Things went so well for the University of the District of Columbia last week that Earl Jones smiled. And Earl Jones never smiles.
Jones is the 7-foot hub of UDC's extraordinary basketball team. As a conversationalist he makes a very good center. But after UDC whipped up on Mount St. Mary's and Elizabeth City, even he loosened up.
At practice at the university's brand new uptown gym, Coach Wil Jones introduced the team to some visiting moppets from a nearby elementary school.
"What is this?" asked the coach, holding up a ball.
"A bass-a-ball," said a moppet.
"Do you know who any of these people are?" he asked, gathering the team around him.
"I know that one," said another moppet."That's Early Jones."
"Early Jones?" chuckled the coach. The team hooted and a big, shy grin lit the tall man's face.
There are a lot of smiles around UDC these days. For starters, it's a real place for the first time in its existence. This offspring of the defunct, decentralized D.C. Teachers, Federal City and Washington Tech colleges suddenly is the most modern institution of higher education in the city.
UDC perches on a piece of prime Connecticut Avenue real estate. The gym overlooks a panorama of bright new buildings and ambitious new programs, not the least of which is the basketball team.
Says Athletic Director Orby Moss, "We hope basketball will be the draw one day, and right now the men's team is supporting itself. We have the legitimate draw in Earl and (forward Michael) Britt, and we're starting to get some recognition now.
"The problem is, we're still a Division II team in a Division I city."
But it's more than just any old Division II team.
The back-to-back victories last week boosted UDC to a 10-2 record and the No. 4 ranking in the nation. Its two losses were to Division I teams (including highly ranked Wichita State). Both of last week's opponents had made the 1981 NCAA Division II playoffs; Mount St. Mary's, in fact, lost in the final to Florida Southern. UDC crushed them both.
On Monday, UDC's eight-game winning streak was halted on the road by Radford College, 84-81, but UDC, which never has been in any playoffs, remained on the brink of national prominence. "We're still incubating," said Coach Jones, "but the kids and the fans around here realize now that we're not Podunk U. anymore."
UDC was founded five years ago from the ashes of its predecessors. The reputation of Federal City, in particular, has been hard to shake. "People still link us with FCC and the problems they had," said Moss, "allegations of guys playing who weren't even in school, breaking recruiting rules and stealing players, making outlandish promises to players..."
As a result, Moss said, UDC has had trouble scheduling good opponents and met with resistance in trying to sign good players. "Two years ago some high school coaches wouldn't even talk to us," he said. But that's changing.
The new facilities are impressive to potential recruits. Another recruiting advantage UDC has is its academic standards for scholarship athletes. Division I schools require a high school C average for recruits. UDC's only requirement is a high school diploma or equivalent.
That's how Jones and Britt came to UDC. They were highly sought by big-time schools for their basketball ability, but lacked the grades.
At UDC they were forced to become students. They are required to maintain a C average to remain eligible, so they find themselves prodded to keep their grades up. Coach Jones has a full-time assistant, Cheryl Roberts, whose main responsibility is to help players who need it with academics.
Roberts, 23, who believes she's the only female assistant men's basketball coach in the nation, said, "These guys don't do anything on their own. When they go home, they don't study. But while they're at school, we set aside two hours a day and study together.
Britt, a junior, is carrying a B average in physical education. Three years ago he hated school. "I had planned to just stay home (in Suffolk, Va.) and get a job," he said. "But my family gave me a challenge, and getting this degree is very important to me now. It's something I have to prove."
He already has proved he can play basketball.
If Earl Jones is the hub of the team, the 6-7 Britt is the glittering glue that holds it together. "He's our leader," said Roberts. He also is the perfect foil for the somber center. Britt has a smile that lights up the gym and a freewheeling basketball style that puts fans' hearts in their mouths when he gets the ball on a fast break.
Both Britt and Jones are considered good NBA prospects, but neither expects to leave UDC before graduation. That means one more season with this dominating front line.
This season UDC picked up a heady point guard in Kenny Payne, former Mackin all-Met who transferred here after 1 1/2 seasons at Division I Rutgers. Shooting guard Mike (Hawkeye) Daniels and 6-6 forward James Neal round out the starting five.
You could call a UDC game a day at the races. Even when the Firebirds went over 100 points and were ahead by 20 in defeating Elizabeth City, they didn't slow down the tempo.
"It's hard for us to slow down," said Britt, an immense grin splitting his face. "We love to run and everybody wants to score."
As a result the team averages 90 points a game and gives up 70. Coach Jones tries to slow the pace, but even he gets caught up in the flow of the Firebirds.
"Push it up. PUSH IT UP!" he was howling to his guards late in the Elizabeth City game.
What kind of coach is Wil Jones?
"He's a crazy coach, said Earl Jones. "He's hyper and everything else. But he's a good coach, though. He's one of the best."
Wil Jones played at Dunbar High before setting several scoring records in the late 1950s as a guard at American University. He compiled a 95-21 record coaching Robinson High in Northern Virginia and then was Lefy Driesell's assistant at Maryland until taking over at UDC three years ago.
He drives a Cadillac Cimarron and keeps a Jaguar in reserve. He dresses in high style and frets and fumes on the sidelines, often spouting unprintable expletives to spur his team on. The players love him.
"I do care about them," said Jones, "and they know it. I set the structure and the frame, but they know what they're supposed to do. I'm not gonna tell Kenny Payne not to penetrate; I'm not gonna tell Jones or Payne not to shoot the 30-footer when they know they can make it; I'm not gonna tell Britt when to get fancy."
With Jones on the sidelines the game takes on a life of its own. Not that there are that many people around to see it mature.
The Mount St. Mary's game drew 2,800, about 200 short of capacity, but the best crowd of the year. The next night it was back to normal, 1,000 or fewer.
"We're a bigger and better name outside the city than we are here in D.C.," said Moss, the athletic director. "But this is our first real basketball season with our own gym. The trouble in this town is everybody can go see Georgetown and Maryland playing Notre Dame and Indiana.It'll take awhile to get them here."
In fact, even among UDC students, who get into games free, the Firebirds still are one of the bestkept secrets in town.
"You mean the gym is open?" marveled Kip Rice, a sophomore. "The only time I was ever in the gym was for preregistration or something. There are no signs or anything to let us know they're even playing games.
"My high school (Theodore Roosevelt) did a much better job. I'd go to the games, but I don't know when they play."
Indeed, an informal poll of students waiting on a long preregistration line last week revealed that only seven of 30 had ever been to a UDC game. Only six knew the Firebirds were facing Mount St. Mary's that night and five said they planned to attend.
Very few potential fans live within walking distance and there are no UDC dormitories. The team should draw well from among former schoolmates of the players at city schools, but it's a haul across town for most of them.
Presumably, the new Metro stop at Van Ness/UDC will help. Metro is doing its share. After the Elizabeth City game the station attendant welcomed riders with this message: "This is Van Ness/UDC. It is 10:20 p.m. UDC won the game tonight, 108-87."
Where UDC goes from now is an open book. Moss and Coach Jones are pondering the effects of a switch to Division I, should university officials decide to upgrade academic entry requirements, a change that is under active consideration. Most knowledgable basketball fans figure the Firebirds already could spot Maryland five points and beat the Terrapins, so Division I isn't terrifying.
From atop the UDC hill, with the new campus sparkling in the winter sunlight, one gets the feeling that anything could happen. Nowhere is it written that UDC must forever be a poor stepchild to Washington's traditional basketball and academic powers.
"Let me tell you a story," said coach Jones. "I'm recruiting this white kid from Northern Virginia. At first he had his doubts, but we brought him over here. He sat down in the dean's office and looked out the glass at the new buildings and all the facilities.
"He was amazed. He said, 'Man, UDC is all right. '"