The basketball faithful


Like many Division I college basketball players, Larry Blair's day starts early and ends late.

It, however, is everything in between that makes his collegiate experience different than most of his opponents'.

There are religious convocations that he must attend and daily prayer sessions that mark the beginning and end of each class and most basketball practices.

There are dress restrictions to abide by - no blue jeans outside the dorms - and a strict code of conduct to follow. Alcohol is prohibited on campus and so is cursing, fraternizing with the opposite sex inside dorms and staying out past midnight on weekdays.

For basketball players at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian institution, founded in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains by conservative activist the Rev. Jerry Falwell, it is an accepted part of college life in Lynchburg, Va.

"We have the same type of schedule that athletes from other schools have, just school, practice and then get your homework done," said Blair, a sophomore guard and the leading scorer on a team that travels to College Park to face No. 24 Maryland tonight at Comcast Center. "We just have rules that most schools don't have and extra things we have to do."

When Falwell, he of the religious right and the Moral Majority, founded Liberty in 1971, his mission was to produce "Christian-centered men and women," and to reach youth through music and sports.

More than three decades later, what Falwell, who has been the chancellor of the school for the past 32 years, started with 154 students has grown into the largest evangelical Christian institution in the world with nearly 7,728 students from 50 states and 72 countries.

The school has more than 17 Division I athletic programs, and Falwell has said that he wants Liberty to be to Christian athletes, what Brigham Young is to Mormons and Notre Dame is to Catholics. Athletes are encouraged, but not mandated to use their skills to "further the Gospel."

"Athletics is very important to him," said Flames coach Randy Dunton, whose roster represents seven states and three countries. "If he is in town, he's at the game."

Better yet, Falwell, the program's self-proclaimed No. 1 fan, has even crowd-surfed - hoisted atop the arms of the student section - during home games at the 9,000-seat Vines Convocation Center, an arena that is nicknamed "The Furnace" because of the intensity of the Liberty fans. Since opening in 1991, the arena has averaged nearly 3,350 fans per home game.

"They consider basketball, both the men's and women's teams, to be the flagship sports teams," said Glyn Turner, a fifth-year senior from Auckland, New Zealand. "But Dr. Falwell is fully supportive of all the athletes. He's unique as a chancellor because he is so personable."

Dunton has shattered the notion that recruiting is impossible at a small Christian school, and said that he can afford to be selective even with strict behavior standards.

"We are supportive of people in general, but you have to especially want to put yourself in the environment where there is going to be some standards or you are going to struggle," Dunton said.

David Dees, the Flames' starting swingman, averaged 32 points a game at Dayton (Ohio) Christian Academy and was a McDonald's High School All-American finalist. Blair, the 2004 Big South Freshman of the Year, played well enough at Camden (S.C.) Military Academy to draw scholarship offers from two Atlantic Coast Conference schools.

"I knew I could show my basketball talents anywhere, but this stands for a different meaning," said Blair. "Liberty is a school where I can grow spiritually. I could've gone anywhere and improved in basketball."

Blair backed up the hype last year, winning the 2004 Big South Freshman of the Year award and leading Liberty to the conference title. A 16 seed, the Flames were beaten by Saint Joseph's in the first round of the NCAA tournament, their first trip there in a decade.

It was quite a turnaround for Dunton, who was an assistant at Liberty for eight seasons and interim head coach in 1997-98 before being passed over for the head job. He then left the school, spending two seasons at an Iowa community college and two more as an assistant at Binghamton University.

After the Flames went 5-25 in 2001-02, falling to last among 324 Division I teams in the Rating Percentage Index, Dunton was offered the opportunity to replace Mel Hankinson.

He knew exactly what he was getting. He remembered a game at Missouri years ago when a group of fans, dressed like Moses, playfully taunted the Flames and held up the "10 Basketball Commandments."

Dunton's favorite? "Thou Shall Not Turn the Ball Over."

"People have fun with it, but at the same time, it's competition," said Dunton, whose team is 1-7 entering tonight's game. "We believe that Liberty is a blessing to the people that are here. It's a blessing to me and my family and we strive to represent it well on the court."

Maryland tonight

Matchup: Liberty (1-7) vs. No. 24 Maryland (7-2)

Site: Comcast Center, College Park

Time: 8

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

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