The first basketball wave dribbled out of the University of the District of Columbia and into Springfield, Mass., today, soon to be followed by busloads, trainloads and carloads of supporters.
The UDC team and Washington's other basketball power, Georgetown, thus are both in distant places pursuing national championships, leaving residents of the nation's capital to figure out for themselves ways to celebrate one of the city's biggest college basketball weekends in absentia.
Georgetown is in Provo, Utah, to face Fresno State tonight in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I tournament, for large schools and smaller ones that are established basketball powers.
UDC plays California State-Bakersfield Friday night for a berth in the NCAA Division II final, for small schools, on Saturday. Division II games are rarely televised by the major networks and the teams are less well known than those in Division I, but the competition and the enthusiasm among fans are no less intense.
On the Georgetown campus, "We're seeing a lot of blue and grey hair," said public relations director Wes Christenson. "The kids use food coloring." And phone calls posing the question, "What's a Hoya?" have tripled from a normal average of three a day to about 10, said Steve Hurlbut in the sports information office.
(Georgetown's team is called the Hoyas. The name comes from a Greek phrase, and without going into a long story, strictly speaking there is no such thing as a Hoya.)
UDC celebrated the team's departure yesterday morning with a breakfast at a Connecticut Avenue restaurant. About 75 people turned out, including university president Lisle C. Carter Jr. The highlight turned out to be the debut of a song called "The Wil Jones Way," in honor of the UDC coach.
Barry Scruggs, a staff member, sang it to the tune of "I Did It My Way." The best verse was, "You've got the guts, to kick their butts, the Willie Jones Way."
Between 300 and 500 fans will make their way to Springfield to support UDC, according to officials. Three buses have been chartered for students and faculty, leaving at midnight tonight. Others will go by plane, train or private car.
They are enthusiastic and optimistic. "We've already rented the room and bought the champagne for the victory party Saturday night," said Willeva Lindsey of the public information office.
A couple of miles away at Georgetown, fans are biding their time, a bus ride to Utah being no Sunday drive. One plane is chartered to leave this morning, carrying principally the band, cheerleaders and a few alumni.
Georgetown must beat Fresno State tonight, then face the winner of the Oregon State vs. Idaho game Saturday before the Hoyas can move to the tournament's semifinal and final rounds in New Orleans the following weekend -- called the Final Four, and bestowing a special distinction on the teams that get there, no matter who eventually wins.
If they get that far they won't be alone any more.
Brian McGuire, director of sports promotions, said charter planes, trains and buses to New Orleans are lined up, with tickets to go on sale Monday at noon. Georgetown will be allotted 2,500 tournament tickets if the Hoyas get to the final four and McGuire said they would all be sold, no question.
The transportation fees: $250 round-trip by plane; about $130 by train and $65 by bus. Hotels in New Orleans are booked. "They're trying to put us in Biloxi, Miss.," said McGuire. He's working on that.
Meantime, the mood on campus is silly, as befits the start of what William R. Stott Jr. calls "the start of silly season." Stott is vice president for student affairs. He said students are renting large-screen televisions to put in dorm lobbies tonight and "there's generally a festive air."
At UDC the rumblings are a little harder to detect. There, 70 percent of the students work full- or part-time on the side, the average student age is 26 and school spirit takes a somewhat different form.
Nonetheless, UDC is no shrinking violet at sports affairs. Eight busloads of UDC fans made the bus trek two weeks ago to Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Md., for the regional championships. They were boisterous enough to drown out at times the 2,500 home-team supporters.
This season, the first that a UDC team ever has gone to postseason play, has meant a lot in boosting UDC morale, according to school officials.
"People around here are on a natural high," said John Britton, public information director for the school, which in addition to having a winning basketball team recently opened a spanking-new campus on upper Connecticut Avenue NW. "We're beginning to have an identity. People around the city no longer regard us as the University of Last Resort."
UDC's basketball team may be the only one in the country to be nicknamed after a car. They're called the Firebirds, as in Pontiac.
The original Firebird is one Robert McNeil, who started at UDC when the school opened in 1977. He graduated in 1980 with a degree in social welfare and now is studying for his master's degree. On game days he dresses up in a yellow and red outfit with a revolving red dome light and is the team's official mascot. For the tournament, he's added a top hat and tie.
McNeil thinks the basketball team's success means a lot. "One," he said, "it puts us on the map. There are many factions in the country who didn't even know we exist.
"Two, it encourages players who might have been looking at UCLA, Maryland, Georgetown and other big programs to look us over. We have a growing program, a new facility.
"And three, it'll bring in some money to the athletic program, and as a result to the university."
The money is already flowing. Athletic director Orby Moss said he went to the bookstore this morning to get a Firebird hat to wear to Springfield.
All sold out.