Front-running bus; UMBC: Taking the bus to all road games seems to agree with the Northeast Conference leader, but the Retrievers want a March plane trip -- to an NCAA tournament game.; From the Perimeter


Tom Sullivan knew he had made a mistake.

The fourth-year UMBC basketball coach could see that most of his players were not paying attention to the movie, and that most of his assistant coaches were looking elsewhere. "The Deer Hunter" was clearly getting two thumbs down from this audience.

"At least," Sullivan said, "it will put them to sleep."

Which wasn't so bad, considering that it was nearing 11 p.m. Monday and the Retrievers were on their way from their Catonsville campus to a hotel in Secaucus, N.J., where they would stay before Tuesday's game against St. Francis, N.Y., in Brooklyn.

In UMBC's first season as a member of the Northeast Conference, life on the road for Sullivan's team means many hours spent rolling up and down Interstate 95 and the New Jersey Turnpike in a 54-seat bus equipped with a VCR.

It has been quite a ride for the Retrievers, who despite losing to the second-place Terriers maintain a one-game lead going into the final two games of the regular season.

UMBC hasn't taken a plane ride all season and won't unless it wins the conference tournament and qualifies for the NCAAs.

"That would be so ironic," said sophomore forward Kennedy Okafor.

Not that Okafor and his teammates mind their mode of transportation for this breakthrough season. And they certainly haven't minded the team's move out of the Big South Conference, as evidenced by their 16-2 conference record.

"I like playing in the Northeast Conference for the simple fact that the bus rides are shorter," said junior forward Kerry Martin.

Martin recalls those endless bus rides to places like Conway, S.C. (Coastal Carolina), rides that lasted up to eight hours and seemed more like a week. The longest trip the Retrievers took this season was a little less than five hours, to Central Connecticut.

It was Sullivan's idea to travel by bus this season. It had nothing to do with returning to his roots in New York where his father, Raymond, drove a city bus for 25 years. The Q-44 went from the West Farms area in the Bronx, near where the family lived, to Main Street in Queens.

"I very seldom went with him," Sullivan recalled. "Sometimes I went to the garage to go through the bus-washing machine."

This season's decision was pure economics, not only of money but of time.

Sullivan said that it cost the school $13,000 to rent the bus for its road games, compared with the $15,000 the school spent just for three plane trips last season, with another $9,000 in bus rentals. "We have the money to fly. It's not a dollars-and-cents issue," he said.

Though the UMBC campus is less than a 10-minute drive from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Sullivan knows the kind of time it takes to organize a Division I team's road trips, having done it as a head coach at Manhattan College and an assistant at Seton Hall.

"People talk about the glamour of traveling, but it's the reality of traveling," Sullivan said. "I tell people, if you want to see the world, join the Navy. You haven't seen a disgruntled kid until you see one at 7 in the morning, having thrown his bags down and ripped off the headphones on his CD player."

It has even become part of the pitch Sullivan makes to the parents of the players he recruits, since most know that their sons will be trying to work on a degree to use in the real world more than on a jump shot that will take them to a professional basketball career.

"We try to make things as easy as we can, because of the demands they have academically," said Sullivan, who also uses the time on the bus to review game tapes. "It would be hard to justify going to play at Oklahoma just for a big payday."

The bus has become, to many UMBC players, a mobile study hall.

Take Monday night's ride. Martin, a biology major who is one of the team's most serious students, completed three journals for a mentoring class. But just as he finished his assignment, "The Deer Hunter" heated up and the sights and sounds from the Vietnam War made it difficult for Martin to read. Instead, he went to sleep.

Okafor loves the bus, even though missing it after an early-season game at the Towson Center cost him a one-game suspension and his starting job. Martin recalled how Okafor was one of several players to get the jitters last season for a plane ride to North Carolina.

"I probably overreacted," said Okafor, who flies to Nigeria every other summer to visit his father. "But the bus is cool. It's convenient, money-saving. There's a little more room than on the plane."

Okafor is one of several players from the New York-New Jersey area, so playing in the Northeast Conference has given his family and friends a chance to see him more than last season, when he was the Rookie of the Year in the Big South.

This particular trip was a special homecoming for Okafor, who grew up in Brooklyn. It turned out to be disappointing, with the 10-point defeat to the Terriers. But the possibility of the school's first NCAA tournament bid still looms as large as the plane the Retrievers will take to get there. UMBC could go into next week's NEC tournament as the top seed.

"The taste gets stronger," Okafor said of the team's desire to make the NCAA tournament. "You see that hamburger sitting there, and your taste buds get bigger."

Not that going by bus is the ultimate pleasure trip. Martin attributed his team's previous conference loss, at Robert Morris on Feb. 6, to being "the fourth day on the road, and we were a little fatigued."

There were no such excuses for Tuesday's game, though the trip from New Jersey to Brooklyn could have been a metaphor for what transpired on the court that day as well as for UMBC's long road to its first Division I conference title.

After leaving the hotel for the game, driver Edward Washington took the wrong exit and started heading north on the New Jersey Turnpike.

"Do you know how to get there from the George Washington Bridge?" Sullivan asked.

The bus turned around, navigated through the Lincoln Tunnel, and arrived at St. Francis an hour before the 5 p.m. tip-off. Just as there has been over the past 13 years for UMBC, there were a lot of bumps, and potholes, along the way.

The 3 1/2-hour ride home was uneventful. Instead of hamburger, the Retrievers wolfed down subs. Instead of "The Deer Hunter," there was "Patton." (Despite Sullivan's obvious penchant for movies with military themes, the team's two favorites this season have been "He Got Game" and "Amistad.")

Despite the loss, it was not the proverbial long bus ride home.

In the front, Sullivan's long legs hung over the railing as he watched George C. Scott.

In the back, the players joked and laughed like most college students as miles of darkened highway disappeared behind them.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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