Bessie Stockard has several criteria for choosing among those who want to play on her basketball team at the University of the District of Columbia.
First, the routine stuff: Can they shoot, pass, rebound and play defense?
Then, more important matters: Can they read a bus schedule and use the subway? Can they wash, clean and cook? Can they find their way from 16th and Q streets NW, the so-called center of the UDC campus, to any of the school's 17 other buildings in the city?
"I've got to consider these things when I recruit a girl," said Stockard. "We've got a lot to offer at UDC, but we don't have a campus to speak of. Our buildings are scattered all over Washington.
"Since we don't have any on-campus housing, our players have to be self-reliant right away. They may be 18 or 19 years old, but they have to be able to get up for that 8 o'clock class in one part of the city, then go to another part of the city for the 11 o'clock class. And they can't miss practice at McKinley High School."
Despite conditions that make the players feel like nomads at times, UDC is 17-4, the best showing by any local women's team. The Firebirds have the area's leading scorer, Alice Butler (24.1 points a game) and its leading rebounder, Chanel Hamilton (16). If they can make a good showing against their final three opponents -- Rutgers, South Carolina and Clemson, all ranked in the top 20 -- at the end of the month, the Firebirds should be good candidates to receive one of eight berths in the AIAW's Division I 1B Eastern Region tournament March 13-14 in Philadelphia.
"We're really hoping for a bid," said Stockard. "We lost a few games early in the year, but we're playing well now (the Firebirds have won seven straight games). I know there is a lot of competition for the bids. But I really think this program is comparable to any in the country."
"We're finally getting to play together as a team," said Butler, a 5-foot-9 junior forward who was a two-time all-Met at DuVal High School. "We're getting closer, and we now know what each other is going to do."
Last year, her first after transferring from American University, Butler averaged 26.9 points a game, sixth best in the country, and was the No. 2 rebounder in the nation with an 18.2 average. In contrast to teammate Gwen Jones, whose flamboyant style earned her the nickname "Ms. J" while she still was at Ballou High School, Butler is a solid, no-nonsense player. Jones (15 points a game) has the blind passes, the spin moves. Butler depends on fundamentals.
Stockard had recruited Butler when she was coaching at American University in 1976-77 after several highly successful years at Federal City College, UDC's predecessor.
Butler considered offers from Delaware State and South Carolina State before choosing Stockard and AU. She averaged 28 points her freshman year, but sat out the next year with an injury. Butler transferred last year to UDC when Stockard accepted the job coaching there.
"I had been impressed with Alice right away," said Stockard, who has a 220-45 record in 11 years at Federal City, American and UDC. "Do you know when I was first struck by her? It was in warm-ups before a game. There was something about the way she was warming up in a layup drill. It was obvious in her approach that she was very dedicated. And when I watched her play, I saw she was nerves personified."
Stockard coached three future professional players while at UDC, and says both Butler and Jones can make it in the pro ranks.
"Gwen is very, very quick and is an excellent playmaker," Stockard said of the 5-9 senior guard. "She'll need to work on her outside shot because she's played inside most of her career, but there's no question she has the ability to play pro ball.
"As for Alice, I get calls from pro coaches who want to know about her. The first thing they ask is how tall she is. When I tell them, I hear them to, 'Ummm,' on the other end and then they say, 'What's her vertical jump? She must be a great jumper to get so many rebounds.' I tell them she's not. She's just always at the right place at the right time."