The basketball pulse has started to pound at Howard University. "I can hear the heartbeat of the game again," rejoices Coach A.B. Williamson.
For several days, Williamson, the doctor of ball who performed the heart transplant on the dormant Bison, has been getting long-distance phone calls from excited Howard alumni. He gives each caller the same warning.
"If you aren't sitting inside Burr Gym by 7 o'clock on Friday night, then you'll still be standing outside when we tip off at eight."
The barn-burner at Burr - Howard against its closest MEAC pursuer, North Carolina A&T - is evidence of how far Williamson has lifted the Bison program in 2 1/2 years.
A six-game winning streat has given Howard its conference lead (5-3), as well as the second-best overall record in the Washington area (11-3). AIT (5-1 in the MEAC) rolls into town fresh from a 16-point victory over previously undefeated NAIA power Winston Salem State.
As if that weren't enough to make this Howard's best home game in years, the two top players in the MEAC - Howard's 6-foot-7 Gerald (Dr. G) Glover and the Aggies' 6-6 James (The Bird) Sparrow - will match up at small forward.
"When Doc and Bird square off," Williamson said with a grin, "people will be hanging fro I haven't been this fired up since my Eastern (High School) teams used to play Dunbar and De Matha."
In those days fans sat on the roof, peeked through transoms, and passed messages bucket-brigade style so the masses outside the Eastern gym could get word of the dunking going on inside.
Some of that hysteria has come to Howard as the Bison have rumbled from 9-19 to 18-10 to 11-3 under Williamson.
"Our program isn't 100 percent in order yet," said Williamson, "but we're making strides. For one thing, we're beginning to believe it's impossible for us to lose in our gym.
"When people come into our little den, they know it's their turn to suffer."
Tonight's expected packed house of 3,500 will epitomize both the progress of Howard's team, and the lowering of expectations the 32-year-old coach has had to face at the college level.
Once, Williamson thought Burr would be too small to hold his program. He hoped to recruit a couple of Washington high school supers and schedule a few big-time opponents. Surely then the D.C. Armory, or even Capital Centre, would be the place for important Howard games.
Now Williamson says, "My biggest disappointment is that we haven't recrutieda superstar from D.C., though we've been so close. We just have to be patient."
Patience has been the first and hardest lesson in the education of A.B. Williamson, college coach.
After two years of gunning for blue chippers, Williamson has learned to "settle for very good players that the big schools have overlooked."
Instead of futilely trying to schedule home-and-home games with top 20 teams, Williamson has upgraded his schedule a notch a a time.
Next year's opponents include Buffalo, Colgate, Fairfield, Illinois State and UNC-Charlotte, all Division I members.
The coach has learned the hard way that getting plastered by big boys like USC. North Caroline and St. Bonaventure does not bring prestige just pain.
Also, he has mixed future games in the Armory. "No more. In think not. It was like playing a road game. One time the Armory didn't even have any heat on."
Yet another of Williamson's priorities - playing other major Washington colleges - has been forced to a back burner. "I'm not pushing for it any more," said a sadder-and-wiser Williamson, tired of being snubbed. "The more I pushed, the more they backed away. If the time comes when they want to play us, I'll be glad to open our doors."
Out of necessity, Williamson has discovered that small can be pretty, even if it is not entirely beautiful.
In recruiting, quantity has helped make up for quality. Three promising freshman guards now allow Howard to shuttle a five-man backcourt for constant full-court pressure.
Instead of searching for law talent, Williamson now maximizes teamwork, and demands it.
When Howard's No. 2 scorer told the coach that if he couldn't get more playing time as sixth-man he didn't think he should play at all, Williamson had a surprise answer.
"I agree. You shouldn't play at all," he said. "Keep your scholarship. Graduate on time. Come by and say hello. But turn in your uniform . . . now"
Once upon a time, Williamson talked of reaching the top 20. He wasn't bragging, or predicting, just expressing his limitless vision of what Howard could accomplish.
Now Howard no longer implies that the MEAC is a stepping stone to national prominence. "We can be one of the top teams in the league every year," is Williamson's avowed goal.
As often happens, Howard's trimmed sails have made for greater speed. A team flattered by wishful expectations might have crumbled under Howard's deluge of December misfortunes.
Howard thought it was primed for a fast start after an 11-game summer tour in Brazil designed to help unify the team. In addition to the inevitable problems of language and travel, the Bison had to band together to survive an all-out brawl in one town where 6-3 Maurice Pressley ended up standing on a table swinging a chair in selfdefense and Williamson was hit on the head by a bottle.
Williamson had a bigger headache after Howard lost its opener to Catholic. "We couldn't believe it," said Glover. "We played like we'd never seen each other before."
After recovering with five straight victories, Howard learned that a Christmas tournament including prestige teams like Grambling and Jackson State had folded. That cancellation, plus anothef wiped out game, left the Bison with only 23 games, not the normal 27.
"Out record is going to look less impressive than other team; simply because we've played less games," Williamson said bitterly. "That till never happen again."
Instead of a busy Christmas, Howard had a 17 day layoff, then, rusty, lost two games to start the new year.
"My job was not to show the team how low I really felt," said Williamson.
Cocaptains Glover and pre-med major Mike Nettles called team meetings to talk out problems, even those that were only on the horizon. Constructive criticism, not bad-mouthing, was the ground rule.
"They've been my first really productive captains," said Williamson. "They have the vocabulary and maturity to reach young players. A coach can't be a big brother to his players and still keep their esteem. He can't do the whole job."
Just when the Bison season might have turned irrevocably sour, sweetness began to flow from the strangest places.
"Almost overnight we snapped our two worst jinxes," said Williamson. After loosing eight in a row to Morgan State, the Bison beat the Bears by a whopping 19 points.
"That changed the season," said Glover. "We went to our new delay game, sank 12 free throws in the last four minutes and broke that hex, too," said Williamson.
A slowdown game from Williamson, the apostle of constant pressure at both ends? "Yes," he said, confessing to another college compromise. "You can't win in the big time without one. I'll still be learning this game for the next 10 years."
Nevertheless, it has not taken the Bison a decade to memorize A. B.'s ABCs. In just three seasons they have made Burr Gym one of the best places in town to feel the thumping heartbeat of the city game.