Jackson State men’s basketball plays on the road, where the money is

MILWAUKEE – As November turned into December, the Jackson State University men’s basketball team arrived to face Marquette in their seventh straight road game, played in the sixth different state. The Tigers had been away from their Mississippi campus for 17 of the 23 days since the start of the season. And the journey was far from over.

Luckily, the Tigers met Reverend Jesse Jackson at the team hotel, where he jokingly urged them to play defense and said “don’t let your legs start shaking like you never have. played basketball before “.

It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that Jackson was one of the few familiar faces the Tigers encountered in the first two months of the season. Jackson State travels on meager finances without even cheerleading. Only a pinch of relatives, friends and elders rooted in the Tigers against Marquette. As usual, the loudest applause came from the players themselves.

“It’s still 15 of us versus 15,000 of everyone,” said Darrian Wilson, 23, a graduate student of the guard.

It is virtually impossible for Jackson State and other historically black colleges and universities in the Southwestern Athletic Conference to draw home games against basketball powerhouses like Duke and Gonzaga and UCLA, who have little to gain in competition or financially. on the road against fewer opponents. A partnership between SWAC and the Pac-12 Conference, starting next season, will help alleviate this disparity, at least temporarily. In the meantime, SWAC has disrupted the usual funding mechanism for sport.

Most schools bolster their home budgets with ticket sales, corporate sponsorships, and concession sales. Jackson State and the rest of its conference teams are seeking additional funding on the road, traveling most or all of their non-conference games on guaranteed paydays to bolster some of the Division I’s smaller sports budgets. NCAA.

Indeed, their most prominent opponents look to praise wins, while SWAC teams ease the pain of regular losses with payouts ranging from $ 60,000 to over $ 100,000 per game.

Marquette has offered Jackson State more than a snippet of polka music, a chance to play against a perennial NCAA tournament team, a national television audience, and land he shares with NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. According to Jackson State coach Wayne Brent and Marquette officials, it also disbursed about $ 150,000, which included funds to pay for flight and accommodation costs for the Tigers.

In addition to studying and playing for their teams, SWAC basketball players have the added responsibility of fundraising. Brent, his staff and his team seem clear-headed and pragmatic about these complicated roles.

An extended trip can be an adventure and a bonding experience. SWAC’s Texas Southern has won two NCAA tournament games and earlier this month defeated then-ranked Florida. But travel can also be a physical, mental and academic chore. In 2019, another SWAC team, Mississippi Valley State, lost to Utah by 94 points – the biggest defeat margin ever recorded in a Division I game.

“It’s necessary to generate income,” said Cason Burk, 33, an associate head coach of Jackson State and a former player there who manages the planning for the team, of the trip. “I think the negatives outweigh the positives. But it must be done. As a player, you have to see it as a badge of honor. I’m doing this for a bigger situation than me.

Jackson State’s last non-conference road game, against Stephen F. Austin on December 21, was called off due to the coronavirus, but its home opener Wednesday against Southeastern Baptist College was still on the schedule. The Tigers (2-9) have traveled to play 11 so-called “guarantee games” – over a third of the regular season. The extended road trip through November and most of December contributed about $ 800,000 to Jackson State’s general sports fund, Brent said. This would represent about a tenth of the school’s sports income, according to the latest figures available.

A USA Today Database For fiscal year 2019-20, Jackson State’s sports revenue was $ 8,300,756, which ranked 223rd out of 230 Division I public universities and was practically rounding off the 391,769 $ 609 in income from the University of Oregon.

Charles McClelland, the SWAC commissioner, said it is frequently and incorrectly stated that “guarantee games” are necessary for the survival of basketball and other sports in conference schools. “We don’t sell our souls to the devil to have a track and field program,” McClelland said.

In fact, the SWAC regularly leads the division of the soccer championship in terms of participation in soccer. But during the 2019-20 basketball season, the league averaged less than 1,600 spectators per game at home, which placed it 29th out of 32 Division I conferences. McClelland said he made more financial sense to travel for “guarantee matches” early in the season than to lose money playing at home.

Brent said without additional funds his players likely wouldn’t have the equipment regularly available for Division I teams; more flights and less bus rides and comfortable hotel stays. Take the money away, he said, the Tigers would “stay in a hotel for $ 70 a night” and eat at McDonald’s.

“I don’t want McDonald’s,” said Professor Brent, 54, who is in his ninth season at Jackson State, wears bow ties in games and has a master’s degree in human health and performance. “And the kids don’t want it.”

He reminds his players that they are better off than “kids at home without a purse who wish they could play in the Bucks arena on CBS.” And they always have a chance to catch the attention of a professional recruiter who has come to watch the other team. “It only takes one guy to see you,” Brent said.

This season, two of the Tigers’ freshmen and a student coach made their first flights. Games against schools with rich traditions like Marquette and five-time NCAA champion Indiana offered wide exposure in first-class arenas in front of large TV audiences, while also providing a chance to compete against highly-recruited players. in opposing teams.

Dyllan Taylor, 22, a graduate guard, keeps a photo on his smartphone of himself driving for a layup against Indiana in November. “It’s a picture that you will frame,” he said, convinced that he “can play with anyone, no matter what school”.

But compromise can be a drain on the body, morale, and confidence. Flights to and from Jackson require connections through Dallas or Atlanta. On the season-opening trip to the University of Illinois, a late airline schedule change forced the Jackson State players to go their separate ways on two different flights that landed in separate cities. The trip lasted 14 hours. The Tigers played the next night and then woke up at 3:30 am the next morning to catch another flight.

“Each game seems to last for three days,” said Wilson, the goalkeeper.

Constant travel during the first third of the season added urgency to every situation, from preventing nut allergies in hotel desserts to ensuring that all four players who were not vaccinated against the coronavirus were tested every 72 hours. . It was difficult to practice regularly. Goalkeeper / striker Chris Freeman, 23, struggled to recover from knee surgery. Chance Moore, 23, a caretaker, had two young children in Jackson who wanted to know when he would be home.

“Being far away is difficult,” he said.

On November 30, the Tigers were tied with Marquette at halftime, only to wither against a press and ultimately lose by 29 points.

“You ran out of gas,” Brent told his team.

On December 1, the players met for breakfast and then had a mandatory study room in the afternoon.

“Two hours, nobody leaves the room,” Fredrick Hadley, Jackson State academic advisor, told players.

Crunch Week, he called it. A three-day road game at Illinois State was to be followed by a drive home for the final exams.

Five Jackson State players are graduate students. Another, goalkeeper Jonas James III, 23, was due to graduate on December 10. Assuming the team would be on the road, he hadn’t ordered his cap and dress. But he realized during the study hall that the team weren’t leaving on their next non-conference road trip until the 11th.

“It would make a lovely photo, you walking through the airport with your cap and dress on to catch a flight,” Hadley said.

Later that day, the Tigers took a break, visited a mall, and watched a Bucks game against the Charlotte Hornets. On December 2, the team departed Milwaukee for a four-hour bus ride to the state of Illinois. A team meeting followed the next morning. Fatigue was evident in the yawns in the conference room.

“I missed November,” Brent said while watching an Illinois state video over breakfast. “I don’t know where he went. I was there for Thanksgiving, but I wasn’t.

During a second study room, Ken Evans Jr., 20, a caretaker, grabbed his iPad and folded his 6-foot-5 frame under the plinth of a table of water pitchers, looking for the privacy to work on a management project. Only his sneakers protruded.

“I can’t have any distractions,” he said.

On the afternoon of December 4, Jackson State arrived at the Illinois State Redbird Arena in a good mood. The next morning, they returned home for six days for final exams. “It will be like Christmas,” Moore said. “I’m going to wake up happy as hell.”

Parents of first-year guard Coltie Young had driven nine hours from Starkville, Mississippi, to support their son and his teammates. Jackson State’s game plan was similar to that against Marquette. Preserves tired legs. Play Stifling Defense. Keep scoring in the 60s, or the low 70s. This time the plan worked. The Tigers held Illinois State nearly 30 points below their average score and won 61-55.

As the players celebrated in a cramped locker room, Brent told them, “There is no better victory than winning a guaranteed game on the road.”

A three-game barnstorming tour of Iowa awaited him, but, first, six rare and glorious days at home awaited. The team bus was supposed to leave the hotel at 4 a.m., but Taylor, the graduate guard, joked that it might not be necessary.

“We’re going to run to the airport,” he said.

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