ALCORN STATE, Miss. -- The bus rocked gently, bringing the Alcorn State basketball team back from its pregame meal. Standing in the aisle, sophomore Troy Jackson held on to the back of a seat as he recited from memory a few lines of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
I've known rivers.
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow
of human blood in human veins.
Behind him, Samuel West silently wiped away tears.
West, the Alcorn State basketball coach, likes to interject education into his team's long road trips whenever he can. Games at Alabama State always include visits to the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum, and since this two-game road swing to Mississippi Valley State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff stretched into the celebration of Dr. King's birthday, West asked each player to give a brief oral report about an important African-American.
Jackson, a guard prone to such deep introspection it can border on standoffishness, chose Langston Hughes. He spoke passionately about his favorite poet, sharing not just his biography but also telling his teammates about the importance of Hughes' voice, of poetry that reflected the real lives and true hardships of African-Americans. Then, as West cried quietly behind him, Jackson quoted from his favorite Hughes' poem.
When Jackson finished, a teammate asked him what his river was. The sophomore paused.
"This is my river," he said as he stood on the bus he and his teammates had been traveling on for three days. "It's not always the easiest one to travel, but this is my path. I have to make the best of it."
Making the best of it -- that may as well be the Alcorn State motto.
Late checks, money crises, ice machines that don't work, a student serving as athletic trainer without any formal training or CPR certificate, a basketball budget that wouldn't cover the expenses of one athlete at a top-tier university, a staff made up of just two coaches, and road meals that include whatever's on the local buffet restaurant menu -- that is the choppy river that carries Alcorn.
The Braves are not unique. They are a microcosm of life at the HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). Schools in the SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), the two traditional homes of the HBCUs, compete in Division I basketball just like Kansas and Carolina, but that is where the similarities begin and end.
In the SWAC the only thing chartered is a bus, and McDonald's doesn't mean All-American.
It means dinner.
HBCUs like Alcorn State endure trials and challenges that would make Sisyphus ditch the boulder.
It wasn't always this way. Alcorn State produced Steve McNair in football and first-time notoriety in basketball -- the first HBCU to win an NIT game, the first to win an NCAA Tournament game. In the 1970s and 1980s, legendary coach Davey Whitney shook the rafters to turn the tiny school into an upstart. Alcorn won seven SWAC titles in that era.
But that was before college sports became a pay-to-play venture, before the lines between the haves and have-nots were drawn so bold that it became impossible to traverse them. Now the difference between Alcorn and the upper echelon is as disparate as the difference between the median income in nearby Natchez and New York City.
In the 2007 Division I budget figures provided by the Office of Postsecondary Education, Alcorn State ranks 337 out of 339 schools, with an operating budget of $3,172,348. By comparison, Ohio State's operating expenses top $109 million. Alcorn's entire basketball budget is a third of what defending national champion Florida will fork over to accommodate one player.
"To me, HBCU stands for under-resourced," junior guard Jumane Reed said. "We don't have the best facilities or the best of anything, but we still take pride in ourselves. Underdogs have taken down giants in the history of the world. Just think, if they didn't have that mind-frame, where would we be as a society? Look at Dr. King."
That the players maintain hope, not to mention humor, is either a sign of their intestinal fortitude or resignation to their lot in Division I athletics.
You want to be welcomed to the SWAC? Really, there is only one way -- live it. Squish your knees up under your nose, eat greasy food and travel from Alcorn to Mississippi Valley, from Valley to Arkansas-Pine Bluff, and from Pine Bluff back home again.
And then realize this is but one weekend of your life.
This is the Braves' endless river.
Saturday, Jan. 19
It is snowing. That's not supposed to happen in Mississippi. Yet as the players board the bus at 10 a.m., there is a nice dusting on the grass and a winter chill in the air. Softball players just finishing up an indoor practice scrape what they can from the snow accumulating on car windows and attempt a snowball fight.
This, the Braves will tell you, is a short trip. It's just three-plus hours to Itta Bena, home of Mississippi Valley State, a drop in the bucket compared to the six-hour hike to Texas for the swing through Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern. But the short ride will be on a bus best used for middle schoolers.
Assistant coach Jason Cable pops a game film into the VCR he's toted on board, but the mini-screens -- no more than eight inches -- make it tough to see. No matter. Like babies in car seats, the players are rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the bus almost instantly.
An hour into the ride, the bus pulls into a Kangaroo gas station to pick up Samuel West. The head coach lives in Clinton, a good hour ride from campus, and since the bus won't be returning until the wee hours of Tuesday morning, there is no sense doubling back down the road when the bus can just as easily fetch him.
The players slip into the convenience store for sodas and snacks, and Cable playfully lays into Gifford Blakely for opting for a calorie-laden mini-pecan pie.
With the snow still falling, the bus heads on to Itta Bena, a tiny dot on the map just outside Greenwood, a city whose welcome billboard proclaims it as the "Cotton Capital of the World."
After shootaround, a pregame meal and some brief downtime at the Hampton Inn in Greenwood, the players board the bus for the game at Valley and check into the sparsest locker room this side of a penitentiary. There are a handful of folding chairs and one old wooden bench. Stacked miniature lockers already are stuffed and locked with other people's things, so the Braves are forced to leave their clothes strewn across the cold cement floor.
Just 18 rows of bleachers sit on either side of the court, with 10 more on the end lines. Fans sit within inches of the press table and mere feet from the team benches. The game program is filled with typos.
Sluggish to start, Alcorn falls behind by as many as 17 before mounting a furious rally to close to within one. Bereft of fans or traveling cheerleaders, the team makes for its own rally section. The subs on the bench clap and chant "de-fense."
The Braves never get over the hump and leave the gym on the short end of a 67-61 score.
"I think sitting around, riding the bus, that's part of it," freshman Derrick Blackwell said. "We just didn't have our legs."
"Sign at your own risk"
Samuel West is a perpetually optimistic man. Ask him a pointed question about budgetary restraints and he will purse his lips, smile and push it aside. Press him to reveal his concerns and his fears, and he will simply tell you that the Lord wouldn't give him more than he could handle.
An assistant under Whitney for seven years before taking over the head-coaching reins in 2003, West likens Alcorn State to a person with a beautiful soul but a less attractive appearance. The faculty and staff are the soul, the ones who nurture and care for the students.
Trouble is, kids are kids. They don't care about intimate class sizes or well-intentioned professors. They want bling. High-end universities are turning out locker rooms more tricked out than something on MTV Cribs, with iPod docking stations and plasma televisions, wireless networking and antibacterial carpeting. Separate practice facilities are cropping up all across the nation, private ivory towers so athletes have 24-hour access to courts and rehab facilities.
Dimly lit with wooden roll-out bleachers that likely came with construction of the building in 1975, the Davey Whitney HPER Complex -- the Braves' home court -- offers no chair-back seats, no boxes and certainly no tricked-out locker rooms. The men's basketball team is housed in two small rooms. The lockers are hard metal mesh, not wooden, and there is one big-screen TV (not plasma) in a meeting room just big enough to include two love seats.
Used for PE classes as well as practices, the gym is off limits to players between 8 a.m. and noon and then locked down after the women's team leaves around 6 p.m.
With only two full-time coaches, player development is almost impossible. West and Cable want to help, but there aren't enough hours in the day. Along with his on-court duties, Cable is in charge of travel arrangements, study hall, recruiting and film exchange. He also teaches a health class.
His salary is less than $25,000 a year.
"When I call these big schools and they have one guy just in charge of film exchange, I just laugh," Cable said with a shake of his head. "We tell guys when they sign, 'Sign at your own risk.'"
And the risks are plenty.
The elevator in the dormitory, the players said, hasn't worked since 2005, forcing a daily six-floor schlep for some people. Of the eight shower heads in the dormitory bathrooms, maybe two will work. And when the generator cranks on, it practically pounds through the walls.
The university owns one Gator four-wheeler. In the spring, trainers use it to transport water to the outdoor practice fields, and then the baseball and softball coaches take it to drag their infields. After students "borrowed" the equipment repeatedly, one coach finally went out and bought a lock.
The Braves are a rummage sale of gear. Their sneakers, bought by the school at full price and without the benefits of any shoe deal, are from Nike. At the end of practice on Friday, West handed out new pairs for the second -- and final -- time this season.
Russell makes the team uniforms, but with new ones rotated in only every other season instead of annually, the jerseys are devoid of names.
Their warm-ups are from adidas.
"The shoe companies give the deals to the big schools," Cable said, "not the schools that need it."
Down the hall in the athletic training facility, the stim machine is on its last leg and the treadmill died a slow death a season ago. There is one stationary bike and just one certified athletic trainer. Taxed to cover 15 sports, Cindi White can't travel regularly, instead sending one of eight students at her disposal to cover games.
Chris Brown, a football player whose career was cut short by knee injuries, takes care of the basketball team. Though he'd like one day to pursue a career in athletic medicine, he currently has no formal training in the field. He is not even CPR-certified.
"I sit on the bench, just praying nobody gets hurt," Brown said.
That hasn't worked so well this year. Alcorn has been plagued by injuries. Reed has a broken bone in his wrist, as does backcourt mate Richard Griffin. Anthony Searcy injured his back, and Troy Jackson is playing with a sprained MCL. Ahmad Jackson blew out his knee at the first practice, and before the first game, two players quit the team.
"They couldn't take it," Jackson said, "couldn't take being here, what we didn't have."
Indeed, even before those two players went AWOL -- one literally walking out of practice one day and not returning after that -- West said he has heard from more than a few recruits who said they chose a school with better facilities even though they felt they had a better connection with him and Cable.
"You can't do it sometimes, just can't get past it," West said.
Last month, Alcorn installed a new president. George Ross comes to Mississippi from Central Michigan, where he served as that university's vice president of finance. The hope is the money man will find a way to help Alcorn's budget. Ross already hired a new football coach. Ernest Jones received a $50,000 salary bump over his predecessor -- insignificant in the Nick Saban stratosphere, a financial windfall at Alcorn.
"Sometimes when I ride back home, for 25 miles I might for a minute let myself get down," West said. "But the Bible says, 'He will use the weak to confound the wise, the poor, the downtrodden, to make a statement for Him.' That's the way I look at it."
Sunday, Jan. 20
Still groggy from the late return to the hotel and postgame film session in the lobby, the team assembles in the Hampton Inn lobby for devotions. The Braves don't use a private meeting room, so while other people straggle in to check in or eat the free breakfast, the team congregates in the small dining area to talk about Jesus.
They discuss a story about a man who, after praying for a baby, realized his new infant had Down syndrome. The moral of the story is that God loves everyone, that no matter how bad your struggles someone has it worse.
It may as well have been the saga of Alcorn basketball.
After devotions, it's back on the bus for a three-hour trek to Pine Bluff. The ride to Arkansas is quiet as the bus rolls past catfish barns, catfish companies and the Catfish Kitchen. In short order, West is the only one awake, watching the tape of the previous night's game against Valley.
Limited gym availability at Arkansas-Pine Bluff has pushed practice back until 7 p.m., so first on the agenda is lunch.
That sounds easy. It's not.
The Western Sizzlin the team frequented in the past has closed, and short of fast food, there is nothing around.
After driving aimlessly for 30 minutes, the bus pulled into a Bonanza, but the restaurant was filled with the post-church crowd and couldn't accommodate a group of 15 on short notice.
A fruitless search ultimately wound back to a mall across the street from the hotel. The players are given their per diem and hit the food court.
"To me, this is a steppingstone," said Searcy as the Northeastern transplant happily traded the usual road fare of Southern food for a sandwich from Subway. "If we can do this, we can do anything. If you can survive Alcorn, you can survive anywhere."
By the time the team finishes practice, dinner and watching film afterward, another 14-hour day is in the books.
The road to Alcorn
Everyone has a story as to how he ended up at Alcorn.
Clifton Douglass, who finished up his eligibility last year and now helps out as an unpaid student volunteer coach, came to Alcorn because his mother had attended Fisk University and encouraged him to experience life at an HBCU.
Senior James Kendrick considered Virginia Tech, but the Hokies wanted him only as a walk-on.
Junior guard Reed, from Houston, has family in nearby Natches and spent his summers there. The idea of going to school somewhere familiar with family nearby attracted him.
Owumi and Searcy, cousins and best friends, wanted to go somewhere together, and Alcorn was the first to come up with scholarships for the package deal.
Jackson, a Philly native, was looking at top-tier Division I schools, but his transcript was red-flagged after his prep school, Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, came under NCAA scrutiny. He transferred to Alcorn from Maryland-Eastern Shore, another HBCU, after his coach there was fired.
"This is so much worse," Jackson said.
At UMES, Jackson had a nutritionist and a strength and conditioning coach, a stocked weight room and a full allotment of coaches. Here the weight room is filled with tired and rusty free weights. Not only is there no nutritionist, cost forces the team into lousy eating habits. Most nutritionists suggest athletes feast on a carb-heavy diet of pasta and steak before games. On the road, the Braves frequent all-you-can-eat buffets in order to stretch their dollar, and for home games, players are left to forage on their own.
Saturday's pregame meal was an all-you-can-eat buffet at Tacketts Family Restaurant, where mac 'n' cheese, fried chicken and ribs were the entrée options. Breakfast is typically whatever assorted Danish and cereal the hotel provides as part of its free, in-lobby meal.
After the mall-court dinner in Pine Bluff at 1 p.m. on Sunday, the team had to wait until practice finished at 9:30 p.m. for dinner. The only option was the Huddle House, a tiny little all-night breakfast joint, in the parking lot adjacent to the La Quinta hotel where the team was staying.
Sheer luck led the Braves to a decent meal on Monday. They returned to the Bonanza that couldn't feed them on Sunday. Though still a buffet, it also included an 8-ounce steak for each player.
"I'm not used to eating all this greasy food," Owumi said. "I used to get mad about it, tell coach we weren't eating the right things, but now I understand it's out of his hands. We're eating fried chicken, not pasta. It makes you lazy. It's hard to go out and play."
They call them guaranteed games for a reason. Little School X takes a five-figure paycheck from Big School Y, travels across the country and loses by 40. The guarantee is for the home squad.
In the SWAC, living off guaranteed money has long been the only way to beef up sickly budgets, but the practice lately has come under fire. Some coaches have argued if teams have to take money to survive, they don't belong in Division I.
Others, like West, counter that without the guaranteed checks, the programs would disappear, and with them the opportunities would dry up.
The players resent the whole concept of a guarantee, as if they walk in to the gym ready to roll over for the cash payout.
Owumi figures he probably lost no more than nine games in his entire high school career at Jeremiah Burke in Boston. At Alcorn, he has won only 11 in two seasons.
"To me, it's basketball, five-on-five, anything can happen," he said. "When it doesn't, it just hurts. The losing just kills you."
Alcorn State put together a 2007-08 schedule that would give travel agents fits. The Braves played 10 of their first 12 games on the road, stopping in Oklahoma, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska along the way, and they started the season 1-12. The lone win came against Southern-New Orleans, an NAIA school.
They aren't alone. SWAC schools this season were a combined 21-80 in nonconference play, 8-86 against Division I opponents. Only four HBCUs have winning records.
"You just get beat up mentally," Jackson said. "You start believing, 'Man, we can't win. We're never going to win a game,' and it carries over into the conference season. The losing, it just eats at you."
There is also nothing like seeing how the other half lives to remind a person how poorly he is living.
At New Mexico State, Brown, the student trainer, took pictures of the facility to show his father, a 1975 graduate of Alcorn.
"He just about shed a tear," Brown said. "He thought things would get better here since he graduated, but they haven't. They're the same, and compared to everybody else, they're worse."
The irony at Alcorn is the basketball team sees hardly any of the money it brings in. The guaranteed money is put into a general fund -- not a general athletics fund but a general university fund. The same goes for any money the team might make off the SWAC's TV deal with ESPN and whatever cut of the NCAA Tournament pie the SWAC pays out to its member schools.
This year, the Braves were asked to forgo the traditional practice of reimbursing themselves for travel with a portion of the guaranteed game checks. That left them a budget of $62,000 to cover game travel to 16 regular-season games plus recruiting travel. The plane tickets from New Orleans to Montana alone cost $13,000.
By January, the basketball wells were dry and the athletic department had to dip into the general-fund coffers to pay for the road games.
At 3:45 on Friday afternoon, less than 12 hours before the bus would leave on the four-day road swing and 75 minutes before the banks closed, West finally received a check from athletics to cover the weekend's expenses.
The end of the road
The Monday night game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff is a copycat of the Saturday loss to Valley. Sluggish to start, the Braves dig themselves a huge hole, rally back, but come up short. This time the final score is 74-68.
On board the bus, one seat is stacked almost to the ceiling with Pizza Hut boxes. The delivery, however, neglected to include soda, so before the team can roll toward home, it has to make a quick pit stop at a roadside stand for drinks.
A nasty rainstorm whips up just as the bus gets rolling and lasts almost until Vicksburg, where West meets the car he left at the Kangaroo gas station.
Finally, the bus turns south on Route 61, down the bleak road that offers little in the way of sights save the cows grazing in the fields and the wingless airplane that sits on a hill. At 3:15 a.m. Tuesday morning, the team arrives back on campus.
Before the team left campus on Saturday morning, West reminded his players what they had been praying for -- three wins in a row.
Instead he got two losses.
As the players tumble into the darkness to make their way back to the dormitory without a working elevator, it's hard to imagine how they keep any faith at all.
"You always have to work for something in life," Owumi said. "It just seems we have to work a little harder."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.