Earl Jones put a towel over his face. A woman reached up on tippy-toes to kiss Michael Britt, who stumbled over her foot. The zany Firebird mascot, wearing a purple and silver crown, wandered as if lost. The only smile around the University of the District of Columbia basketball team belonged to the coach, Wil Jones, who could smile if a lion had him for lunch.
Proud of his guys, even as Wright State University ate them up tonight, Jones went from one to another, hugging them all, smiling in defeat just as he smiled in so many victories these last two glorious seasons.
"I told them they had a colossal year, 29-3, and they played for the national championship," Jones said later. "That's the beautiful part of it for these kids. I told them, 'Hey, you won 90 for me. You made a lot of people feel the way you're feeling right now. You were champions and you still are.' "
Tonight's score was 92-73. It was definitive. If you're going to win two straight national championships, be they in basketball or tiddly-winks, you better show up with all your tools. Tonight UDC didn't shoot well (43 per cent), its defense couldn't prevent a zillion layups (Wright shot 63 per cent), and anytime UDC threatened, Wright had the fortitude and talent to put down the rally.
"I read somewhere somebody saying how hard it is to win two national championships, let alone two in a row," Jones said, sitting alone in a locker room a half-hour after the game. "I'm sorry I even read that."
There remained a thread of hope even when Wright led, 65-53, with 7:12 to play. With full-court pressure and a series of fouls, UDC had moved from 17 points behind even as Earl Jones played with hazy vision in one eye (the result of a collision as he missed an early game dunk).
But in the next minute and a half, Wright made eight straight free throws, answering the challenge. And UDC, a confident favorite having a bad night when every bounce goes the wrong way, did nothing at its end. The 8-0 burst gave Wright State a 73-53 lead and that was that.
Wright is no mediocrity. Shooting 34 percent early this season, it trailed Louisville by only 10 points with five minutes to play (losing 71-55). "I figured then we could play with anybody," said winning Coach Ralph Underhill. However sad the night turned out for UDC, then, there seems no reason for a guy to change his mind about the future of its basketball program.
So good is UDC that an hour before tonight's game, the school's president and its chairman of the board of trustees spoke of the future as if a second straight national championship was a foregone conclusion.
Ronald H. Brown, an attorney who is the trustees' chairman, hinted that UDC might play selected games at off-campus sites such as the new Convention Center and Capital Centre. He also said the university should give thorough consideration to the idea of moving its basketball program into Division I with the big-timers.
As Brown spoke, the university president, Dr. Benjamin H. Alexander, nodded agreement and added, "Wil Jones may cause the university to expand. We may build an additional 1,400 seats in our basketball facility. For one game, we turned away 3,000 people. You know how they called Yankee Stadium 'The House That Ruth Built'?
"Well, this may be 'The House That Wil Jones Built.' It's being considered right now. If it goes through, the extra seats could be done in time for next season."
This is Alexander's first season in Washington. An old track man, he says he became a basketball fan when he saw what the Firebirds did for the university.
"Look at that spirit," he said, pointing to courtside where the UDC pep band was marching in. "Our success in basketball has given the school an identity not only in the city of Washington, but across the country. Do me a favor, please. Keep Wil Jones and his players out front on this. This is theirs. They have done wonders for the university."
The list of people who recognize Wil Jones' good work includes, right at the top, Wil Jones. Among other things, the coach has suggested he doesn't want to go Division I until he gets a solid financial commitment from the university (spell that $500,000 in advance, Jones says, only half-kidding).
President Alexander turned a hand to Brown when someone asked if the university wanted to make a Division I commitment.
"Certainly at the staff level, there has been considerable discussion of Division I," Brown said. "Basketball has had an undeniable importance for a school like ours because we're reaching out for the support of a city. State universities have found that athletics creates an awareness of the university that causes people who may look first for athletics to then ask about academics, too, to find out if it's the kind of place they'd like their kids to go.
"But we have to remember, too, that we're in stage of creative development yet. We have to keep our priorities in order and don't forget that these are student-athletes with an emphasis on the 'student.' "
Enough of this on-the-other-hand rhetoric, Mr. Chairman. As a weekend basketball player in pick-up games with other middle-aged has-beens, and as a bright fellow who knows basketball can sell a school to prospective students and donors--what is your personal position on the Division I debate?
"I think we should give it strong consideration," Brown said.
"If they give me the money to do it right," Wil Jones said in tonight's empty locker room of defeat, "we'll get right on it."