They came in Mercedes, jeeps and pick-up trucks. More than 6,000 of them. This was Earl Jones' homecoming and they had been waiting for weeks.
"I brought my three kids and my neighbor's three," said Ed Washington. "I have been telling them all week that this man, well almost a man, is the next Jabbar. Now they can see for themselves."
The anticipation of Jones' return to West Virginia, where he became a two-time high school all-America at Mount Hope before transferring to Springarn in Washington, D.C., for his senior year, had the Civic Center Coliseum buzzing with excitement even before the 7-foot Jones led the University of the District of Columbia onto the floor for its warmups prior to the game against Charleston, which UDC won 80-71.
"I wasn't expecting anything," Jones said. "I heard a few people say some things I didn't like, but I didn't let it bother me. I think many of the people here are here to see if I am still Earl Jones. Tonight they'll see a new Earl Jones."
There was no marching band, no banners draped around this picturesque city tucked away in the Appalachian mountains, no Gov. Jay Rockefeller on hand to deliver a welcome address. And if those in attendance held bad feelings because Jones -- the most heralded athlete to come out of West Virginia since Jerry West migrated west to star for the Lakers of the NBA -- decided West Virginia was not the place to improve his skills, they kept them hidden.
Jones didn't play like an all-America tonight, but did draw several oohs and aahs for his shooting and blocked shots. While spectators and the Charleston defenders were preoccupied with every move the center made, his teammate, forward Mike Britt, was scoring 32 points to lead UDC. Jones had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.
"I know a lot of people were coming here to see me play and I wanted to do my best," Jones said. "I don't think I played as well as I could, but we won, my friends and my mother were here and I'm happy."
The Mount Hope fans were ecstatic. Each time their hero made as much as a move toward the basket, the noise began to build. Jones managed only one dunk but no one was complaining.
"I just came to see Earl play," said his coach at Mount Hope, Delbert Adkins. "We always had a good relationship and, yes, I was sad to see him go but I wished him well. I think the people in West Virginia are glad to see him, too. They know there won't be another like him to come out of here, if ever. He can still do it all."
Jones, who has been criticized lately for appearing "bored and lazy," didn't score his first field goal until nearly nine minutes had elapsed in the first half. UDC (5-4) was sloppy and had problems getting the ball inside to Jones, who had a five-inch height advantage over Charleston's tallest man. Jones didn't move very freely around the key and the aggressive Golden Eagles muscled and double-teamed him to keep him from getting the ball.
But Britt, with his uncanny moves and entertaining assortment of shots, was scoring 16 points to stake the Firebirds to a 41-30 lead at intermission.
Jones played with more intensity in the second half, blocking shots and clogging up the middle. Charleston stayed close on the outside shooting of former De Matha star Joe Lucas and Keith Creighton. Lucas made two 18-footers to close the Golden Eagles to 53-47 with five minutes to play.
But Jones made a nice play, swatting away a shot that Mike Daniels turned into a driving layup. After another Charleston miss, Jones hit a jump shot and Britt followed with a free throw. UDC had breathing room, 74-65, with one minute remaining.
"I thought he (Jones) had a good game," said Mount Hope Principal Jim Casebolt. "I knew this might be the last time Earl played in West Virginia as a collegiate player and I didn't want to miss him. I'm sure I'll see him a few times on TV playing in the NBA."