Originally created 03/15/03

Georgia still fans' team despite absence



NEW ORLEANS - It hit David and Kristen Hester on Thursday night while they were walking the streets of the Big Easy.

Kentucky fans were exchanging cheers, as were faithful from Auburn and Florida. Loyal, longtime Georgia fans, the Hesters felt the natural impulse to respond with something supportive of their team.

"David said, 'We should be saying 'Go Dogs,"' Kristen said.

When your team is hundreds of miles away in Athens, Ga., your bark tends to lose some of its bite. The Hesters have discovered that this week at the Southeastern Conference Tournament despite the absence of the Bulldogs, who pulled out of the postseason after findings of academic fraud.

"When you're at this event and your team is not here, the reality of what's happened to Georgia's basketball team is at the forefront of your mind," Kristen said Friday afternoon between games at the Superdome. "Georgia was really poised to do something great, but they had that opportunity snatched away."

Kristen said she and her husband didn't entertain the notion of staying home after Monday's announcement by school president Michael Adams and athletic director Vince Dooley, who handed down the penalty after finding current players Rashad Wright and Chris Daniels committed academic fraud in a class taught by former assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr.

This trip was a year in the making for the Hesters, who live in Marietta, Ga. They've spent this week with another couple from Alabama, and they plan to stay until Sunday's championship game.

During the first round Wednesday, Kristen held up a sign that said "Suspended Without Play." On Thursday, she scrawled "Georgia on My Mind" on a piece of poster board and toted it to the game.

As expected, the Hesters have been vastly outnumbered by fans who have teams to cheer for. They said they've only seen two or three Bulldogs supporters so far in New Orleans, but almost everyone has been supportive. Almost.

"I've talked to Alabama fans and Kentucky fans, and they've all been sympathetic," David said. "But I don't talk to Florida fans."

Like many Georgia supporters, the Hesters aren't happy with Adams. They pin the blame on him for ending the Bulldogs season, and they say the move wasn't fair to players who have done nothing wrong.

"Adams just caved in," David said. "He's just trying to save face. A lot of people are fed up with him."

Said Kristen: "Everyone has to be accountable for their own actions. The players who were not involved with academic fraud should have been given the opportunity to play."

For the Hesters, the most painful part of their team's forced withdrawal is that it wiped out a promising postseason. The Bulldogs were considered a lock to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year - something never accomplished by the program.

Kristen said she remembers days when Stegeman Coliseum wasn't stuffed to the gills, when tickets to watch an afterthought weren't hard to come by.

"Initially, it was devastating when we heard what happened," she said. "The team was building momentum for a great finish. We beat Florida, and we won at South Carolina. We were ranked in the Top 25. To have a good basketball team pushed out of this tournament, rather than the mediocre teams of the past, that makes it all the more painful."

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com