By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009
When Georgetown opened the season, the best hope was that the young team's performance would mirror the career of its senior starter, Jessie Sapp.
Little was expected of the rebuilt Hoyas, who had lost four seniors from the previous year's squad. Then again, little had been expected of Sapp, the 6-foot-3 guard from Harlem who didn't get serious about basketball until giving up boxing at 13.
To Sapp, playing the underdog's role was as comfortable as a favorite pair of sneakers. It was a challenge to be met, an invitation to prove just how far toughness could take you.
"Personally, I love being the underdog," Sapp said back in October, the week after Big East coaches had picked the Hoyas to finish seventh in league play. "I love when people think we can't do this, we can't do that. We'll show a lot of people! We'll shock the world!"
It hasn't worked out that way. And this evening's game at Verizon Center against DePaul (8-22, 0-17) will bring Georgetown's most disappointing regular season in memory to an end on senior night.
Regardless of the outcome, it's an ignoble final home regular season game for Sapp, who has supplied the Hoyas' heart through much of his college career -- looking to pass first and shoot second, and play defense with as much vigor as offense.
At stake is little more than the difference between finishing 11th, 12th or 13th in the Big East. Win or lose, Georgetown (15-13, 6-11) will be relegated to one of Tuesday's play-in games in the newly expanded Big East tournament. (Had conference officials not decided to expand the tournament from 12 to all 16 teams, Georgetown may well have missed the tournament entirely this season.)
Sapp isn't ready to concede the season. Mindful that it likely would take six consecutive victories for Georgetown to advance to the NCAA tournament -- beating DePaul and then winning five games in as many days at Madison Square Garden en route to Big East championship -- Sapp simply asks, why not?
"Honestly, anything can happen," Sapp said yesterday. "You can never count a team out. I don't think you can count us out, either."
That's the quality that struck Keith Smith, coach of the vaunted New York Gauchos AAU team, when he first saw Sapp on a basketball court as a member of a neighborhood team the Gauchos played in a local tournament.
"I knew immediately, 'This kid is a Gaucho!' " Smith said in a telephone interview. "It was his heart. His talent. And he had the toughness."
Sapp went on to play for the Gauchos and later transferred to National Christian Academy in Fort Washington to improve his prospects of landing a college scholarship.
That's where Georgetown Coach John Thompson III studied him. True, Sapp wasn't the fastest high school guard he'd seen; he struggled just to keep the guy he was guarding in front of him. And his shot was hardly automatic. But one quality stood out.
"Toughness," Thompson said. "He has a knack, as he has done here, of willing his way through situations."
Sapp felt that the Hilltop was home, and its students his family, even before he picked Georgetown.
The feeling came over him in waves when he attended Midnight Madness at McDonough Arena as a high school junior in October 2004. At one point, he had to walk from one end of the gym to the other. He was so shy he kept his head down the whole way. But as he walked, Georgetown students shouted his name, yelling: "Jessie! Come to our school!"
"I'd never been around that many people that know you, and you don't know one of them!" Sapp recalled. "Just to have those people support you before you even committed to the school -- to know that they're rooting for you, no matter what -- that's a great feeling."
The years that followed brought some magical moments on court -- Sapp's eight assists in an NCAA tournament victory over North Carolina as a sophomore, the game-winning three-pointer against West Virginia last season. But there have been few this season, for Sapp or the Hoyas.
"It's been difficult, obviously," Thompson said. "But this year he has grown a lot . . . through everything that has been thrown as us and him. That's something that's bigger and more important than basketball."
Sapp has left his stamp on Georgetown basketball. And back in Harlem, at the Woodrow Wilson projects on 105th Street and First Avenue, he has proved where toughness and hard work can lead.
The whole neighborhood turns out whenever Sapp comes home. They all love him, and they call him "the Hoya."
Says Smith, the Gauchos coach, "It gives you a great feeling to know that a kid who grew up in Harlem could go to Georgetown and become a man."