- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

BALTIMORE — Brian Fisher slumps in a comfortable leather chair in a dark hotel lobby. It is late at night, and his bleary eyes reveal the grind his team is experiencing.

The lobby is strange, yet all-too-familiar for Fisher and his Winston-Salem State teammates in this anything-but-typical season. The dorm rooms and cafeterias of their North Carolina campus have been replaced by a blur of generic hotels and breakfast buffets. Laptop computers must suffice in place of traditional classrooms.

“I really haven’t seen my dorm room in a long time,” says Fisher, a freshman guard from Marietta, Ga. “I haven’t been able to settle down. Every time we are home, we are there for about a day. I just change my underwear and socks and go back on another trip, basically.”

Welcome to college basketball’s longest-running roadshow.

The Rams began the season in Fresno, Calif., on Nov. 10. They will play 23 of this season’s 29 games on the road or a neutral court. The Rams will log 25,000 miles on a roundball odyssey that in less than four months will take them from North Carolina to North Dakota, California, Kansas, the District and many points in between.

The only place the vagabond team does not touch down, it seems, is on its own campus.

“This whole season is probably the toughest thing I have faced in my life so far,” says Jamal Durham, a sophomore forward who before this turbulent season had never been on a plane. “I hate flying. Now we have flown on about 28 planes. I am really tired of planes. Hotels are OK, but I like being at home more. It wears you down. It is getting old. We just have to persevere.”

The results have been predictable for the undersized, overmatched and travel-weary Rams, who on Friday at Morgan State lost their 15th straight game. The losses include a pair of 51-point drubbings at Kansas and Georgia Tech, a 90-45 defeat at Notre Dame, a 44-point wipeout at Georgetown and a 33-point rout at Auburn.

“I have seen a lot of nights we didn’t come out and fight,” says coach Bobby Collins, who led Hampton to the NCAA tournament last season but was forced to resign because of differences with the administration. “Prayer helps a lot. I am a competitor. I can live with a loss when we compete. I understand what I am up against.”

The rocky road is all part of a painful transition from Division II to Division I. The Rams are in the second year of the five-year move. They need 23 Division I games to fulfill the Year 2 requirement. They planned to get those games by becoming a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Their move to the MEAC was approved by the league, but the vote came over the summer — too late for the Rams to secure a conference schedule.

“We expected to have 18 to 20 conference games, but were forced to go the independent route,” says Chico Caldwell, the athletic director of the historically black school of 5,500 students. “I just got on the phone and called everybody I knew. We did not have any choices. We couldn’t turn down any games.”

As a result, the schedule was loaded early: The Rams played 10 games — nine of them on the road — in November and faced a seven-game trip that ran from Dec. 9 to Jan. 5.

The administration is effectively sacrificing this season for the future. The program, which was a Division II power and had made the NCAA tournament three of its last six seasons at that level, will not be a full-fledged Division I member and eligible for the postseason until the 2010-11 school year.

The team soon will leave the C.E. Gaines Center — the facility is named for legendary coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines — for a new 7,000-seat, on-campus arena. They will play two seasons at the 4,500-seat Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum Annex, directly next to the main arena where Wake Forest plays, while the facility is being built.

“We look at this year as blazing the way towards Division I,” Caldwell says. “Nobody wants to lose, but [players] realize what we are doing. We will appreciate these guys forever.”

The downside of losing carries a financial upside, at least. The program will earn roughly $500,000 in money games — contests in which the home team pays a team to come in for one game rather than agree to a return visit in a future season. Major programs like Kansas pay up to $60,000 for what usually are easy wins.

The price on the court, however, has been steep. The Rams entered the game against Morgan State as owners of a 1-17 record and just two nights removed from a 97-46 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Their only win was over Division II Anderson (S.C.).

Nonetheless, the Rams played Morgan State with spirit and energy. After trailing by 10 early in the half, they rallied. Fisher’s 3-pointer with 4:40 left gave Winston-Salem a 49-47 lead.

“We are so used to not even being in games, and we are finally in one,” says Roy Peake, a 5-foot-11 point guard. “Now, we have to win one.”

The Rams led Morgan State 50-48 with four minutes left but failed to score the rest of the game. They missed three 3-pointers, two field goals and four free throws, and the Bears held on for a 53-50 win. The loss marked only the second time in this defeat-filled season the Rams have lost by a single-digit margin. The loss marked their 16th road or neutral court defeat this season.

“I told these guys if they put me in a situation to win, we were going to win it,” Collins says. “I just can’t hit the free throws for us or make the layup opportunities. Hopefully, I can get some kids in here that can make plays down the stretch. I am maximizing what I got — trust me on that one.”

The Rams returned to Winston-Salem the next day. They ended their losing streak two days later with a 77-56 win over Division III Ferrum College in a rare home game.

The Rams received positive news off the court as well. Grades arrived, and the ad-libbed correspondence courses seem to be working. All but one player surpassed a 2.0 grade-point average. Players go through a three-hour study hall daily, work extensively on the Internet and e-mail with professors.

“You have to stay focused and motivated on what you have to do,” Fisher says. “You have to be mentally tough.”

In addition to telecommuting to school, players are getting a unique education.

“We are learning so much,” says Peake, a junior who had traveled only by bus in previous seasons. “I didn’t know anything about flying. I didn’t know what a gate was. I am learning that. When I get out there in the real world, I am going to be strong. We are going to be so strong as individuals.”

Collins has changed his approach because of the unusual circumstances, and he thinks one thing above all has made all the cross-country trekking and lopsided losses livable.

“We laugh,” says Collins, who normally would take a businesslike approach to shorter trips. “I allow them to show their personalities. I am not going to be uptight and say, ‘Hey, guys. Don’t laugh. Concentrate.’ I allowed them to be themselves. That has allowed us to get through these situations because we find a way to laugh. They see me laughing and being loose.”

Collins also credits his players for their admirable behavior and says he doesn’t have to worry about them missing curfew.

Some players would rather forget the 0-16 record away from home, but others see it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They get to see the country and play in first-class arenas against teams like Kansas and Georgia Tech.

One player takes an even more worldly perspective.

“We aren’t in Iraq shooting anybody,” says Peake, who plans to coach after graduating. “We are playing college basketball. We can’t ever complain. We will be home someday.”

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