She’s hit seven threes, and y’all ain’t jumped on her yet!“ shouts an exasperated alumnus, railing at an apparently effortless procession of barely contested shots tossed in by the visiting team. From his front-row perch on the creaky wooden bleachers, he shakes his head as the objects of his ire, the members of the Fisk University women’s basketball team, return slowly back up the court. ”Y’all are terrible!“
If the players are fazed by (or even hear) the alum’s chiding, their faces don’t show it. Except for some snickers at the scorer’s table, the shouts draw no reaction from the 50-or-so people in the old gym, a place that, in more ways than one, has seen better times.
Of course, it’s not as if the audience had just heard some monumentally shocking news. The Fisk women’s team is, well, not very successful.
So far this year, the Lady Bulldogs are 2-18. (Both wins came against the same crosstown opponent, Freewill Baptist Bible College.) Last year, Fisk’s women lost all 22 times they took the floor. The not-exactly-overwhelming squad from Blue Mountain, which must have dropped in at least a dozen three-pointers, went home with a 98-50 win on an all-too-unexceptional night.
For most opponents, a date with Fisk means a victory by 30 or 40 pointsor more. The visiting teams know it. The respective coaches know it. The fans know it. And, although they try not to let it affect their outlook, the Fisk players, especially, know it.
”After a while, it’s like losing just becomes part of what we do,“ says LaKesha McEwen, the Fisk team’s best player. ”You can fall into the mental trap of thinking, "Hey, we’re not supposed to win.’ But not every team is really 40 or 50 points better than us.“
Despite their woeful won-loss record, the players are far from woebegone. At the laid-back practices, you can hear lots of laughter. From the players’ demeanor, you might never guess that this is a team that rarely even comes close to victory.
”We’ve lost games, and they come back the next day smiling,“ says coach Michelle Flowers. ”And they’re having fun. They’ll ask, "Am I getting better? What do I need to do to improve?’
”The girls have given it all they’ve got. They could have quit, but they’ve really hung with me. We’re getting better.“
”We keep each other up,“ says sophomore Rachel Waiters, who had left basketball behind in California before she decided to join the team at Fisk this season. ”These girls have a lot of spirit. To lose this many games? And play to empty stands? And students downing you? And to keep coming? It takes a lot on the inside.“
The players’ persistence is particularly noteworthy when you consider that all of them are walk-on volunteers. Like many other small colleges, Fisk grants no athletic scholarships. That leaves Flowers to cobble together a team from whoever shows up.
And players don’t always show. McEwen, now a junior, was a cheerleader during her freshman year. But she hastily switched uniforms when only four players arrived for one home game and a forfeit appeared imminent. ”I told the coach I could play [she had four years of high school experience] so I suited up and have been on the team ever since.“
This year, the squad’s small numbers were further dwindled by attrition. Two players, explains Flowers, left school before the season. Two others, including one of the team’s emotional leaders, were lost to injury. When Waiters had to leave a game after chipping a tooth, Fisk was down to seven.
The dearth of participants forces Flowers to bang square pegs into round holes, shifting players out of their natural positions. During practices, she and an assistant (and, often, at least one cooperative bystander) must take the court so that the team can have enough to scrimmage five on five.
Some of the best players on campus, meanwhile, stay away. Like the women on the team, they’re busy with academics and activities. Some are deterred by the team’s record. ”One of my best friends [at Fisk] was recruited by a Division I school,“ says McEwen. ”But she wouldn’t play because she said she wasn’t used to losing.“
Two team members had never played basketball, at any level, before this seasonwhich means the coach devotes a good deal of practice time simply to teaching fundamentals.
”At first, they couldn’t dribble, couldn’t shoot,“ Flowers says. ”But, whereas somebody else might not give these girls a chance to play, I think you need to work with what you’ve got. And they have done a great job. In one of the games we won, they had 10 rebounds apiece.“
The two victories against Freewill Baptist were cause not only for back-slapping but for soul-searching too. ”It showed us that we could win games,“ explains Waiters. ”This doesn’t have to be the only team.“
Building on that momentum, the players say they approach each contest with confidence. ”A lot of times we go in feeling like we can win,“ Waiters says. ”We’ll start off pretty well. But then something will go wrong in the game, and it’s like, åHere we go again.’
”But you can’t constantly get down on yourself. These people may not be the best players, but they want to be here.“
Especially with so many other activities competing for their time, many players might be tempted not to return for more hard work, more hard losses, and more needling from their peers. ”Every year, I contemplate whether I should go out again,“ says McEwen, who also is co-editor of the school yearbook, participates in her sorority, and aspires to run for a post in student government. ”But I enjoy playing, and I feel a loyalty to the school.
”They can beat us on the scoreboard, but they haven’t beaten our spirit.“
Losing steadily weighs particularly hard on Flowers, who remembers the three championship teams she helped coach during the mid-’80s. ”One year we went 24-2,“ she recalls, casting a wistful eye toward the empty bleachers. ”The gym was pretty full back then.“
During games, Flowers watches quietly, stoically, as opponents accumulate big leads. But she doesn’t yell at her players. They’re trying their best, she reasons. Besides, none of them has to be there.
Instead, in a dynamic that has been almost completely boiled out of big-time college athletics, the coach and players seem at times to coalesce into a mutual support group. ”I try to encourage them and not to let myself show frustration,“ says Flowers, who teaches school each weekday before heading for the 6 p.m. practices at the Fisk gym. ”But they know I get frustrated at times, and they’ll tell me it’s going to get better.“
The night after losing by 48 points to Blue Mountain, the team traveled nearly five hours to Holly Springs, Miss., for a game against Rust College. Once again, Fisk lostbut only by 11 points.
Although they didn’t arrive back in Nashville until nearly 3 a.m., the players were back on the court for practice the next evening. ”I try to explain to them, åYou all are different from scholarship players,’ “ Flowers says. ” åPeople don’t always understand you’re working as hard as you can. I want you to keep your heads up because you’re representing Fisk University. You all are gonna be winners one of these days.’ “