‘Happy for days’: Patient fan base rewarded

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 6, 2014

SALISBURY — As he watched Livingstone College Band members warm up with instruments in the cold morning air Wednesday, Timothy Fonville couldn’t help but smile.
“I’ve been happy for days,” Fonville said. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
In a few minutes, the band members hopped onto a float parked in front of Soldiers Memorial AME Zion Church and rolled off toward Main Street, playing the music of conquerors.
Fonville, a local probation officer, graduated from Livingstone College almost 17 years ago. He became part of a long-suffering alumni base that for 69 years had never seen tiny Livingstone win a men’s conference tournament basketball championship.
Over the years, the tournaments took place in Southern cities such as Richmond, Raleigh, Norfolk, Winston-Salem and Charlotte. But loyal Livingstone fans seldom celebrated even a victory.
Until the 1997-98 squad, Livingstone’s men’s team had never won a tournament game. Their total frustration in the conference tournament was one of those sports anomalies that can only be explained in terms of curses, like the goat for Chicago Cubs fans or what used to be the Bambino for Red Sox Nation.
But Livingstone alumni and the kids going to school here remained faithful to their Blue Bears.
“Our fans don’t waiver,” Fonville said.
Several parade spaces behind the Livingstone band Wednesday, another float carried the men’s basketball team, winners Saturday night of the Central Interscholastic Athletic Association Championship in Charlotte.
The Blue Bears beat Winston-Salem State 83-68 in the title game.
One can’t adequately describe what the victory means to alumni, the school and even Salisbury, whose city officials deemed it big enough for a parade.
The win has given Livingstone — a private, church-affiliated, liberal arts school with a small enrollment — the kind of national exposure and publicity it can’t buy otherwise.
A good-sized national television audience watched the Blue Bears’ victory on ESPN-U. Now they head into the NCAA Division II tournament.
School officials and alumni hope it all pays dividends for the school in student and faculty recruitment.
“This championship brings so many other opportunities,” said Veronica Wells, part of institutional advancement at the college.
As a Blue Bears victory seemed apparent Saturday night, Livingstone alumni coast to coast, young and old, were crying tears of happiness, texting each other, Tweeting and posting their celebrations on Facebook.
The Blue Bears had lost in the CIAA finals in two recent years.
“Getting close was exciting, but this was just pure ecstasy,” 1961 Livingstone alumnus Melvin Rush said after the parade passed on South Main Street. “… Electrifying, absolutely electrifying.”
Rush has almost never missed a tournament since he was a student, and he was in the Time Warner Arena crowd for the championship Saturday night.
“It’s a tremendously big deal,” Rush said.
Of 13 children in Rush’s family, six went to Livingstone. Wednesday’s parade was small, Rush said, but it made a big statement.
Livingstone President Dr. Jimmy Jenkins waved from an open convertible. Athletic Director Andre Springs tossed out little blue basketballs from the back of a pickup. Mayor Paul Woodson rode in one of the lead vehicles.
But most of the energy from spectators was saved for the players. Many times Wednesday morning, alumni on the streets used the word “historic” to describe the championship.
They mentioned, too, how proud they were the players also had the highest grade-point average among the CIAA’s 12 teams.
“These guys worked hard on the books and hard on the court,” said Monica Wilson, administrative assistant for the alumni affairs office. “That’s what we’re concentrating on. They’re really student athletes.”
Sylvia Moore, a 1976 graduate, and her sister, Brenda Alston, a 1975 graduate, expressed those same sentiments and said how important the attention is for the college and city.
“Livingstone needs to draw a good crop of kids,” Moore said.
In “historic” terms, Moore placed the CIAA victory in the same category as Livingstone’s participation in the first black college intercollegiate football game ever played.
On that snowy, Dec. 27, 1892, day, Biddle College, which eventually became Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, played at Livingstone.
The Blue Bears lost on a controversial play. Their fumble recovery for the winning touchdown was disallowed, giving Biddle a 4-0 win. (Scoring was different then.)
Maybe the Blue Bears’ hard luck for generations to come can be traced back to that game. But the men’s basketball team has wiped out the past for good.
“All I can say is, it’s a very significant event in the school’s history,” said John Daniel, a Livingstone graduate who has been going to CIAA tournaments for 40 years.
Before hanging up his camera, Daniel served as the school’s unofficial sports photographer, just out of his love for Livingstone teams.
For one of the first times this past weekend, he wasn’t on the floor taking pictures of the action. But he was in the stands, and he brought his camera with him Wednesday to shoot the entire length of the parade.
“You can’t knock the smile off the faces of our alumni,” Sylvester Kyles said, who also waited outside the church for the parade to take off.
Kyles is a Livingstone graduate, director of the school’s Bridge program and announcer for the men’s and women’s home basketball games at Trent Gym.
He has a 21-year-old junior attending Livingstone and a 10-year-old son who now says all he wants to do when he grows up is to become a Blue Bear.
Kyles said he’s not sure whether the Livingstone students and men’s basketball team in particular really understand yet how important the win was.
They will some day, he promised.
Meanwhile, the 69 years of patience from Livingstone alumni has been rewarded.
Yvonne Moore, a 1983 graduate, made sure the team heard her yells of support as they passed by Wednesday.
“Sometimes it just takes a little time to get where you need to go,” she said.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.