NOLAN RICHARDSON, THE Arkansas coach, had just finished a press conference Friday in Boise when he walked past Utah coach Rick Majerus, who was still holding court with a handful of reporters in another room.
"You still here?" Richardson asked.Majerus smiled. "I'm trying to get a brother. I want to get one of your kids to transfer."
"I'll send you one," replied Richardson, laughing as he headed toward the door.
It was a light moment, but there was substance behind it. After nine years at the University of Utah, after six league championships and six NCAA berths and three Sweet 16 appearances, Majerus is still trying to recruit "brothers." Not Mormon brothers - those he has - but bru-thas.
The Utes are one of the whitest teams in the country year in and year out. But, after all, who's counting, right? Well, Majerus is.
"I've never had more than three in one season. One year I had none. This year I have two," he says quickly.
Majerus has tried for years to get more black players (and now Steve Cleveland says he will try to do the same at BYU). Following a loss in the league tournament a few years ago, he announced that his team looked like "the ski team" and that he wanted more black players.
The Utes still look like a ski team, and much of the discussion at Friday's press conference concerned their lack of athleticism (mostly by the Utes themselves). Especially compared against that of Arkansas, their opponent in the second round of this afternoon's NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks have 10 blacks on their roster.
The widely held belief, of course, is that blacks are better athletes (so you've heard or noticed, right?), although it is still a subject that almost no one will discuss except among associates. In a rare outburst of honesty, Richardson broached that taboo subject earlier this year and wound up putting his foot in his pie hole.
During a coaches' teleconference, Richardson stated that the Southeastern Conference has great athletes. When asked why, he said, "Let's face it. Where did most of the slave ships stop? In the South."
Somehow Richardson, who is black, created only a minor fuss with that comment, even though years ago Jimmy Snyder got fired from his job at CBS for saying virtually the same thing.
Stereotypes still flourish, subtly and otherwise, and sometimes they find their way into the open court. On Friday, Majerus, while discussing the great academic performances of his players, noted, "If this was the college bowl, this would be over. I'd take my team every day of the week."
(Good luck trying to understand the dynamics of '90s sensitivity. Imagine if a black coach made that crack about the ski team. Or if a coach said his team looked too much like a rap group. Or if Richardson said the SEC had brilliant scholars because, "Most of the white immigrants stopped in the South.")
Majerus has tried and largely failed to recruit blacks to Utah. He cites all the usual reasons: the state's small black population; misconceptions about the culture; distance from their homes. Majerus tells this story: Last summer he and Don Nelson, the NBA coach, traveled to Africa and discovered they were the only whites in the region in which they were traveling. "I got a taste of what that's like," he said.
During a practice in Boise earlier this week, he looked around the arena and noticed that there was not one black person in the stands.
So Majerus understands. He will always have white teams at Utah, just as Richardson will have mostly black teams at Arkansas. Both coaches have learned to play with what they have and with remarkably similar success. Richardson has a winning percentage of .738; Majerus is .735. Curiously, Richardson's leading scorer this season is Pat Bradley. Bradley is white.
Arkansas and Utah play dramatically different styles, (we'll leave it to someone else to decide why), which was discussed frequently on Friday as reporters inquired about the teams' different styles
"We're not an impressive team to look at," said center Michael Doleac. "When we do layups in warmups, we're below the rim, and the other teams are up there doing their thing. We play team ball, execute and have a great coach. We play a different style of basketball, I guess. There's not a lot of guys catching lobs and dunking . . . We're not the most talented team, but we're out there working hard."
On the perception by some observers that the Utes play a boring style of basketball, Majerus said, "By that they mean we're predictable and methodical. We're guilty. We are who we are . . . I'll tell you what our kids do: set picks, play hard and rebound well."
On today's opponent and game, he said, "They are much more athletic, quicker and deeper . . . you'll see contrasting styles."
Similarly, Drew Hansen noted that the Utes cannot run nor jump with the Razorbacks. "We have some good basketball skills," he said, "but if we had a race, they'd kill us."
So, if this is to be believed, it will be the plodders on one side, the greyhounds on the other; the overachievers and the naturals; the slow and the fast; the earthbound and the flyers. There it is, in black and white.
After all these years, no one on the planet knows quite what to make of the situation, but the games go on as everyone steps awkwardly around the questions.
"Yeah, they present problems," said Majerus, "but hopefully we'll give them problems."