MILWAUKEE — As November blew into December, the men’s basketball team from Jackson State University arrived to face Marquette in its seventh consecutive road game, played in the sixth different state. The Tigers had been away from their Mississippi campus for 17 of the 23 days since the season began. And the traveling was far from over.
By chance, the Tigers met the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the team hotel, where he jokingly admonished them to play defense and said “don’t let your legs start shaking like you never played basketball before.”
It does not seem much of an exaggeration to say that Jackson was one of the few familiar faces the Tigers encountered over the first two months of the season. Jackson State travels on meager finances without so much as cheerleaders. Only a sprinkling of relatives, friends and alumni rooted on the Tigers against Marquette. As usual, the loudest clapping came from the players themselves.
“It’s always 15 of us against 15,000 of everybody else,” said Darrian Wilson, 23, a graduate student guard.
It is all but impossible for Jackson State and other historically Black colleges and universities in the Southwestern Athletic Conference to draw home games against basketball powers like Duke and Gonzaga and U.C.L.A., who have little to gain competitively or financially on the road against lesser opponents. A partnership between the SWAC and the Pac-12 Conference, beginning next season, will help to alleviate that disparity, at least temporarily. In the meantime, the SWAC has turned the sport’s usual funding mechanism on its head.
Most schools reinforce their budgets at home with ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and concessions sales. Jackson State and the other teams in its conference seek supplemental financing on the road, traveling for most or all of their nonconference games for guaranteed paydays to help bolster some of the smallest athletic budgets in Division I of the N.C.A.A.
In effect, their higher-profile opponents seek to rent victories, while SWAC teams ease the pain of regular defeats with payouts that range from $60,000 to more than $100,000 per game.
Marquette offered Jackson State more than a snippet of polka music, a chance to play against a perennial N.C.A.A. tournament team, a national television audience and a court it shares with the N.B.A. champion Milwaukee Bucks. It also kicked in about $150,000, which included funds to pay for the Tigers’ flight and lodging expenses, according to Jackson State’s coach, Wayne Brent, and Marquette officials.
In addition to studying and playing for their teams, basketball players in the SWAC carry the added responsibility of fund-raising. Brent, his staff and his team seem cleareyed and pragmatic about these complicated roles.
Extended travel can be an adventure and a bonding experience. Texas Southern of the SWAC has won two N.C.A.A. tournament play-in games and, earlier this month, defeated Florida, then ranked 20th. But the travel can also be a physical, mental and academic grind. In 2019, another SWAC team, Mississippi Valley State, lost at Utah by 94 points — the largest margin of defeat ever in a Division I game.
“It’s necessary, to generate revenue,” Cason Burk, 33, Jackson State’s associate head coach and a former player there who handles the team scheduling, said of the travel. “I think the negatives outweigh the positives. But it’s got to be done. As a player, you have to look at it as a badge of honor. I’m doing this for a situation bigger than myself.”
Jackson State’s final nonconference road game, against Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 21, was canceled because of the coronavirus, but its home opener on Wednesday against Southeastern Baptist College was still on the schedule. The Tigers (2-9) have traveled to play 11 so-called “guarantee games” — more than a third of the regular season. The prolonged road trip through November and most of December contributed about $800,000 to Jackson State’s general athletic fund, Brent said. That would be roughly a tenth of the school’s sports revenue, according to the latest available figures.
A USA Today database for fiscal 2019-20 indicated that Jackson State’s athletic revenue was $8,300,756, which ranked 223rd among 230 public Division I universities and was all but a rounding error compared with the $391,769,609 in revenue at the University of Oregon.
Charles McClelland, the SWAC commissioner, said it is frequently and inaccurately stated that “guarantee games” are necessary for the survival of basketball and other sports at conference schools. “We are not selling our souls to the devil to have an athletics program,” McClelland said.
In fact, the SWAC routinely leads the Football Championship Subdivision in football attendance. But during the 2019-20 basketball season, the league averaged fewer than 1,600 spectators per home game, which ranked 29th among the 32 Division I conferences. McClelland said it makes greater financial sense to travel for “guarantee games” in the early part of the season than to lose money playing at home.
Brent said that without supplemental funds, his players would not likely have the gear routinely available to Division I teams; more flights and fewer bus trips and comfortable hotel stays. Take away the money, he said, the Tigers would be “staying in a hotel for $70 a night” and eating at McDonald’s.
“I don’t want McDonald’s,” said the professorial Brent, 54, who is in his ninth season at Jackson State, wears bow ties during games and has a master’s degree in health and human performance. “And the kids don’t want it.”
He reminds his players that they are better off than “kids at home without a scholarship who wish they could play in the Bucks’ arena on CBS.” And they always have a chance to attract the attention of a pro scout who has come to watch the other team. “It only takes one guy to see you,” Brent said.
This season, two of the Tigers’ freshmen players and a student manager took their first-ever flights. Games against schools with rich traditions like Marquette and Indiana, a five-time N.C.A.A. champion, offered wide exposure in first-class arenas before extensive television audiences, while also providing a chance to measure up against highly-recruited players on opposing teams.
Dyllan Taylor, 22, a graduate guard, keeps a photograph on his smartphone of himself driving for a layup against Indiana in November. “That’s a picture you’ll frame,” he said, convinced that he “can play with anybody, regardless of the school.”
But the trade-off can be wear on the body, morale and confidence. Flights to and from Jackson require connections through Dallas or Atlanta. On the season-opening trip to the University of Illinois, a late airline scheduling change forced Jackson State players to split up on two different flights that landed in separate cities. The trip lasted 14 hours. The Tigers played the next night then awakened at 3:30 the following morning to catch another flight.
“Each game seems to last three days,” said Wilson, the guard.
Constant travel for the first third of the season added urgency to every situation, from guarding against nut allergies in hotel desserts to making sure the four players unvaccinated against the coronavirus were tested every 72 hours. It was difficult to practice regularly. Chris Freeman, 23, a guard/forward, struggled to rehab from knee surgery. Chance Moore, 23, a guard, had two young children back in Jackson who wanted to know when he was coming home.
“Being away, that’s hard,” he said.
On Nov. 30, the Tigers were tied with Marquette at halftime, only to wither against a press and eventually lose by 29 points.
“You ran out of gas,” Brent told his team.
On Dec. 1, the players met for breakfast, then had a mandatory study hall in the afternoon.
“Two hours, nobody leave the room,” Fredrick Hadley, Jackson State’s academic adviser, told the players.
Crunch Week, he called it. A road game in three days at Illinois State was to be followed by a trip home for final exams.
Five Jackson State players are graduate students. Another, guard Jonas James III, 23, was set to graduate on Dec. 10. Assuming the team would be on the road, he had not ordered his cap and gown. But he realized during the study hall that the team was not departing for its next nonconference road trip until the 11th.
“That would make a great picture, you running through the airport in your cap and gown to catch a flight,” Hadley said.
Later that day, the Tigers took a break, visiting a mall and attending a Bucks’ game against the Charlotte Hornets. On Dec. 2, the team left Milwaukee on a four-hour bus ride to Illinois State. A team meeting followed the next morning. Fatigue was evident in the yawns in the conference room.
“I missed November,” Brent said as he watched video of Illinois State while at breakfast. “I don’t know where it went. I was there for Thanksgiving, but I wasn’t there.”
During a second study hall, Ken Evans Jr., 20, a guard, grabbed his iPad and folded his 6-foot-5 inch frame beneath the skirting of a table of water pitchers, seeking privacy to work on a management project. Only his sneakers poked out.
“I can’t have any distractions,” he said.
On the afternoon of Dec. 4, Jackson State arrived at Redbird Arena at Illinois State in a buoyant mood. The next morning, they were heading home for six days for final exams. “It’ll be like Christmas,” Moore said. “I’ll be waking up happy as hell.”
The parents of freshman guard Coltie Young had driven nine hours from Starkville, Miss., to support their son and his teammates. Jackson State’s game plan was similar to the one against Marquette. Preserve tired legs. Play stifling defense. Keep the score in the 60s, or the low 70s. This time the plan worked. The Tigers held Illinois State nearly 30 points below its scoring average and won 61-55.
As players celebrated in a cramped locker room, Brent told them, “There is no better win than winning a guarantee game on the road.”
A three-game barnstorming tour of Iowa lay ahead but, first, six rare and glorious days at home awaited. The team bus was scheduled to leave the hotel at 4 a.m., but Taylor, the graduate guard, joked that it might not be necessary.
“We’ll be running to the airport,” he said.