Competing for the name on the front of the jersey rather than the back is a sports translation for team effort. But at Alabama-Birmingham, the thought runs a little deeper.
“We are playing for a lot of people, on our campus, our alumni, and people in Birmingham,” junior guard Robert Brown said. “We had a tough sports year.”
In December, the official word came down. Alabama-Birmingham had dropped its football program.
In football-loving Alabama, how could this be?
Expense was the explanation. Football cost millions more than the university could afford, according to UAB president Ray Watts.
Some haven’t given up on restoring the team that became the first in 19 years to be eliminated from a school classified Division I. But in the short term, the school can pour its energy into basketball and the NCAA Tournament.
The Blazers boosted spirits on Thursday with their 60-59 triumph over Iowa State that advanced UAB into a date with UCLA in the round of 32 on Saturday.
No. 14-seed Alabama-Birmingham entered the event with a 19-15 record, the second most losses for any team in the field, and was a heavy underdog against a third-seeded Cyclones team that was coming off the Big 12 Tournament championship.
Both teams were ineffective offensively, but the Blazers dominated the board and hit big shots down the stretch, including Brown’s three-pointer with 51 seconds remaining that gave UAB the lead and hopes of the upset.
Alabama-Birmingham fans cheered wildly and celebrated as the Blazers dog-piled on the floor as time expired.
“We gave the city a reason to be happy,” Brown said.
Everybody on the basketball team has friends who played football, Brown said. Word that football could be lost had circulated for weeks as the Blazers were putting together their best season in a decade, finishing with a bowl-eligible 6-6 record.
But UAB didn’t go to a postseason game, and during a UAB basketball game in December, students chanted for Watts to be fired.
Ask UAB players about this story during the NCAA Tournament, and they all include the city in their sentiments.
“This was a big accomplishment,” freshman guard Nick Horton said. “For us and for the city of Birmingham.”
The campus and city have other reasons to take pride in the hoops team. You may have noticed the Blazers’ footwear, one green shoe and one white.
Two years ago, the team adopted a young cancer patient named Elijah Seritt. He had undergone 17 surgeries, including two on his brain, as well as chemotherapy and two stem cell transplants. He underwent his first surgery at 19 months old.
UAB coach Jerod Haase, the former Kansas guard, partnered with the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s of Alabama. They wear the shoes to honor Seritt and raise awareness.
The Blazers’ stories will continue to be told nationally as long as they keep winning.
Football is also in the news. On the day of the Iowa State victory, an Alabama state representative introduced a bill that would revive football at UAB and require the state university system to maintain and fund a program as long it maintains one at the Tuscaloosa campus, and that one isn’t going away anytime soon.
The state legislature will reconvene at the end of the month, and although football’s revival seems like a long shot, who knows? The basketball team showed in its NCAA Tournament opener that long shots can pay off.