Seat­tle fights an up­hill bat­tle

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - John Fe­in­stein

Ichar­lottesville

t was a blip on the col­lege bas­ket­ball hol­i­day land­scape, one of those scores that might cause peo­ple to squint their eyes in sur­prise for a moment be­fore mov­ing on: Seat­tle 59, Vir­ginia 53. For the Cava­liers, the Dec. 22 loss was cer­tainly a sur­prise but, given that it came two days af­ter a nar­row es­cape against Nor­folk State, prob­a­bly not a shock. It did end a five-game win­ning streak and it came at home against a school most of the 8,679 fans at John Paul Jones Arena might not know from the gone-but-not-for­got­ten Seat­tle Su­per­Son­ics.

“We took one on the chin,” was the way Vir­ginia Coach Tony Ben­nett de­scribed it.

For Seat­tle, a school that played un­der the name Chief­tains in its glory days back in the 1950s but now calls it­self the Redhawks in its new in­car­na­tion, it was far more than that. It was ev­i­dence that the of­ten-Sisyphean feat of mov­ing back into Di­vi­sion I is not im­pos­si­ble. The rock may not be up the hill, but it is closer to the top than peo­ple may think or know.

“If you looked at the bud­get we have and the plan­ning that’s been done you would stop and go, ‘Wow, these guys are se­ri­ous,’ ” Seat­tle Coach Cameron Dol­lar said af­ter the biggest win in his two sea­sons as the Redhawks’ coach. “We know we’ve got a ways to go, but a win like this shows all of us the po­ten­tial that is there.”

In the past 30 years, more and more schools have tried to make the jump to Di­vi­sion I, tempted by the huge dol­lars that can be made by reach­ing the NCAA tour­na­ment. Of course, what most pres­i­dents and ath­letic di­rec­tors miss when they line up to col­lect that money is that there are now 346 teams in Di­vi­sion I and 68 NCAA tour­na­ment bids. Do the math.

Seat­tle, how­ever, is not your typ­i­cal Di­vi­sion I new­bie. It has, to say the least, a rich bas­ket­ball his­tory. In the early 1950s, Seat­tle be­came the first and only team to beat the Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ters, back when the Glo­be­trot­ters played real games. In 1958, led by a pretty de­cent player out of the District named El­gin Bay­lor, the Chief­tains made the Fi­nal Four, up­set top-ranked Kansas State and then lost the cham­pi­onship game to Ken­tucky when Bay­lor was forced to play with an in­jured rib. From then un­til 1980, Seat­tle had 27 play­ers drafted by the NBA, the great­est of them be­ing Bay­lor, who went on to a Hall of Fame ca­reer with the Lak­ers.

But, like a lot of schools from non-power con­fer­ences, Seat­tle be­gan to slip in the 1970s. In 1980, the school pres­i­dent de­cided the money be­ing spent on bas­ket­ball wasn’t worth the re­turn and he pulled the Chief­tains not only out of Di­vi­sion I but out of the NCAA al­to­gether to the NAIA. Only in re­cent years has Seat­tle de­cided again to try Di­vi­sion I bas­ket­ball af­ter play­ing in Di­vi­sion II for sev­eral years on the way back.

Be­cause so many schools want to go the Di­vi­sion I route nowa­days in the hopes of be­com­ing the next Gon­zaga or But­ler, the NCAA has made the jour­ney to full Di­vi­sion I sta­tus— in other words, el­i­gi­ble for the NCAA tour­na­ment— a gru­el­ing one. Seat­tle is in its sec­ond year back in Di­vi­sion I this sea­son and still in search of a con­fer­ence. In to­day’s col­lege bas­ket­ball world, try­ing to make the tour­na­ment with­out be­ing part of a con­fer­ence is a lit­tle bit like try­ing to get the Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries pres­i­dents to lis­ten to rea­son.

“We’re like the pretty girl who doesn’t have a date,” Dol­lar said, still glow­ing shortly af­ter the win over Vir­ginia. “We have a lot to of­fer a con­fer­ence, but we’re not quite sure yet what’s best for us and they’re not quite sure yet if we’re best for them. It’s some­thing we’ll have to make a de­ci­sion on, but right now it isn’t what I’mfo­cused on. If we con­tinue to get bet­ter, the rest of that stuff will fall into place.”

Seat­tle man­aged to go 17-14 last sea­son in Dol­lar’s first sea­son but was 6-11 en­ter­ing Satur­day night’s game against Cal State Northridge. As an in­de­pen­dent, Dol­lar has to take games— es­pe­cially games in which the op­pos­ing team will pay the Redhawks to play— where he can find them. That’s why his team flew cross-coun­try in Novem­ber to playMary­land in the Coaches vs. Can­cer tour­na­ment and then made an­other trek to Char­lottesville six weeks later.

Ben­nett “was will­ing to play me two-for-one,” Dol­lar said. “I couldn’t say no to that.”

Hav­ing coached at Washington State, Ben­nett will take his team to Seat­tle next year. That game, like all of Seat­tle’s home games, will be played in Key Arena, the down­town for­mer home of the Su­per­Son­ics. The court has been re­named for Bay­lor and Dol­lar thinks play­ing at a big-time fa­cil­ity will help with re­cruit­ing. At the moment, the Redhawks are av­er­ag­ing al­most 4,000 fans per home game.

Given Dol­lar’s back­ground— he played in high school for Stu Vet­ter be­fore play­ing on a na­tional cham­pi­onship team at UCLA in 1995 and then work­ing as an as­sis­tant atWash­ing­ton for seven years— lead­ing a startup pro­gram is a dif­fer­ent world. There are no char­tered air­planes for those long trips and a lot of the play­ers he is re­cruit­ing are those who have been over­looked by big-time pro­grams or started some­place else and trans­ferred in search of more play­ing time.

“ To be hon­est, I love it,” in­sisted Dol­lar, who is 35 and has hired his dad, a long­time high school coach in Ge­or­gia, as an as­sis­tant coach. “I don’t like los­ing, no one does. But to be able to build some­thing lit­er­ally from the ground up is ex­cit­ing and it’s fun, even if it comes with a lot of chal­lenges. Tonight was a big step be­cause we got in a po­si­tion to get a qual­ity win and closed the deal. There have been other chances where we haven’t been able to do that.”

Vir­ginia cer­tainly helped the cause. The Cava­liers shot 2 for 20 from three-point range and spent most of the last three min­utes try­ing to rally by fir­ing up the first 25-foot shot avail­able. When they did fi­nally cut the Seat­tle lead to sin­gle dig­its, the Redhawks got ner­vous and missed the front end of three one-and-ones and then both ends of a two-shot foul. They sur­vived be­cause Vir­ginia never con­verted af­ter those misses.

“Luck plays a part in it,” Dol­lar said. “What we’re re­ally lucky about is we learned a les­son about play­ing with the lead tonight and didn’t have to lose to learn that les­son.”

There’s a long way to go. Dol­lar in­sists that if theWestern Ath­letic Con­fer­ence, West Coast Con­fer­ence orMoun­tainWest don’t want his team, it can go for­ward as an in­de­pen­dent. He might want to talk to some coaches whose pro­grams are still look­ing for a league about how dif­fi­cult that life­style can be for a pro­gram. Af­ter the Vir­ginia game, Seat­tle had 10 days off be­fore trav­el­ing to Pep­per­dine. It has only five of its 12 home games left. Vir­ginia, part of the all-pow­er­ful ACC, was in the midst of an eight-game home­s­tand.

But on a cold De­cem­ber night, the lit­tle guy beat the big guy, much to the dis­may of those who came to watch what was no doubt seen as a walkover game for Vir­ginia. Dol­lar knows El­gin Bay­lor isn’t walk­ing through the door of his locker room any­time soon. But for one night, as he and his play­ers pre­pared for a very long trip home, he could dream about some day coach­ing in the tour­na­ment he and his team­mates won in 1995.

That Fi­nal Four was in Seat­tle. Clearly, there is still more of this story yet to be told.

NICK WASS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Coach Cameron Dol­lar was part of the 1995 UCLA team, which claimed the NCAA ti­tle in Seat­tle.

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