The array of empty seats around the top of the Ferrell Center for Baylor basketball’s senior night reflects a past the program now strives to overcome.
True, the game is on a Monday night and the opponent, Texas Tech, is 8-21 on the season, but the crowd of 7,164 is sorely lacking.
Standing at the bottom of the student section in a Quincy Acy jersey, an arm sleeve from sophomore Cory Jefferson and a seven-year old, raggedy growl towel is Waco native Chris Fuentes, a.k.a. Super Fan.
Fuentes is a physical education teacher at Lakeview Elementary and is finishing up his degree at Tarleton State University through McLennan Community College.
“I remember when a crowd this size was great, but we’re the ninth team in the nation,” Fuentes said. “Do they know there’s a game tonight?”
Cheering on the Baylor Bears is a hobby of his that started at age 7 when his tickets came from his grandmother who worked in admissions for 30 years. Even though he never attended Baylor, Fuentes has not missed a home game since 1999, becoming a part of Baylor basketball before head coach Scott Drew took the job.
“I just sit in the student section because that is where I have sat for eight years or so,” Fuentes said. “Before the Bear Pit, I sat on the floor. I got moved when the Bear Pit was formed, and I sat in the seats I am in now because nobody used to be at the games. I am at the Ferrell super early since the section my seats are in are first come, first serve. I make sure I am first come.”
By his side at the games are Sarah, his wife of six years, and friends Peter, Joe and Curtis, his wing-man for the past 10 years.
With more than an hour until tip-off, both teams are at their respective baskets working on their shots and enjoying life. On the other side of the court is Texas Tech freshman Luke Adams. Riffing on Adams’ appearance, Peter begins to yell, “Hey, Justin Bieber!” A minute later, Baylor guard Gary Franklin runs up the stairs to where the group is sitting.
After high-fiving all the guys, Franklin stands beside Peter.
“Dude, he won’t hear you,” Franklin said. “He’s deaf.”
The group pokes fun at Peter as Fuentes recalls the past years of Baylor basketball: the seasons where there were more opposing fans in the crowd than Baylor’s own, the first season under current head coach Scott Drew, and the talent on the court tonight.
After 2003, a Top 10 Baylor men’s basketball team seemed impossible.
Former head coach Dave Bliss resigned about two months after the death of basketball player Patrick Dennehy. While the murder of Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson was in the spotlight, more was being uncovered behind the scenes. Bliss was giving improper benefits to players, positive drug tests were being reported as negative and there had been multiple attempts at the highest level to cover it all up.
Two weeks later, in walks Scott Drew as the new head coach of the Baylor Bears.
Two years later, the NCAA announces that Baylor will be forced to play a reduced schedule in men’s basketball for a season, 2005-06, and the school would remain on probation until 2010.
“The 2003 season was very rough,” Fuentes said. “When the incident happened with Dotson, I was shocked. Everyone wanted to talk to us at games like we were the visitors [because] nobody from Baylor came, and the visiting teams had more people in the stands than we did. The visitors would say that our school was a bunch of murderers and criminals, which probably kept our fans away. It was really tough, but I had been here so long and attended so many games that there was absolutely no way I was going to change my allegiance to somewhere else.”
As the seniors are being recognized as the winningest class in Baylor basketball history with 95 total wins, Sarah arrives with their oldest child, Ethan, who is 6.
With his Cub Club T-shirt on and a Bear Dog from the concession stand, Ethan is ready to watch his favorite player on the team, junior point guard Pierre Jackson.
“He will be outside playing and then run up to me and go, ‘Dad, I did a Pierre!’” Fuentes said.
Jackson plays with a leadership behind the arc similar to Tweety Carter who, alongside Ekpe Udoh, led the 2010 team to the Elite Eight, falling to the eventual national champions, the Blue Devils of Duke University.
Last season held high hopes for the Bears with All-American Perry Jones III starting his freshman year. But the Bears did not advance to the post season, and the season, though full of expectations, ended on a low note.
The 2011-2012 season began with just as much hype as the Baylor squad was 25-5 by the end of February and reached as high as No. 3 in the national rankings at one point.
“Coach Drew has literally performed a miracle on earth,” Fuentes said.
This season, with Acy, Jackson, freshmen Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello, sophomores Brady Heslip and Perry Jones III and the rest of the Bears’ roster, Drew’s recruiting – and Baylor’s recent success – has meant that the team is loaded with talent – and for the foreseeable future.
“Well, I think the best thing is that the last few years we have had great chemistry,” Drew said. “But I think this year, if you are comparing teams, is one of the closest teams – if not the closest team – we have coached since we have been here. If you ever see one of them, you see all of them.”
Furthermore, the brotherhood formed in the locker room is complimentary to their character. The fact that Jones III decided to return to Baylor after the NBA was knocking on his door last year says something about the program.
“I am usually not the type of person that talks a lot,” Jones said. “I am just real quiet and mellow, but I see them as my brothers and I see Baylor University as my family.”
With fifteen minutes to play and a 47-19 lead, Jones gets the ball at the free throw line, finds Jefferson at the block and feeds him for the two-handed slam.
Fuentes looks to his right and makes eye contact with Curtis before jumping in the air for a chest bump.
After the landing, Ethan grabs hold of the side of his dad’s uniform and tugs twice, prompting Fuentes to lean down and bump shoulders with his son.
For seniors Fred Ellis, Anthony Jones and Quincy Acy, the program has been something they have had faith in from their first years in the green and gold.
During their freshman season, the Bears made it to the Big 12 tournament championship game and were the NIT runner-up in 2008. A year later, they were part of the school-record 28 wins as Baylor advanced to an NCAA regional final against eventual national champion Duke.
“Our seniors have always set the tone for us,” Acy said. “We went through a big slump in the Big 12 our freshmen year and our seniors taught us how to overcome it, then we made a big run to the NIT Championship. So that right there set the tone for us and gave us a winning mentality. Everything we did from there, all our upperclassmen have instilled a winning mentality in us.”
This season Acy has put the team on his back. Anthony Jones has contributed off the bench after starting since his sophomore season and Ellis has played a positive, supportive role behind the scenes.
With about nine minutes left and Baylor up 60-31, the crowd begins chanting, “We want Fred! We want Fred!” As the crowd gets louder, Drew looks down the bench with a big smile on his face and puts Ellis in the game.
“I was trying to get them to chant it earlier,” Ellis said, smiling. “It just felt good, the fans just chanting your name. When I get old, I’ll tell my kids, ‘I had 40 points and the fans were chanting my name and I had six dunks. Everybody screaming my name.”
The final home game of the season felt more like a party than a basketball game as the Bears rolled on to a 77-48 win.
“For senior night, if you have a close team, everybody feels the pressure,” Drew said. “They really want to do well for the seniors. You saw that tonight.”
As Acy walked off the hardwood at the Ferrell Center, Fuentes proudly stood at the rail, stretching his jersey toward the court, a symbol of his gratitude toward a program that refuses to be contained by the past.