When many bartenders start talking about basketball, the conversation can lean on general subjects such as the big contracts of professional players or "How 'bout them Bullets?" But when the bartender at one Capitol Hill saloon talks basketball, hold onto your napkin or he may use it to diagram plays.
The man serving up cocktails at Pendleton's on Capitol Hill is not just any part-time bartender. Jack Bruen, 35, is also a part-time entertainer, a part-time social director and the full-time basketball coach at Catholic University.
Three years ago, Bruen took the position at Catholic after three successful seasons at John Carroll High School, about a mile north of the university. He brought with him a vast knowledge of basketball, and a group of about 60 friends and bar patrons who enthusiastically cheer the players, heckle the officials and inspire an increasing number of student fans to wander into dilapidated Brookland Gymnasium to watch the games.
"This isn't the best basketball team in the city, but Jack Bruen has made them the hardest working kids in the city," said Jim Teti, a Washington police officer and Northeast resident who has become part of a contingent of fans from Pendleton's known as Bruen's Goons. "If Georgetown or Maryland lose, well, so what? But we've gotten to know these kids, and when they lose, it hurts."
Bruen added, "Many of them the Goons are doctors and lawyers. You see them at games and they are nothing but rowdy. Then you see them the next day in their three-piece suits and can't believe they are the same people."
Bruen, who played for Catholic before graduating in 1972, has brought an exciting running style of basketball to the team. The Cardinals won 13 games and lost 12 in his first year, which was their first winning season since 1972. Last year, Catholic had a 10-1 record at home, the best home record of any metropolitan area team, and they recently closed this season by defeating Allentown, 74-61, to finish 13-12 overall.
Now, capacity crowds of 1,200 are not uncommon. The team's improvement is one reason. The atmosphere created by the Goons is another.
All this is very new to Catholic University. Basketball has flourished in recent years at most of the city's universities that build their teams with scholarship players. But basketball has been a deflated issue at Catholic since the university deemphasized its program and stopped trying to attract top athletes through scholarships.
Bruen, who is paid $25,000 a year, has demonstrated that basketball can be competitive for the players and fun for fans and students even at a lower level.
Bruen said 38 people attended the game where he made his coaching debut. Since then, as he revived the team on the court, the Goons' infectious mood has helped revive the spirit in the stands.
Many of the Goons consider Pendleton's, on Second Street NE, their second home. It is there that they meet before games to get in the spirit and after games to discuss the results. Occasionally, the bar charters a bus and loads it with potent refreshments to take the Goons in style to the campus two miles away.
Tony Walsh, a co-owner of Pendleton's and the Goon who leads the cheers by spelling out words with body motions, said he was shocked by the initial response to the organized trips.
"Jack has so many friends, but we didn't start out with anything in mind," said Walsh. "When he got the job at Catholic, we just wanted to show some support. I was hoping we could get 44 people to fill up the bus. We ended up with over 60."
Ironically, few of the Goons attended Catholic or have any connection with it, but their friendship with a drinking buddy has turned into an acquired loyalty to the Cardinals.
"This whole thing has mushroomed," said Teti. "Now there's a bunch of schools we really don't like, and we have special cheers for them. The strange part is that I never even heard of some of these schools before -- like Emory and Henry and Mary Washington -- but to us, they have become the big rivals."
Bill Burke, 37, a Northeast lawyer and one of the handful of Catholic alumni among the Goons, said the group has done more than just make games fun to go to again.
"I think the Goons have had a tremendous effect on the players," said Burke, who attends a Catholic game once or twice a week. "I am sure the team loves it when we are there. When we scream, they'll turn their heads, so we know they hear us. Anyone playing a sport loves to be cheered."
Bruen recalled that the normally placid students were stunned by his cheering friends.
"The student body didn't know what to make of the Goons," said Bruen. "Now the students have caught on, and when everyone is yelling, it gives the team an extra lift. When it's filled and gets hot in here, sometimes the other team will just wilt."