Originally created 03/09/99

Rattlers: Playing for a win



TALLAHASSEE, Fla.

With his team about to clinch its first trip to the NCAA tournament, Florida A&M coach Mickey Clayton had something else on his mind -- getting his brother to put down a sign.

There he was, Craig Clayton, standing in a crowd of Rattlers fans at the Mid-Eastern Conference tournament, waving a sign for a national TV audience that said, "We Want Duke."

The coach's jaw almost hit the floor.

"He's been in a mental asylum most of his life," Clayton said, joking. "He had just been released for the game, and he went right back at midnight. I said, 'What's wrong with you, boy? We want to go and advance, but we don't want Duke."'

Alas, Duke is what Florida A&M got.

Meet the Rattlers (12-18), your 1999 NCAA tournament feel-good story, one that will probably end Friday when they play the nation's best team.

Florida A&M lost its first 10 games of the season and was 1-13 at one point. Four players were sidelined with injuries, leaving the team with only nine. Clayton nearly missed his flight to the MEAC tournament in Richmond, Va., because he was in a car accident on his way to the airport.

But somehow, the Rattlers knocked off the conference's top three teams, edging first-place South Carolina State in Saturday's tournament final.

Next up is a first-round date with the Blue Devils in Charlotte, N.C.

Some say Duke is the best team ever to appear in the tournament. Some say Florida A&M is the worst. At least one oddsmaker had the spread at 47 points Monday, one of the highest ever.

"There's talk about David and Goliath, and the only thing we can do is carry big rocks," Clayton said.

"I've heard it'll be the largest

margin of victory ever in an NCAA tournament game. That puts a lot of pressure on Duke," Clayton said. "If the game is even allowed to be close, people will wonder what happened."

With most of the students out of town for spring break, word spread slowly about the Rattlers. Few fans greeted the team at the airport upon its return from Richmond.

But when the tournament brackets appeared in Monday newspapers, Clayton's office was inundated with calls.

"We don't have a secretary, so when they call, the next voice they hear is mine," said a tired-looking Clayton, adding he hasn't slept since Thursday.

The team held its first NCAA practice Monday, and some of the players wondered whether the Blue Devils were doing the same.

"Do you think Duke has got game tape on us?" wondered sophomore point guard Morris Scott, who ranks sixth in the NCAA with 90 steals.

Monroe Pippins, the outstanding player of the MEAC tournament, said he has always followed coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils.

"I love Duke," Pippins said. "I've been a Duke fan since I was 5 years old. I have a lot of respect for Coach K., but he probably doesn't know who the hell I am."

Gaither Gymnasium, where the Rattlers play, isn't any larger than a typical high school gym. Some of the dusty wooden bleachers are beginning to split, and before practice, an assistant coach sweeps the floor.

The players had to practice without water bottles Monday because someone had broken the door to the equipment locker and they couldn't open it.

Clayton calls his nine active players the "Noble Nine." Since the team's equipment manager also was recently injured, the Rattlers don't even have enough for a full scrimmage.

Sports has never been the top priority for this historically black school, which is perhaps most famous for its "Marching 100" band. The coach said the college graduated more black students than any other school last year, and eight of the nine basketball players are members of the honor roll.

Clayton sees the athletic success as a bonus.

"Your athletic department is basically your PR department for your institution," said Clayton, a third-generation alumnus who played for the Rattlers in the 1970s and coached the women's team before taking over the men's program in 1995.

The players aren't under any illusions. They know not a single No. 1 seed has ever lost to a No. 16 seed in the first round. They know Duke is one of the deepest teams around, and Florida A&M has only nine players.

But the Rattlers are playing to win -- even though their coach says he would be just as satisfied with a full-effort loss.

"Anything's possible," Scott said. "We're all athletes. We wake up, put on our clothes, eat. They're not cyber-athletes or something like that."