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An inconvenient Cinderella

Published March 18, 2004

RALEIGH, N.C. - The attitude. Under normal circumstances, you would love the 'tude.

They take the court with a curl on their lip, and they seem to dare you to suggest they do not belong. They are fearless. They are defiant. The chip on their shoulder is the size of a coliseum.

They move about the court, silently, solemnly. Their faces are those of roofers in the midday sun. There is a job to do. There is a name to make.

The effort. Most years, you would love their fury.

They bounce around the court in fast forward, five pinballs inside the same machine. They scrap. They claw. If it makes the difference down the stretch, they are willing to bite.

This is the dance of the overachiever, of basketball players determined to play bigger than the tape measure says, faster than the stopwatch says, better than the critics expect. This is the look of a team that invites you to notice it, even if just for a while.

These are the Jaspers of Manhattan College.

And if not for the fact they play Florida today, all of Florida might fall for them.

It is a familiar story by now, a charming bunch of dreamers from a tiny school, buzzing around the NCAA Tournament and making life miserable for the name-brand programs. Every year, it seems one of them comes along, full of effort and energy, and before the day is done, the big-name coaches don't look so smart and the big-name players don't look so slick.

In another year, you could begin a pretty good love affair with Manhattan.

Except, um, it happens to be in the way of the Gators.

Poor Billy Donovan. Most years, he might fall in love with Manhattan himself. For one thing, the Jaspers are coached by his old buddy, Bobby Gonzalez. For another, Manhattan's players attack the game, pretty much, the way Donovan did when he was at Providence, sliding across floors until ambition overtakes ability.

As it is, Donovan keeps talking as if it's his team, which was No. 1 in the nation this year for, oh, about 11 minutes, that is the real underdog here. "We really don't have much ability," Donovan said. "That's a fact."

Donovan went on, talking about Manhattan's seniors and Manhattan's experience, about Manhattan's defense and Manhattan's record. After a while, you wanted to interrupt and offer this: Hey, it's Manhattan!

For a counterargument, we take you to Gonzalez - and don't you have to love a coach named Gonzo? - who could remind Donovan of a thing or two about facilities so shabby even he has to laugh when talking about them, about marginal recruits who stammer and buy time as they hope for something, anything better, about bus rides well into the night.

"When I worked for Pete (Gillen) at Virginia, he used to put it this way," Gonzalez said. "They're recruiting McDonald's All-Americans, and we can't even afford to eat at McDonald's."

Oh, of course Florida should win. Florida recruits players who won't even return phone calls to Manhattan. Put it this way: If a recruit bombs at Florida, he will want the school he transfers to to be of more reknown than Manhattan.

Yet, there is something lovable about Manhattan. For one thing, it isn't even in Manhattan. It's in the Bronx. How cool is that? The entire college travels incognito.

For another thing, there is the nickname. The Jaspers. Gonzalez says that's the first question he gets from recruits: What's a Jasper?

Here's the story. The team was named for Brother Jasper, who used to work at Manhattan in the early 1900s. Brother Jasper, the legend goes, also invented baseball's seventh-inning stretch. Who knows? Maybe he was trying to see all the way to Manhattan, the island.

How can you not love the legend of Junius Kellogg? Kellogg was the former Manhattan player who said no to fixers and helped bring down college basketball's point-shaving scandals of 1951. Three years later, while playing for the Globetrotters, an auto accident left Kellogg in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

How can you not love a program that has embraced a fan such as Ronnie Weintraub over the past 15 years? Weintraub is a mentally handicapped fan who befriended athletic director Bob Byrne in 1989, and now he's as much a part of the team as the mascot. Weintraub keeps his own stats, and Byrne says he's seldom off. "He's Rain Man," Byrne has said.

How can you not love a program that has a guard like Luis Flores, a mongoose of a player who will not slow down? Flores is the Jaspers' best player, averaging 20 points in each of the past three seasons. If Manhattan is to do any damage in this tournament, and everyone in the building knows this, it will do so with the ball in Flores' hands.

How can you not love a team that sees none of its own shortcomings, a team that dares to look at the NCAA Tournament as if it is willing to take it by force?

To Gonzalez, that's the beauty of his team.

"These guys are fearless," Gonzalez said. "They play hard, and they have a chip on their shoulder. When I watch a game, I pull for the team that plays harder. I think we did that 29 times this year, and that's why this is my favorite team."

Turns out, Gonzalez might not be alone. On the school's Web site, there was a poll Wednesday asking fans how they expected their team to do.

Eight-five percent expected a win over the Gators. Seventy-one percent expected at least the Sweet 16. Forty-nine percent expected the national championship.

On another day, how could you not love the confidence?

[Last modified March 18, 2004, 01:20:35]

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