Coppin deserves support, and tonight is time to start

December 16, 1997|By John Eisenberg

The Coppin State Eagles play a home game tonight for the first time since their memorable run in the NCAA basketball tournament last spring, and you can do one of two things about it.

You can stay home and read about it in tomorrow's paper, or you can head to the Coppin Center, buy a ticket and give a clap or three for the best thing to happen to local college basketball in years.

So, well, not to influence your decision or anything, but WHAT DO THEY HAVE TO DO TO GET YOU TO COME, PEOPLE? GO TO THE FINAL FOUR?

Sheesh.

The Eagles are among the 50 best teams in Division I, the upset specialists of last year's NCAA tournament, a group of certifiable major-leaguers whose credentials this season include beating Missouri, taking Iowa State to overtime and playing defending national champ Arizona to a near-draw for 30 minutes -- all on the road.

And yet, despite five straight regular-season Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titles and three trips to the NCAA tournament in the '90s, they have never gotten Baltimore to pay much attention.

They averaged fewer than 2,000 fans a game last season at the 3,000-seat Coppin Center, and as much as those student-dominated crowds were loud and actually pretty big for a school with an enrollment of 3,600, the lack of support from the rest of the city was pathetic.

"We're looking for more [fans] at home, that's for sure," said Fang Mitchell, Coppin's coach and athletic director. "We go around the country, and we have the respect of everyone now. If we have that and don't have the respect at home, well, I can't figure that out."

It'll be downright embarrassing if the Eagles don't start getting more support, given what they have accomplished. Missing the Sweet 16 by one shot, playing fearlessly on the road, becoming the first team from a historically black school to play on national TV -- what more do they have to do?

"Packed houses, that's what we want," Mitchell said. "And I feel like we should get that, at this point, because we're right on the edge of being a mid-major program trying to be a major program. We have gone around and played a lot of good [teams] really tough. Anyone who appreciates that should come out and support us, because we need the support. Need it badly, as a matter of fact."

He needs it badly because big crowds lead to corporate sponsorship, an item Coppin still lacks.

"The response [to Coppin's success] in that [corporate] community has been disappointing," Mitchell said. "We made some nice deals with some nice people right after the tournament, and, come September, they were suffering from amnesia and said, 'What deals?' That gets tough. Because we're just like all the other little guys, we need help."

The Eagles have several factors working against them at the box office, including their North Avenue location, their lowly regarded conference and the long-standing inability of any local team to draw big crowds in the shadow of the popular Maryland Terrapins.

Nor does it help that they have to play all of their big-name opponents on the road because they need the money, rendering their home schedule less attractive.

Tonight's game against Florida A&M -- and possible NBA lottery pick Jerome James, a 7-footer expected to lure close to a dozen scouts -- is the first of the Eagles' meager nine-game home schedule, with all the games coming against MEAC opponents.

Still, it's time for local fans to start finding reasons to go to the Coppin Center instead of finding reasons not to go.

As much as Towson, Loyola and the other local teams also deserve better support for playing better basketball than many fans realize, Coppin has by far the most to offer.

The others might not like to hear that, but they can't complain until they copy Coppin's success and start winning NCAA tournament games and beating big-name opponents on the road.

It's simply a fact that Mitchell has put together the best program in local Division I history.

"Coppin State has better players than I do," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson recently told Sports Illustrated.

That's a kind, if debatable, assessment, but there's no doubt Coppin has better players than a lot of people think.

The top guns this year are guards Antoine Brockington and Danny Singletary, who put on quite a show on most nights.

Brockington is a stunning long-range shooter and scorer who hit his first seven shots against Arizona and finished with 32 points.

"I thought he was going to score 80," Arizona coach Lute Olson said.

Singletary, who tortured South Carolina in the NCAA upset, is a fearless point guard who craves last-second shots.

A big-time school with a big-time promotional budget could hype the heck out of such a backcourt, attracting crowds and attention.

The Eagles, as usual, can only hope someone notices.

Yes, it's true that fans across the country have come to know them and cheer for them as the little team that could, thanks to their TV exposure and their success in the tournament.

And yet, here at home, they still haven't drawn many fans from beyond the boundaries of their West Baltimore campus.

It's ridiculous for such a worthy local sporting cause to go so lacking for support.

The Eagles deserve better, much better.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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