Altha Bassett Willamson. Who's he? That's the question the players, students and faculty members asked when Williamson was appointed basketball coach at Eastern High School 10 years ago.
"I was a no-name," Williamson recalled, "To make matters worse, the two best players transferred to McKinley. They felt I was new and didn't know anything.
Williamson, former Spingarn and North Carolina A&T athlete, took his lumps that first year but pulled off the upset of the year by beating top-ranked Ballou.
"I read something in a book called a diamond-and-one defense," said Williamson. "I used it on (Charles) Campbell and we won."
Williamson obviously studied a few more books as his Ramblers won four Interhigh League titles and one city championship in the next five years. Williamson compiled an excellent 107-2l won-lost record at Eastern.
Four years ago, Williamson, wanting new worlds to conquer, accepted the job at Howard and went through the "Who's he?" syndrome again. None of the players transferred but they weren't too overjoyed at the thought of a high school coach taking over.
"It was another low point for me. I didn't know how much time college coaching required," said Williamson. "I didn't know how to battle other coaches for potential players or how much time was required to prepare players for college ball. It was very draining, emotionally."
The Bison limped to a 9-19 record that first year. The following two seasons the team got off to flying starts but finished 18-10 and 15-9.
Williamson has learned a few tricks of the trade and recruited well. His team is 5-2 and boasts victories over Buffalo and Norfolk State, the the top-ranked team in the NAIA. Williamson also has upgraded the schedule, this year playing Colgate, Illinois State and in the Fairfield Holiday tournament.
Howard's only losses came at the hands of George Mason and Colgate. Williamson cringes at the mention of the George Mason game.
"It was disgusting to lose the way we did. With the material we have, I felt we should have won easily," Williamson said said, with some anger in his voice. "But if was our first road game and the new players have not developed confidence. It's tough playing on the road, whether the gym is five or 500 miles away."
After that game, Williamson held a 2 1/2 hour meeting that lasted until 4 a.m.
"We discussed a few issues and found out a few things about ourselves," said Williamson. "I don't need to tell you what they were but we came out a much closer-knit group. This is the most harmonious group I've had since I've been here."
After the lecture, Howard won its next three games.
Williamson's immediate goals are to win the MEAC crown and be the first predominantly black school to gain an NCAA playoff berth. But the 33-year-old D.C. native will be the first to admit neither will be easy.
"Getting five blue-chippers is hard. You can get five, six or eight bodies but you know it's not the same," Williamson, said laughing. "Some nights we can play with anyone, other nights we get blown out. We want to get to the point we can play consistent top-level teams, if not this year then in the next couple."
"Right now, we're a finger snap away from getting the top-notch players to come to Howard. It's not hard to get some to come here. It's hard getting the ones you want," Williamson continued, "People call me all the time, telling me to take this guy or that guy. I want players who can make the program go.
Although apparently heading for an excellent season, Williamson and Bison follwowers can't help but look forward to next year. Many of the present players will return and two of Williamson's former players at Eastern-all Mets James Ratiff nd Rodney Wright-will be eligible after sitting out this year because of the NCAA transfer rule.
Williamson also is a bit perturbed the other area schools won't schedule the Bison. Only Catholic (this was their final year of the series) and George Mason were on the Bison schedule this season.
"I guess I didn't realize what I was asking the other coaches to do. They had everything to lose and nothig to gain," he said.
"An area tournament with alll the local universities would create great interest. And I'm sure it would bring in good crowds."
The long 14-16 hour days have begun to take their toll on Williamson. Once a happy-go-lucky person, Williamson has become a more serious individual who knows what missing one day in the recruiting wars can do.
"I don't know what I would do without Cy (Alexander). my assistant. He handles all the scouting," said Williasmson."I sit here and answer 100 calls a day. I have no secretary. No rest."
Senior point guard Gerald Gaskins, who played at Eastern before coming to Howard, said Williamson has changed.
"His approach to the game is more serious now, more sophisticated." said Gaskins, "He still cares for his players and I think he's a better coach."
Howard has come under fire recently for NCAA violations and is going through considerate unrest in the athletic department. Football Coach Doug Porter recently blasted the school administration for failing to live up to promises of ungrading the program. He was fired last week.
"Each sport is a separate entity and each coach has to take care of his business," said Williamson, "So far, the adverse publicity hasn't affected my program."
Most of Williamson's problems occur on the court. He was suffering stomach pains during last week's Howard-Lincoln game and missed the first few minutes of the second half. He returned to coach and the Bison ran up a 13-point lead late in the game.
Then his team proceeded to blow all but two points of the lead before winning.
"That's the hardest part of the job getting the players up and keeping them up for the games," said Williamson. "People don't realize, the life of a college athlete isn't easy. They have to practise and study and practice and study some more. The life isn't all that glamorous."
Neither is the life of a college coach.