The Firebirds, the University of the District of Columbia's basketball players, were welcomed home as winners yesterday with a parade and a day in their honor even though they didn't win this year's NCAA championship.

Wright State University dashed the Firebirds' hopes of winning two NCAA Division II titles in a row last Friday by beating them, 92-73 in Springfield, Mass.

But yesterday, as the sun broke the weekend's pall of gray skies and threats of rain, hundreds of hometown well-wishers greeted the two-block motorcade of team members, students and coaches as if the loss had been a win instead. Many of them remembered how the Firebirds, long the underdogs among the Washington area's college teams, lifted the spirits of Washingtonians when they won their division's championship last year.

Cheering, smiling and waving the players on, the Firebirds' supporters lined the parade route that started at Ninth Street and New York Avenue NW to the parade's end at Western Plaza at Pennsylvania Avenue and 14th Street NW.

"We're here because we don't want the team to think that we're with them only when they win," said Juan Nicholson, 30, an English major at UDC. "Hopefully, our academics will improve just as greatly as our basketball team." Nicholson, who walked the entire parade route, stood at 11th and E streets NW waving a red-and-gold pompon, UDC's school colors.

"We almost made history," said George Gibbs, assistant coach of the team, as he leaned out of the window of a car.

About 500 persons gathered at Pershing Park after the parade for an hour-long rally of speeches and awards attended by D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and other city officials.

"Not only do we have the Redskins, we have the Firebirds," Barry said to a cheering crowd. "These basketball players are excellent role models for our young men and young women to see that they can succeed."

"This is indescribable," said Wil Jones, the Firebirds' coach, as he watched the crowd's enthusiasm. "I've been watching parades all my life, but this is the first time I've been in one. We didn't get one last year. This shows that this team means something to the school and the community."