There are men who have changed Alabama basketball over the years, some with names that are barely remembered now.
There was Lindy Hood, Alabama’s first All-American so far back that he might have been shooting into a peach basket. There was Johnny Dee, the coach who beat Adolph Rupp. Then came C.M. Newton, who revitalized the program and brought in the first black players, putting Wendell Hudson on the elite list.
There was Wimp Sanderson winning SEC tournament championships and Antoine Pettway, carrying the Crimson Tide to the Elite Eight with competitive fire. There were other players who maintained tradition or, like Collin Sexton, added a chapter.
But Steven Whitley?
Who had ever heard of Steven Whitley before Wednesday night? How could a player from Norfolk, Virginia, a young man who may have only spent one day in Tuscaloosa in his entire life, have affected a program to the extent that he might have altered its very direction?
Whitley played for Norfolk State in its upset of Alabama in the first round of the NIT. He played well. He wasn’t Ja Morant, but who is? He scored 13 points and dished out eight assists and helped the Spartans win the game, a big moment for their program.
But it wasn’t so much what he did on Wednesday as what he said.
Whitley was one of the players who came to Norfolk state’s post-game press conference. Like many players at small schools that rarely get press coverage at all these days, he was refreshingly honest in his answers, uncoached in the art of coachspeak. He wasn’t arrogant, or taunting, although he might have had a bit of a tiny chip in his shoulder, not entirely inappropriate for a player from the often-ignored MEAC. So when asked about Alabama, his answer was direct — and telling.
“We saw (them) in warmups and thought that it was going to be sweet, the way they (were) lagging around and stuff,” Whitley said.
Lagging around. Not inspired. Deflated, perhaps, by the small crowd for an early Wednesday tip-off against a little-known opponent and with some fans probably staying away out of sheer frustration out of home losses to Florida, LSU and Auburn. Apathetic.
If you were there, you didn’t need Whitley to tell you.
The issue was this: not so much a loss to Norfolk State. Give them credit. Not even so much missing the NCAA Tournament narrowly. It was the effort. Always the effort.
Over the past week, Avery Johnson, the Alabama coach, had, when asked, talked about using the NIT as a stepping stone for next season. That had to have been the main message when he met with Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne on Saturday, if Johnson was serving as his own advocate.
Yes, the season had been disappointing, the message must have been, but things would change. Byrne hasn’t made any public comment but sources indicated he was inclined to stick with the likable Johnson, to trust so many issues that arose during the season could be fixed.
But Byrne was there Wednesday night. He saw what Whitley dared to say out loud. He saw a much smaller Spartan team beat Alabama on the backboards. He saw the careless turnovers committed, the double-digit second-half lead squandered. He saw that against an opponent that, in all fairness, was not SEC caliber.
How loudly did that speak? What faith did that inspire that another season was going to be different when Alabama couldn’t even set aside its apparent apathy for 40 minutes?
Byrne has not addressed the status of the basketball program for many days. Alabama is not the sort of program that fires coaches on an airplane tarmac a la USC. An $8 million buyout doesn’t come out of petty cash, even at a program as big as Alabama’s. These are complex matters.
That’s why the reports on late Thursday night indicated negotiations were “ongoing” as opposed to finalized. But the notion of another season without a coaching change, which seemed to be the likely outcome despite much fan anger, seems impossible now.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.