Something precious was happening Saturday night at the Civic Center in Springfield, Mass., the site of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II basketball finals. The arena's northeast corner blazed with joy, excitement and something like vindication, resounding with screams of "U!Dee!Cee!"
The University of the District of Columbia Firebirds were winning the championship, and in the final minutes of the game, the more than 600 red-and-gold-clad UDC fans who had followed the team to Springfield knew it.
The school's pep band, the Motivation Crew, blew out a brassy fight song, drums rumbling their rhythms, horns pitching from side to side to the funky beat. Trumpet player Vincent (Satchmo) Smalls stood high above his seated band members to squeal out a solo.
"Ohoooooooo--WHOP!" the UDC fan chorus sang as the final Firebird points told the story--UDC: 73, Florida Southern: 63.
UDC students and supporters say the old days are over, the days when the commuter school was a patchwork of begged and borrowed classroom space without a true identity. Last year, the six-year-old university got a physical identity in the form of a new concrete-and-glass campus on upper Connecticut Avenue. Saturday night, in the chaos of the Springfield arena, UDC's basketball team--and its students--became champions.
"It's a feeling I can't explain," said UDC senior John R. (Doc) Brown after the game. "The team did it for the city, the community, everybody back home. They used what they had to bring it all back."
Brown, who served as a student member of the UDC consolidation task force in the school's early days, said winning the title means the school is "on its way. We know UDC is number one."
Gaye Shannon-Barr, the current Miss UDC, was perched on the top of her upturned seat. All she could talk about was how Firebird Fever has united UDC's diverse student population, a student body that has to be concerned not only with the three Rs, according to university spokesman John Britton, but also with the three Fs--family, food and finance.
For three days, two busloads of UDC students and fans--joined by other Firebird supporters via bus, train, airplane and a caravan of cars--allowed themselves to forget their troubles, their jobs and responsibilities. For $60 apiece, they booked passage for their ultimate college fantasy.
And the Firebirds made it all come true.
The departure time of midnight last Thursday seemed more like a rumor after more than an hour had passed and dozens of students were still boarding the East Coast-Gold Line buses for Springfield. Cars were still pulling into the cut-away driveway at the rear of the UDC campus where the buses awaited.
There was music in the air, supplied by several portable stereos and by Marjorie Hughes, a music major who transfered to UDC from Howard University: She tilted her head down and delicately blew into her flute, squeezing fleeting notes from the instrument.
"I have to play when I'm happy," she said, dressed in jogger's sweats and a cap that strained to contain a stubborn stock of reddish-brown hair. An oversized men's sports coat protected her from the early-morning chill.
Rafe Taylor, 22, had been waiting for more than two hours. He said he wanted to get a good seat on the bus. He said he knows most of the tricks to bus travel, having bused coast-to-coast. "I'll sleep through the whole thing," he promised of the nine-hour journey to Springfield.
Friday 1:23 a.m.: The buses ramble down Van Ness Street to the sound of chanting students.
A few, like Eileen Harvey, stay awake to study the foreign nightscape along the New Jersey Turnpike. Harvey says she's never been away from Washington, D.C., in her 21 years.
She and her boyfriend, Irvin Spears, asleep at her side, attend UDC. They both work for the Department of the Navy in Crystal City. She's a clerk-typist, and he's a file clerk. They both earn less than $11,000 a year and they share a Savannah Street apartment in Southeast Washington. Both have high aspirations, and their hopes are grounded in UDC.
Harvey says she thinks she wants to work in early childhood development. Beyond that, she gets a little fuzzy. "I want to switch to computers," she says uncertainly. "Everybody says that's what's in."
"I know what I want," says Spears, later in the morning. "I don't want to stay in the file room all of my life."
Spears, 21, says he wants to qualify for a civil service program. He needs an education to do that. So he's majoring in procurement and public contracts, taking advantage of UDC's low-cost tuition--15 to 18 credit hours for less than $200 a semester.
"I didn't used to think very much of UDC, to be honest," Spears says. "I never really held them high. I didn't give them a chance."
That all changed once he started taking his two classes a day. "They UDC students and faculty are warm--even the white people. I wish society, as a whole was like UDC. You wouldn't have any problems anymore."
Friday, 5:30 a.m.: The Vince Lombardi rest stop on the turnpike comes into view. It will be the first and only stop before Springfield. The sky is brighter, preparing for dawn, and sleep-sluggish students find their way to restrooms and food lines--where prices rudely awaken some.
Bobby Poole, a physical education major, takes notes from a plaque displaying football coach Lombardi's winning creed. Poole says he's keeping a diary of the trip.
By 9 a.m., the buses have traveled more than 380 miles to Holyoke, a Springfield suburb, where a Holiday Inn is braced for 80 UDC students and basketball-mania.
The moving in goes quickly. Student organizer Anthony Edmondson, 29, supervises the operation--keys and room assignments. He announces that the bus will leave for UDC's semifinal game with Cal State Bakersfield at 5 p.m. His deep words, coming at a military cadence, leave little doubt that he means business.
By 3 p.m., the tickets have been distributed by Edmondson and the pompons and the red-and-gold T-shirts emerge as if they were concealed weapons. School spirit rises, boosted by liberal helpings of beer and wine.
At 5:25 p.m. the buses are game-bound, yet the students are atypically cheerless. Tanina Franklin, a UDC physical therapy major, says:: "We're saving it for the game."
The game is what everyone came to see, of course. But soon after the Firebirds run off an impressive lead, the Cal State Roadrunners close the gap. Beep-beep. Very quickly.
At start of the second half, most of the UDC fans are quiet, their pompons cooled. The game seesaws. Then the tide turns, behind the playing of Firebird stars Earl Jones and Michael Britt. The Firebirds are coming. They win going away.
"I told you on the bus we were going to do it," Tanina Franklin reminds as she heads off to the victory party, 12 stories above downtown Springfield in Holiday Inn's Sky Line Room.
She's caught up in the pleasure of the moment, but it's not enough to make her forget that she has to leave UDC in the fall.
Franklin, 21, says she came to UDC in the summer of 1980 after she flunked out of Howard's dental health program. She says she simply wasn't ready for college. Desperate to continue her education, she turned to UDC, planning to study her basics there for two years and return to Howard to earn a degree as a physical therapist.
Now she has gone as far as she can at UDC. The school doesn't offer a degree in her field. When she returns to Howard, she says, "my heart will still be at UDC."
Saturday, 7:07 p.m.: The buses are almost ready to pull out. There are a few latecomers running from the motel under Anthony Edmondson's disapproving glare. Eileen Harvey and Irvin Spears are among them.
"Let's Go! Lets Go!," the students command. The Big Game is less than an hour away. No one wants to miss a moment of it.
Another close game, but the defending champions, the Florida Southern Moccasins, are no match for Coach Wil Jones' boys. Victory comes with the UDC crowd yelling "Dav-id, Dav-id." Some don't realize that the cheer is a reference to the Biblical story of David, and search their game programs for a David on the Firebird roster.
10:30 p.m.: The Sky Line Room at the Holiday Inn is chock-full with about 300 bobbing bodies moving to the floor-shaking stereo system. It's the victory party to end all UDC victory parties. It's history, says student John (Doc) Brown.
John McLamb, a UDC football player, looks at the people caught up in the school's new-found magic, and says, "The Phoenix, the Firebird, has been reborn. People are going to be proud to go to UDC."
Sunday, 11 a.m.: Winners sleep soundly. There's only Anthony Edmondson making the rounds to make sure that everyone is up and ready to head home by noon. He's also collecting, room-by-room, money for the students' telephone bills.
"I want us to be able to come back here next year," he says, turning the money over to the motel's general manager, Jeffrey Langlois.
There'll be no problem with that, Langlois said. "Oh, man, they're great. They are one of the few groups that take up half of my hotel and have no problems."
The news makes Edmondson proud, almost as proud as the Firebirds make him. He says the trip, not the team's victory, best proves that the University of the District of Columbia is not a school for "poor, dumb, colored kids."
"It's a joke," he says slowly.
"We are not dumb.
"We are not irresponsible.
"We are not incapable."