Tuesday afternoon, the Minneapolis Community and Technical College men's team ran through a crisp practice, demonstrating the dynamic geometry of high-level basketball as they prepared to fall victim to the cynical accounting of the school's administration.
The Mavericks are the top-ranked team in the country's junior college ranks one season after finishing second in the national tournament, and the women's team, after years of struggling, is promising.
Every layup drill this season, though, will be executed beneath a sword of Damocles, as the most obvious bastions of excellence on the MCTC campus face extinction.
Even if they win dual national championships, the basketball programs will be disbanded after this season because the school's administration no longer wants to fund them.
"If we could win it all," men's standout Kenny Olafeso said, "it would be the cherry on top of everything."
But the sundae is melting.
The men's team lost in the national championship game by one point last year. Twenty years ago, head coach Jay Pivec and assistant Ron Gates took over a downtrodden program and started building a national powerhouse known for helping at-risk student-athletes transition to four-year colleges. Now their work bears an unwanted expiration date.
The women's team has struggled, but won its season opener 78-33 under new coach Keith Lindahl, who won a national title at Anoka-Ramsey in 2005.
Last year, the school's Student Senate and Student Life Budget Committee decided that basketball was not a high priority, and school President Phil Davis accepted the recommendation to withdraw funding for the program. That silly process -- letting students who will spend a maximum of two years on campus decide the fate of a traditionally powerful program run by two dedicated lifelong coaches -- leaves the Mavericks renowned yet doomed.
"It's disappointing, but what can you do?" Olafeso said. "This program has been the best thing that ever happened to me, the best experience of my life, so far."
Most MCTC players lacked grades or money. Some of the players live at home to save money; some have kids of their own. Lindahl said he holds practice between 6 and 8 a.m. because he knows his players have other responsibilities, and Pivec and Gates are widely known for salvaging the careers, if not lives, of at-risk players.
While some players are circulating petitions to fund the programs, Davis has made it clear that the program would have to be financially independent, requiring $118,000 a year.
"President Davis made that decision, and we have to abide by that," Lindahl said. "Now we're saying let's go out and make this the greatest program and year we could ever have.
"If you look at the scope of it, we have over 13,000 students here, so I understand, in terms of numbers, where President Davis is coming from. Basketball represents a small percentage of our students. But I feel if you help one or two people, you're changing their lives, and their lives are going to affect other lives."
Last year, the men's coaches helped Cortez Wallace land a scholarship at Western Missouri. Pivec and Gates found Wallace, who dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, playing AAU ball. They pushed him to get his GED, recruited him and gave him a future.
"Coach Gates and coach Piv have done so much for me, helped me get jobs, helped me get work-study," said women's player Natalye Horne. "Coach Piv and coach Gates especially treat me like a second daughter. This program is like a family, and now they're breaking it up."
Guard Sondra Jones said: "For a lot of people, this is a stepping stone to something bigger. But the administration looks at this as an option instead of a priority."
Freshman point guard Freddie Burton could have left the program once he found it was doomed but said, "I'll just try my luck here. I like the program. I really don't know what I'm going to do next year.
"I feel lost. I want to come back here, but who knows if there will be a team?"
His teammate, DeShawn Thurmond, said: "Coach said this was the last year, so try to make the best of it. There's nothing we can do now but try to make it all the way to the championship."
Jim Souhan can be heard at 10-noon Sunday, and 6:40 a.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday on AM-1500. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • email@example.com