I’m not sure how this tradition got started, but for almost all of the last 12 winters, my brother Jeff and I have picked out a Saturday to make a trip to his alma mater, Lander University in Greenwood, S.C., to watch basketball.
If you know me at all, you’re aware that I’m a big college basketball fan and could watch the sport 24/7 if it wouldn’t cost me everything — except basketball — that I hold dear. It’s an addiction that Jayne tolerates with remarkable good humor. As a matter of fact, our first date was to a basketball game — Clemson vs. Campbell at Littlejohn Coliseum, March 3, 1984. More on that as the date approaches….
So each year, as I plan this trip, Jayne asks, “Is Lander any good? Is the team they’re playing any good?” Oh, the questions asked by the innocent! It doesn’t matter. Beauty is hoops, and hoops beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know. (You didn’t know Keats was a basketball fan, did you?)
And early on Saturday afternoon, I’m stopping by Clinton to pick up Jeff and we head to the Finis Horne Arena in Greenwood to watch a Peach Belt Conference NCAA Division II doubleheader between the Lander Bearcats and the Columbus (Ga.) State Cougars.
As I’ve noted previously, I’ve become fairly familiar with Division II basketball from having taught at Wingate for 15 years and have come to appreciate it on its own merits. And this day’s crowd at Horne Arena, a spacious 12-year-old on-campus facility that some Division I schools would envy, is a typical Division II crowd — a mix of students, faculty/staff, parents and friends of players and a few scattered regulars from the town. And one old grad and his older brother. The raucous throng listed at 255 for the women’s game will swell to 350 by the time the men take the court.
Both Lander teams have had recent success, each earning berths in the Division II tournament during the last couple of seasons. It’s an especially remarkable turnaround for the women’s team, which had a 5-22 record four seasons ago. This season, both Bearcats teams are in the middle of the pack in the conference standings.
Neither of the games are close. Lander wins the women’s game, 93-75, in a fast-paced contest that, despite the score, features some good defensive play. During the game we walk over to Bruce Evans, the coach of the men’s team, whom I’ve encountered through my sports writing on a couple of occasions. And he’s a former Division I player — at Furman in the early 1990s for an old acquaintance of mine, Butch Estes. I want him to meet Jeff, the alumnus, and he graciously chats with us for a few minutes.
“I hope you brought us some luck. We could use it,” he says as heads for the locker room.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work out that way. Columbus State, which enters the game with a 6-12 record, plays what had to be its best game of the season. The Cougars score 15 straight points to start the second half and hold Lander’s best offensive player to 2 points on a miserable 1-for-14 game from the field. Final score 76-54, Lander’s eighth loss in 10 games after a 7-2 start.
After we leave the campus, we make one last obligatory stop, to a place that many a Lander student and alumnus knows well, the Dixie Drive-In. It’s a classic old hamburger stand — no tables, just a U-shaped counter with red vinyl covered stools all around it. We each get the Dixie Cheese, a cheeseburger with all the trimmings, and go for the “half-and-half” option, which means you get both french fries and onion rings with your burger. Good sweet tea, too. Total bill for two: $15.41.
Some random notes on the day:
— My brother, who started his college career at the then-North Greenville (S.C.) Junior College, has a odd distinction shared by few others. Both of the schools he attended have changed their nickname/athletic mascot since he graduated.
North Greenville, now a four-year institution, called its teams the Mountaineers (for its foothills location) back in the day, but they’re now the Crusaders. Lander’s athletic teams were formerly the Senators (not sure why), but a couple of years ago, the school decided to change its mascot to the more marketable Bearcat.
Don’t get Jeff started on either one of these developments. In this case, change is not good.
— Lander’s arena is named for the coach who started the school’s men’s basketball program in the late Sixties and coached it for 29 seasons, winning 491 games. I saw him between the games, entering the arena with a couple of tickets in his hand. I hope he didn’t have to pay for them.
— One thing the Lander athletic department does that I really like is a “Wall of Fame” of sports photographs down one corridor of the arena, something more schools should do. It’s recently been expanded to include historical photos of non-athletic subjects, dating back to university’s previous incarnation as an all-female teacher’s college. I kid Jeff that the team pictures from his era keep moving farther and farther down the hall.
— At halftime of the women’s game, something happened that reminded me of how few sporting events I attend as a paying customer. Walking down that hallway, I passed a fellow who must have been Lander’s sports information director. He held what looked like a stack of halftime stat sheets in his hand. I very nearly reached out my hand so he could give me one as I passed by. Just a reflex, I guess.