Four nights after his nose was broken by an errant elbow, Michael (P-Bird) Britt was back on the basketball court looking like Dr. Doom. A black, plastic mask covered his still fractured beak and part of the rest of his face. What little could be seen through the eye slits was bloodshot and bruised.
"The mask kind of interfered with my vision and the sweat was pouring into my eyes," said Britt, a 6-7 forward for the University of the District of Columbia. He wasn't apologizing for the 30 points or 20 rebounds he got during that game last week. He was just sorry he couldn't do it with a little more style.
Michael Britt is a big man who runs and guns like a guard, outrebounds some of the tallest centers around and has more ways of putting a ball through a basket than any other college player in the metropolitan area. More than Georgetown's Pat Ewing. More than Maryland's Adrian Branch. More than his own celebrated teammate, 7-foot Earl Jones.
Britt may not be the best college player in the area, but he is probably the most exciting. He has a 22-point scoring average, 100-mile-per-hour moves and more flash than a roll of aluminum foil. He also has the distinction of being the best-kept secret in Washington.
"I'm not worried about the publicity. I guess it will come eventually," said Britt, a 21-year-old junior who is as quiet off the court as he is flamboyant on it. "I've just got to keep giving the crowd what they come to see."
Britt's underexposure is shared by the team he captains. UDC finished the regular season 20-5, and for the first time in the school's five-year history qualified for next month's NCAA Division II playoffs. But in an area that has the Hoyas, Terrapins and Eagles, the UDC Firebirds playing teams like Pratt Institute have proved easy to pass up.
Britt is used to being overlooked. He grew up in Southside Virginia near Smithfield, so far off the beaten path that college scouts needed guides to get there. Britt said he learned his best moves from local playground winos. And he learned them well enough to average 30 points a game in high school and embarrass Ralph Sampson one night by dribbling through Sampson's legs before dunking the ball behind his back.
"Michael is the best college forward in the country," said his coach, Wil Jones, who has never been one to spare the superlatives. Asked how often Britt surprises him, Jones answered, "Every time he plays."
If UDC has not received the recognition Jones and his team think it deserves, the success has not gone unnoticed. John H. Britton, the school's director of communications, said the basketball team has helped give some much-needed identity to the school of 14,000 students spread over three city campuses.
"I'll give you an example," said Britton in his office at the school's Van Ness campus, just off Connecticut Avenue. "I go regularly to a shoeshine place down at 13th and U streets called Duke's. It's the most famous place in town. A couple of years ago, all they talked about was Maryland and Georgetown. Now they're arguing about the relative merits of Earl Jones and Michael Britt. That tells you this school has arrived."
If Earl Jones is the player many of the fans first come to see, it is Michael Britt they are talking about when they leave. Britt's statistics (22 points and 12 rebounds per game) are all the more impressive because he has to share shooting and rebounding duties with Jones.
But then quantity has never been as crucial to Britt as quality. Here is one more or less typical move: Britt drives the lane, one on one, with the ball palmed in his right hand. With the defensive man committed, Britt passes the ball over his head to his left hand, spins 180 degrees and dunks the ball backward.
"The crowd comes to a game looking for something exciting," said Britt. "I like to make them stand up."
Britt said he would probably be packing Smithfield hams or serving in the Army right now, like most of his high school classmates, except for a chance encounter with Wil Jones, who had traveled to Suffolk to scout another player.
"The first time I saw Michael, I thought he was the best I'd ever seen," said Jones, who still gets worked up at the memory.
In high school, Britt was a poor student who kept, by his own admission, "bad company." With more than a little pushing from Jones, Britt has raised his grade average to 3.3. And the crowd he runs with now, he claims, is so straight it'd put a room full of ministers to sleep. The only part of that old life he has not forsaken is his wide-open, jaw-dropping game.
And he thinks it's a shame so few people have had a chance to see it.
"I know there's a lot of good basketball to see in this town," said Britt, who was sitting on bleachers in the UDC gymnasium three hours after his nose had been broken again, then reset by doctors at George Washington University Hospital.
He was still woozy from the anesthesia. Every few minutes, he reached up to touch the tip of his nose, which was the only part visible under a blanket of white gauze and tape. "But right now, I think we got the best show in town."