BABSON PARK, Fla. — The gym is empty now. Just two baskets staring at each other across a hardwood floor. Flies circle overhead. The air is sticky. It’s hot. It’s still. It’s dead. It’s over. Dies the season, dies the program. Almost nobody knows what went on here at Webber College and almost nobody ever will now. Most American eyes this weekend are on the NCAA Final Four in downtown Dallas. Millions will watch it. Millions will bet on it. It’s a big story.
But this is a better story.
This is a story about a chance of a lifetime, a deal you’d be crazy to take and crazier to pass up. This is a story of a tiny college and its gunslinging president, named Buck, who gave a basketball coach, named Nick, a chance to bring a handful of kids from the streets of New York and Baltimore and Buffalo down to the middle of nothing in Florida, to an auditorium with two backboards nailed to the walls and red ants crawling on the floor, and to work a miracle.
And they almost won it all.
This is a story about the Webber College Warriors, who disappeared forever last week, and who might have been the best college basketball team you’ve never seen. They just ran out of time.
Imagine the conversation. You’re a young basketball player who couldn’t make Division I — maybe grades, maybe lack of recruiting — so you’ve been playing junior college ball, or maybe not playing at all, and you’re just hanging around in August of 1983 trying to decide what you should do next and the phone rings.
“This is Nick Creola,” the voice began. “I’m the new coach at Webber College. I’m looking for a man of your caliber. I’ll give you a full scholarship, you’ll play right away, you’ll get a chance to see sunny Florida. If you’re interested, there’ll be a plane ticket waiting for you next Thursday. Come down. Look around. If you like the place we’ll sign you right there.”
This was the sales pitch Creola used on his prospects — all of whom he’d collected in two weeks’ time — and as he drove to the Orlando airport that Thursday he still had no idea how many of them would buy it. “I had no recruiting budget,” he said. “What else could I do?”
He had only taken the job himself a few weeks before. Who takes a coaching job in August? At Webber College no less, a tiny business school on the curb of the Bible Belt, with 450 students and no gym. Heck, the whole basketball idea was just a stunt by the school president to get publicity.
It was a gimmick. An investment in advertising. It was crazy. Which means it was just the kind of thing G.W. (Buck) Cleven, a 67-year-old former bomber pilot turned college president, would do. Cleven is a big man, with white hair and ice-blue eyes. He rules Webber. He calls himself “a benevolent despot,” keeps a .357 Magnum in the desk drawer, and once fired a shotgun at joyriders who were disturbing his campus. Get the picture?
Only now he wanted a basketball team. A nationally renowned basketball team. Get some ink for his college. So he hired Creola, who is short, tanned, muscular and a winner.
Creola was a successful junior college coach at Jamestown, N.Y. — his team was ranked No. 1 in the nation — and back then, in 1983, he was 40 and single and figured this Webber thing might help him move up in the coaching ranks. Of course, he had no idea whom he’d be coaching.
And then he got to the airport.
“I looked around the baggage area and there were five or six big black kids, and they were talking, some of them knew of one another, and I said to myself, ‘Holy jeez. This town is in for the shock of their lives.’ ” Why? Because this is not New York or Baltimore. This is the South, and changes come slowly, and Webber College is mostly white. It’s hardly the setting for a supersonic, inner-city-type basketball team. Drive out to Webber. If you can find it. Take route 27 to Fat Boy’s Barbeque, turn right, and keep going. Don’t look for any other landmarks, because there aren’t any. Just some orange groves and baked grass that’s as hard as bristle. And after a few miles, it’s just sort of there. A handful of small yellow buildings. Webber College.
It was here that Creola brought players such as “Rockin’ Rodney” Jones from
the East Side of Buffalo, and Big Joe Farmer from the Bronx, and Dennis Pope from Baltimore and Carl (Jete) Jeter and his brother Gary, and Joe Patterson, who can dribble the ball behind his back and through his legs and over his head while on one knee. Brought them into an auditorium with no air conditioning — it had to be at least 100 degrees — pointed to the makeshift baskets and said, “Let’s go, let’s get started.”
The floor was carpeted — carpeted? — and the ball kept skipping away. Gnats were flying around that stuck to the wet skin of the players. One player took off his socks and wrung the sweat out like a sponge. Creola, wearing shorts, leaned down on one knee to watch a drill and jumped up yelling, “What the hell?” and there were red ants all over his legs chewing on him.
A fight broke out that first practice, a fight between two players, and the others instinctively rushed in and broke it up. And then they looked at each other, sweat washing their faces, and there was a sudden realization that they either died through this separately or lived through it together.
“I owe you guys the chance to be national champions,” Creola said that first day. “How can you get beat? How can you get beat with what you’re going through here?”
They had nothing. But nothing plus desire is no longer nothing. It’s a beginning.
There are only about 120 people on this earth who can tell you about that first game. It was played in a local high school gym and the few students who came to watch brought their books, figuring on early boredom.
Creola’s new team marched in: eight blacks, two whites, two Cubans and the coach. The first tap went up and Rodney Jones, a 6-foot-5 forward who can jump high enough from a standing position to bang his head on the rim, took the ball in for a reverse dunk. Heads turned. What was this? The Warriors laughed through that game, won it by something like 50 points, with alley-oops and slams and jams.
And they kept winning. Where ever they went. They would later say their practices — in the hellhole of a gym — were harder than their games. It was movie material. These kids, mostly from northern cities, whirling and juking and sending a buzz through the state. Winning? Is that the word for 141-62? And 137-50? And 95-36? All real scores from Webber victories.
“The word spread on us like wildfire,” Creola said. Once during a game against an NCAA Division II opponent — which is like Cyclops playing Harpo Marx — the big-school coach came over to Creola and promised to “take it easy” on his kids.
“Thanks,” Creola said. The Warriors then blew the team away by 22 points.
By the time that season ended, Webber was 34-5 and won the national championship of the National Little College Athletic Association. It wasn’t magic. It was more like chemistry. The Webber players were all similar; all good, flashy basketball players who had somehow missed the boat for bigger schools. They had three common denominators: Creola, the dunk and poverty.
“The first time I had Joe Farmer at school,” says Creola, “he opened up his suitcase and there was only a toothbrush inside. I said, ‘Joe, where’s your clothes?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I’m wearin’ them.’ ” Creola raised money to buy Farmer and several others a decent wardrobe. He and assistant Steve Prevesk ran bingo games every Sunday night to help pay for the players’ books.
Creola was tireless, selling ads for programs, coaching, phoning recruits, coaching, playing psychologist, coaching.
“We were like his family,” says Jones. And they were all alone.
Let’s face it. This was a basketball team full of sleek, street-smart black players in a white Southern school in a white Southern community in a region where Ku Klux Klan activities were more than an occasional rumor.
“They burned a cross out on Highway 27 five or six years ago,” Creola said.
“You knew it was gonna be tough.”
There were incidents. A black player and a white student scuffled in a bar. Ugly feelings arose over the players’ dating some of the white female students. This is a place where such emotions still bubble close to the surface. So when the school threw a party that first year to wish the team well in post- season play, most students boycotted.
But in the second year, things seemed to cool down. People got more used to the idea. A new gym was built. A real gym.
Things should have gotten easier. They didn’t. Prevesk remembers returning from summer vacation and having this conversation with Cleven.
“Cleven said, ‘Now listen to me, you son of a bleep. See this hand? This is my wedding ring? See this hand? This is my national championship ring. I don’t need any more rings. Now we do things my way.’ ”
Those were the first notes of the death song. Cleven had bragged about how the team he dreamed up would win a title in its first year, and now that the Warriors had done it, he wasn’t sure he wanted them around any more. “We were stealing his thunder,” Creola said.
Meanwhile, the Warriors had moved up a class, to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, and were now finding a different problem. No one would play them. Ten Division II schools were within a 90-mile radius, and not a single one wanted Webber on their schedule. The reason was obvious: They were afraid of losing.
Instead, Webber had to take games as far north as Georgia and as far south as Miami. The players traveled in a Dodge van, drove eight or nine hours, ate at McDonald’s, listened to Walkmans, talked. Once they broke down in a town called Yeehaw Junction, and a few players got out to roam around. Then someone spotted a bull behind a fence and the players came running back into the van as if bullets were being fired, and they slammed the doors.
“Half these guys had never seen a bull in their lives,” Prevesk said, laughing. “They didn’t know what it was going to do.”
They kept winning. It was a simple formula: run fast. Lots of offense. A pressing defense that stole the ball often. And dunk, dunk, dunk.
“Every player on the team dunked,” Creola said. “People used to come out just to see our warm-up drills. We had an alley-oop play from halfcourt that was our trademark. It was beautiful.”
That season the Warriors went to Hawaii with money Creola had raised, and they beat everyone they played — including Chaminade, which had knocked off national powers Louisville and Southern Methodist. The team wound up 32-5 and made it to the district semifinals of the NAIA. There was talk of moving up yet again, to Division II. Things looked good.
And then the roof fell in.
The experiment was called off.
Buck Cleven — who had once been quoted as saying, “We’re using basketball to let people know we’re here. After that, the heck with it.” — announced that Webber was dropping basketball after the 1985-86 season. A “one-year moriturium,” he called it. “It will never come back,” interpreted Creola.
The coach was crushed. So were his players. But at Webber, Buck Cleven makes all the rules. All the players could do was go out in a blaze. Go for the NAIA national title. And they went for it. Won 24 regular-season games and lost only one. Averaged more than 100 points a game. Led the nation in scoring.
And a funny thing happened.
People began to come out to the games. Signs started popping up. The racial tensions that had once existed had eased, if not to where we dream, at least to where we can co-exist.
“A lot of times this school isn’t fun,” Prevesk said. “It’s too small. But the team was something fun. Something to rally around.”
Webber won its district championship and was headed to the nationals in Kansas City. In the last home game, the crowd actually stood up when the players were announced, and when the first basket was scored, a roll of toilet paper was thrown out on the court.
Their last home game. Their first roll of toilet paper.
It certain ways, it was as big as a victory can be.
There is no happy ending. Webber lost in the first round of the NAIA national tournament by four points. The program is over. The players are without a team. The coach is looking for a job. The gym is empty.
“It’s taken a few years off my life, I’ll tell you that,” Creola said. “But what a few years! I wouldn’t trade them.”
It’s tough to say how good the Webber Warriors were. Creola rated them a
“low Division I team.” Maybe. Who’ll know now? No one good would play them. Their creator gave up on them.
Things are quiet around Webber now. Most players plan on transferring. So do other students. “I don’t know 10 people coming back here,” says Prevesk.
For a brief moment something special happened here. Something was taken from nothing, some colors of life were mixed together, black and white, and though there were problems at the beginning, toward the end they were learning how to get along. Basketball was teaching them. And one gets the feeling this is the way the game was before the NCAAs and TV cameras and recruiting violations.
Dies the season, dies the program. And it rests there, inside the quiet gym near the orange groves. The arc of what might have been, going stale with the heat. CUTLINE Webber College’s basketball paraphernalia is destined to become something of a collector’s item.