony Brook, Binghamton led 61-59 with 18 seconds left when Greer Wright went to the line. But the junior hit only one of two free throws, and when Bryan Dougher hit a deep 3 to tie it for the Seawolves with nine seconds left, the game seemed headed to overtime.
Instead, without a timeout, the Bearcats drove the floor and got the ball back to Wright, the team's leading scorer. With 1.8 seconds left, the kid who came to upstate New York by way of Boca Raton and via junior college in San Francisco scored a leaner to win it.
Afterward, it was suggested that young teams and teams still finding their way often don't win those sorts of games, that they are too overwhelmed by the moment or too unseasoned to do what's necessary.
Macon thought about the suggestion, then shook his head.
"I disagree. I think it depends on the caliber of kids you have," Macon said. "I think it depends on their character. These kids have character."
And maybe it is finally a character Binghamton can be proud of.
|Greer Wright (left) leads the Bearcats in scoring (13.9) and rebounding (6.0).|
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.