Worth cheering for

As the teams broke the timeout huddles, Mark Gottfried charged the Coleman Coliseum court, arms whooping wildly in the air.

19 seconds remained in what had been, for the most part, a tautly played basketball game between a young University of Alabama team and an experienced crew from Chattanooga.

Alabama led 75-72, and Gottfried -- the Tide's head coach -- was imploring his home crowd for one more stop. Chattanooga had the ball, and still harbored hopes of tying the game and pulling a surprising upset in an SEC team's arena.

When Gottfried whooped his arms skyward, the arena felt alive for the first time all evening long. All 4,000 fans -- five grand, tops -- screamed as loud as they possibly could.

It still wasn't all that loud, even after Gottfried's team got the defensive stop it so badly needed at the other end and clinched a 76-72 victory.

While Mike Shula's course is pondered and football recruiting season kicks into high gear, Gottfried has quietly authored a solid start to the young 2003-04 basketball season.

Not that many people have noticed, of course.

As usual, Alabama fans are taking a wait-and-see approach to men's basketball. Judging by Tuesday night's attendance, they're doing much more waiting than seeing.

Although the Crimson Tide is 5-2 heading into an interesting test Saturday night against Oregon in Las Vegas, few in the Crimson Nation seem to know, or, more importantly, care about the second most important program on campus.

A quick check of Internet discussion boards revealed to this intrepid reporter that fans posting were far more interested in football recruiting and football issues in general than anything concerning a young basketball team.

It's a puzzling thing, really. So I turned where most good reporters turn for a little perspective -- the trusty satellite dish.

Wednesday night, I sampled crowd reaction at three mid-level games featuring average basketball teams from schools where football comes first -- Ohio State, Oregon and Texas Tech.

Sophomore Chuck Davis has blossomed in his second college season. (AP photo)

None were playing particularly appealing opponents; Ohio State welcomed Furman, Oregon took on Santa Clara and Texas Tech hosted Sam Houston State.

Yet all three crowds trumped Tuesday night's Coleman crowd in both numbers and enthusiasm.

Oregon's Mac Court crowd was a particular revelation. The Ducks play in the oldest arena in college basketball, but their fans make it an intimidating, nasty environment to win a basketball game in.

Contrast that with Coleman, where when Chattanooga took the lead late in the second half, a small pocket of Moc fans halfway to the rafters became the dominant cheering force in the yawning arena.

They were well outnumbered by Alabama fans, but their passion and enthusiasm made a difference, however slight.

Yes, I know the excuses. School is out for the holidays. Christmas is only a week away, and shopping must be finished. And it was a Tuesday night, not conducive to traveling to Tuscaloosa for a meaningless basketball game.

All fine excuses. But they never seem to matter in other locales where basketball is taken seriously, not just a sidelight to be ignored until football, national signing day and spring football are complete.

Fans will return next month when SEC play begins -- heck, they always do. Alabama's SEC home attendance is historically much higher than its non-conference crowds. Last season, the Tide averaged 12,405 fans for its eight SEC home games, which boosted the total home average to only 9,834 fans.

But despite achieving the school's first-ever national No. 1 ranking, both numbers were down from 2001-02's SEC championship season.

It just doesn't make sense to me, a Midwesterner at heart. Back home, the alma mater is taking heat for attracting just 11,000 fans in a 15,500-seat arena for a contest with –- drumroll, please -- Northern Illinois.

BamaMag.com is pleased to feature regular columns from Greg Wallace, one of the most talented writers on the Bama beat.

An avid sports fan whose job "just happens" to give him a seat in the front-row, Wallace is entering his third year writing for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He is a 2000 graduate of the University of Iowa, where he was a journalism and history major.

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Here, 4,000 fans show up for a game in a 15,300-seat arena and barely an eyebrow is raised. It just doesn't jibe with my sensibilities.

I understand football is king here, and always will be. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with supporting two sports at once. If basketball gets a little extra coverage, a little extra support, it won't hurt the football program in any way, shape, or form.

If anything, the emergence of Gottfried's hoops program into a true fan favorite will make Alabama slightly more appealing to potential athletes and to television marketers.

And right now, university officials and supporters should be seeking all the good publicity they can get their hands on, thanks to the Mike Price and Dennis Franchione debacles.

Give basketball a try, folks. Gottfried has a young, developing team full of long, lean athletes like forwards Evan Brock, Chuck Davis, Jemareo Davidson and Kennedy Winston who work well together as a team. They're fun to watch, unlike last season' disappointing, chemistry-challenged crew.

Who knows? You might enjoy them.

But you'll never know until you try.

That is something few Alabama fans have done so far this year.

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