Is the Brigham Young University basketball team now "America's Team"?

A newspaperman asked that today.

It is a racist question, disturbing in its implications.

The newspaperman said to the BYU coach, Frank Arnold, "With conservatism growing in this country, do you think Brigham Young has been adopted as 'America's Team?'"

In harmless arrogance, the Dallas Cowboys sell themselves as "America's Team." But it is frightening to hear the suggestion that Brigham Young, bacause of its "conservatism," is now America's darling in the Ncaa tournament.

The newspaperman asking the fool's question didn't care about "conservatism." He wouldn't know supply-side economics if it kissed him. His question had nothing to do with Ronald Reagan, but everything to do with race. What he asked, in his gutless way, was this: "Is America rooting for Brigham Young because it is an all-white team?"

Aronold ignored the unspoken message of the question. The coach said, "People are rooting for us because we have been the underdogs in every game, and they like to root for the underdog."

If Brigham Young beats Virginia here Saturday afternoon and advances to the final four, it will be the first all-white team to make it that far since 1966. Kentucky lost that year to Texas Western, the first all-black champion. From then on -- that game was college basketball's Brown vs. The Board of Education -- blacks have dominated the sport so much that a high school all-America asked me, in 1971, "Can an all-white team ever win the NCAA again?"

I said no. "We're going to," the kid said, and off he went to a school that told him it would recruit no blacks. The kid's school never made it as far as Brigham Young has this season -- until in his senior year a black freshman started.

Despite the documented exploitation of blacks, college basketball yet has been a positive force, forcing open the doors of opportunity long closed to blacks. John Thompson, the Georgetown University coach, a black, believes that black players' learning experiences -- in school, in press conferences, in travel, in the work of basketball -- are unlimited now that they can walk through those doors so long held shut.

To ask, then, if BYU is America's Team is to suggest that Virginia or North Carolina or Indiana have failing that render them unpalatable to God-fearing, flag-waving Americans. And the obviously implied flaw, in any contrast to BYU, is that these teams have black players who are not the kind of kids America is proud of.

Well, if Americans who wear sheets want to adopt Brigham Young's team because it is all-white, they'd better hurry and do it now.

Frank Arnold is looking for black players.

Provo is "the greatest place in the world," the coach said. "The air is clean and fresh, the campus is beautiful, there is a cleanliness and wholesomeness there and we still believe in Mom, apple pie and the American flag. Besides that, we have a community that is basketball crazy. Our arena seats 23,000 and it is sold out before the season starts.

"You'll see a backboard and basket in every driveway in Provo. And we won't build a church without a 'cultural hall.' The 'cultural hall' is really a basketball gym, so that every young kid can play basketball as a member of our faith."

With this basketball sell, Arnold has signed one black. The young man, like all young Mormons who want to, is on a church mission for a year. He is working in Oakland and will rejoin the team next fall. Another black from the team graduated last year.

And now the coach is looking for more blacks.

"I was in the home of 16 black athletes last year recruiting," said Arnold, a former assistant to John Wooden, now in his sixth year at Provo. "Normally, we go see only 12 to 15 players in all. But I went to the home of these 16 black athletes because I knew the competition for them would be very difficult.

"For example, I was in the home of one of Los Angeles' best athletes. His father asked me, 'Does my kid have to go on a one-year mission?' Obviously, he does not. That is voluntary for church members. But our competitors in recruiting use that kind of thing against us.

"Of the 16 blacks I visited, nine committed to visit our campus.

"Of those nine, only three actually showed up.

"Of those three, one committed to sign with us and another said he would sign if his buddy did.

"Well, neither one signed with us. Frankly, they were scared away by our competitors. One went to Arizona and one went to Fresno State."

Arnold said Brigham Young's 6,000 students include 32 blacks, about a dozen of them athletes. Arnold also said the school itself, to say nothing of its athletic teams, is aggressivley recruiting black students.

"So we were 0 for 16 last year," Arnold said. "But that is trying. And we're still trying."

The nicest part of the Brigham Young story is that Frank Arnold has created a basketball team that will run, run, run. Fasten your seat belt, Virginia.

BYU's three front-line players add up to about 21 feet tall and 700 pounds. BYU has an all-American guard, Danny Ainge, averaging 25 points a game. What they like to do is grab a rebound and go flying downcourt, as their 81 points and 44 rebounds a game suggest.

"We'll go out there," Arnold said, "and turn it loose. I have a theory that teams that should win sometimes play not to lose. We will play to win. This is a kick in the rear for us to even to be this far, and we will try and push the tempo to a fast game."

America's team?

Yes, if what you like is a nice fast break.