Morgan 'road' trip near an end; Basketball: Hill Field House renovations have forced the Bears to play 'on the run' the last two seasons, but next month that will change.


As he surveyed the scene on the basketball court below, Garnett Purnell finally had a moment to relax. Most of the spectators had left the gym, and the Morgan State athletic director was savoring more than just a victory by the men's team.

It had been another logistical triumph as well.

From that night last month when the team met Howard through their game Jan. 11 against Bethune-Cookman, Morgan State players have continued to feel like migrants, even in Baltimore. That's what happens when the gym you call home is not your own.

For Morgan State, the displacement while awaiting renovations to its Hill Field House has lasted for more than a year. Last season, the Bears played all but one of their home games at Baltimore City College; this season, they have been playing at Gilman School.

"Our staff loves it there," Purnell said of the private high school. "But we are looking forward to having our own place again."

The 18-month wait is nearly over.

The estimated $13 million overhaul of Morgan State's 24-year-old field house is expected to be completed next month. Two more games remain at Gilman, Feb. 6 and Feb. 8. The first home game is scheduled Feb. 20 against UMES.

The renovation included gutting the old facility, downsizing the seating capacity for basketball from 6,500 to between 5,500 and 6,000. There will be a dozen locker rooms rather than just two, two weight rooms instead of one, offices for athletic department staff, a dance studio and storage space.

When the men's team left Hill Field House two years ago, it was still in the lower echelon of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. When it returns, fourth-year coach Chris Fuller hopes that it will be as a legitimate challenger for the regular-season championship.

"The kids have been mentally tough," said Fuller, whose team (7-9, 6-2) is playing all but three of its first 17 games on the road.

"They didn't let it become a distraction last year and I was proud of them the way they responded. But now they're looking forward to have a new place to play in."

Homes away from home

The project had been scheduled to begin in March 1996 but construction was delayed until August.

"To be honest, when I first went into this, I wanted to cry," said Purnell, who came to Morgan State three years ago from the NCAA and learned of the renovation four months after his arrival. "To run an athletic program without a facility is impossible."

Not many Division I basketball teams are kicked off their home courts for a season, let alone more than a year. When Georgia Tech's Alexander Memorial Coliseum was being refurbished for the 1996 Olympic Games, some games were played at the Omni.

Morgan State didn't have that kind of option.

In fact, Purnell didn't have many choices.

"The problem you have is that everyone wants to make money," said Purnell, who estimates the school has paid some $65,000 in rental fees and transportation. "And they're going to give you the [practice time] nobody else wants."

It not only meant finding a place for the men's basketball team, but also for the women's basketball and volleyball teams.

Talk about logistical nightmares. Last year, the volleyball team practiced at Lake Clifton High School at 5: 30 a.m. and the women's basketball team had to transport one of its own hoops because the Towson Armory had only one, as well as a shortened court.

This year, the volleyball team is practicing -- free of charge -- at the College of Notre Dame. The men's and women's basketball teams are playing and practicing in the Redmond C.S. Finney Athletic Center at Gilman.

Said women's coach Darcel Estep: "You always feel like you're on the road. It's [Gilman] a good place, but it's not home."

Making the adjustment

"It's been difficult," said Fuller, "but thankfully, that journey is almost over. We have to deal with the circumstances that prevail and try not to let them become obstacles."

His players often have had to fend for themselves getting to practice because of a shortage of campus vans. In one instance, Ronny Van Hook missed a photo shoot with a local television station after hurrying from a class and getting stuck in traffic.

Baltimore City College could accommodate only 1,000, and Fuller said there was little elbow room between the stands and the court. Gilman has been able to hold about 100 more.

"Anytime you can get more fans in it's a plus," said Estep. "Last year, they felt kind of cheated."

Said junior guard Jimmy Fields of Morgan's loyal fans: "No matter where we are, they show up."

Of all the players who may have felt a little strange playing their college games in a high school gym, it should be Fields. He played his high school career at Gilman and left there as the school's all-time leader in points and assists.

After starting college at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Fields came back home, transferring to Morgan two years ago.

"To have a Gilman alum at Morgan gave us a link," said Tim Holley, the Gilman athletic director who coached Fields while he was there. "We probably would have done it anyway but Jimmy's being there made it a natural fit."

Said Fields: "I feel real comfortable here. I was excited when I heard we were coming here. But at the same time, I feel a lot of pressure."

It showed in Morgan State's first home game this season. The Bears beat Howard in spite of Fields, who missed all eight shots he attempted and was shut out. "I think he was trying a little too hard," Fuller said.

Fields adjusted after that, going 13-for-24 in the next two games. He hit four of 13 three-point attempts and was 8-for-8 at the line.

Other schools have played as many road games as Fuller's team has the past two years, in order to help fund their programs with big-dollar guarantees.

"Our coach tells us that 'big-time' is a state of mind," said junior guard Rasheed Sparks. "We go in with that attitude."

And the Bears will return to Baltimore knowing they are almost ready to move into their new home.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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