When the University of the District of Columbia basketball team departs today for the NCAA Division II championships in Springfield, Mass., there will be a guide along who is familiar with the sights of that city.
Earl Jones has been there before. "Twice," he said, "when I was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a high school all-America. In fact, I was all-America three times but I didn't go one year. I should have been all-America four times, but a lot of high schools didn't have a ninth grade so I guess they didn't give it to freshmen. I averaged 30 points a game as a freshman."
These are a lot of words from Jones, who has never been talkative. The 7-foot hub of the UDC team is notorious for his silence, but this week he took a half-hour out from practice for an interview.
"Earl knew you were coming," Assistant Coach Cheryl Roberts explained later. "He was ready. See, (forward Michael) Britt has been getting all the publicity lately. I think Earl feels like it's time for him to get his."
The truth is that Britt, with his high-flying, exciting playing style and relaxed confidence off court, has been basking in the limelight as UDC soared through the regionals and quarterfinals to become one of the final four teams seeking the national title.
Just to set the record straight, UDC Coach Wil Jones was asked, "If you had to go to Springfield tomorrow and you had to leave Britt or Jones behind, one or the other, which would you take with you?"
It's a rotten question, since both are legitimate pro prospects and indispensable to the team. Between them, they average 47 points and 22.5 rebounds a game, almost evenly split. The coach hemmed and hawed and finally said, "I'd have to take Earl. No question. He's the heart of the team."
The heart of the UDC basketball team is getting bigger, stronger and a little less shy. Sometime before May he will be faced with his biggest academic challenge to date, said Roberts, his adviser as well as his coach.
"He's going to have to give a talk in public speaking class," she said. "He's as nervous as he could be."
Jones has been publicly criticized for his decision to play for a school in Division II, the minor leagues of college basketball. He could have gone to a prep school or junior college and possibly gained admittance to a Division I school. By going to a Division II school, critics maintain he cheated himself of the challenge of facing the best players in big-stakes Division I.
Earl Jones' response: "You don't have to play against nobody (special) to be good. Look at where (Virginia center Ralph) Sampson came from--a small school."
And, he added, he plays against top area college and NBA players in the Urban Coalition summer league. "I played against (Washington Bullets) Jeff Ruland and Ricky Mahorn. And (former Bullet) Joe Pace. I feel I did well against them. None of them could check me. Every time I play them, I get 40 points, 15 rebounds. They're much slower than me. I'd be running up and down the court, they're standing under the basket."
Perhaps more important for Jones than the competition he's missing at UDC is the pressure he's avoiding.
He came to Washington in the summer of 1979 from his home in tiny Mount Hope, W. Va., to take his senior year at Spingarn High. From a troubled past in the rural mountains, including problems with school absenteeism, he came to the city and "fit in right away," according to Spingarn Coach John Wood.
Wood saw in Jones a youngster who had been used for his sports skills at Mount Hope and who, as a result, was "leery" of people outside a close circle of friends. "He'd been through so much turmoil that I think he lost trust in people."
At Spingarn there was more turmoil, as Jones' eligibility to play was denied part of his first semester because of truancy the year before at Mount Hope. "I believe he's still bitter at that," said Wood. "I think he will have resentment with him the rest of his life because of the way he was treated. He left a situation where he had been misused and then got misused here."
Can a youngster who learns distrust at the hands of manipulative adults flower in the pressure-cooker of a big-time Division I sports program? No one knows. It is known that even at low-key UDC, Earl Jones is only beginning to emerge from his shell.
At UDC, there have been no TV games, no national championships to battle for until now, and only minimal media pressure when Jones failed to live up to his potential early in his freshman year. In the dim light of Division II, he has blossomed slowly.
Last weekend, against the No. 1-ranked Division II team in the country, Cheyney State, Jones and Britt led a methodical UDC assault that fell just short of a rout. Jones led the fast break more than once; he cleared the boards at both ends; he blocked the middle on defense, slam-dunked and intimidated the visitors from taking their normal shots. With eight minutes left, UDC was up by 14 points. Jones was everywhere.
"He was in heaven," said Wil Jones. "I even let him dribble the ball upcourt one time."
A 7-footer who can dribble the ball and make 29 consecutive free throws during one stretch of the season is something pro scouts will pay money to see. "There's no mystery about him," said Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry. "He's a very good shooter, he runs the court, he has very good quickness for his size, he's a good athlete. He's an NBA talent; he has the tools. The only possible minus is strength; has he got the size for an 82-game season in the pros?"
Last summer, Jones started lifting weights and now owns a pair of shoulders that are wide, implausibly level and perched on a frame that still gets him called "Slim" by his teammates.
He doesn't look big, perhaps in part because he moves so fluidly. "A lot of people say I don't look strong," said Jones. "But then they try to move me and they find out."
This weekend, the pressure is on Jones and UDC as they face California State-Bakersfield in the Division II semifinal Friday night. If they win, they square off Saturday for the national title against the winner of the other semifinal between Florida Southern and Kentucky Wesleyan.
Of course, it's still only Division II pressure.
The real test comes later.
In speech class.