Wil Jones' Firebirds are back, fired up as usual by their loquacious coach as they begin pursuit of their second straight NCAA Division II basketball championship.
The University of the District of Columbia will open its 28-game season Friday and Saturday nights at its gym on Connecticut Avenue NW in a tournament with Bowie State, St. Augustine's and California State of Pennsylvania.
All 11 players are back from UDC's championship squad, along with three new men. One of the recruits is guard Neal Robertson from Kentucky, whose 40-inch vertical leaping ability has Jones waxing lyrical about "the next Isiah Thomas."
Of course, Robertson is just learning the Firebird system. It does not, he discovered the other day, include slam-blocking shots by his taller teammates in practice.
When Robertson did so in a fit of youthful exuberance, Jones halted the workout and blistered his young recruit. "Don't bring that stuff 'round here!" he shrieked.
The Firebirds all chuckled.
"We're like a family now," said Johnny Jones, the 6-foot-6 forward who worked out with the team last year but was ineligible to play after transferring from Fairmont State in West Virginia. He is expected to become a starter when he gains his eligibility Dec. 17.
"We know we don't have to depend on anybody. Last year, everybody knew Earl (7-foot center Earl Jones) was the key. When Earl was down, the whole team was. But after we won the championship, we knew nobody had to carry the team."
At the hub of last year's title team, along with Jones, were speedy 6-6 forward Michael Britt and point guard Kenny Payne. If there was a weakness, it was at power forward, where Johnny Jones should fit in nicely, and the new man Robinson could spell Payne and shooting guard Greg Carson.
Presumably, then, UDC is a lock-cinch to repeat.
"I don't know about that," worried Coach Jones, pointing to an expanded regular-season schedule that includes Virginia Union and Virginia State, both of which made the Division II regionals last year; Sacred Heart, which was New England regional champion, and Hampton Institute, third in the NAIA tournament last season.
UDC's administration is banking on increased public interest in the Firebirds. Buoyed by strong attendance late last season, administrators have raised ticket prices to $4 and $6 for home games, a $2 boost, and decided to set aside only 800 of the 2,800 seats for free student seating.
Why should people pay such prices to see UDC when Division I powers Georgetown and Maryland are right around the corner?
"I don't know, but it says in this book that UDC is the most exciting team in the country, and we're the only Division II team they even mention," said the coach, proferring a copy of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, which indeed said exactly that. "You tell me, if you had the most exciting team in the country in your town, who would you go see?"
UDC is, in fact, fun to watch. The leaping, sprinting Britt winds up fast breaks with Julius Erving-style dunks and Earl Jones is capable of popping 15-foot jumpers and dribbling between his endless legs.
But despite its run-run-run offense, UDC is disciplined enough to play defense and keep games from getting wildly out of hand.
The only drawback to UDC games might be lack of competition. Even in practice, Jones reminds his charges that in games they won't have to defend against players as good as they face in intrasquad scrimmages.
He berated reserve center Al Holland for front-guarding Earl Jones 10 feet away from the basket.
"Why are you worrying about him out here?" demanded the coach. "There's only two 7-footers in the world who can score from here with their back to the basket. One of 'em's name is Kareem and the other one's name is Earl Jones, and you won't have to check either one."