When the final Virginia shot went awry and North Carolina State had won the NCAA West Regional last week, a good deal of sporting Washington knew it would have a strong rooting interest this weekend in the final four.
This won't be Washington's team, as Georgetown was a year ago, but a team whose principal players happen to be rooted to Maryland and the District. Sidney Lowe always distributes the ball for State, Dereck Whittenburg usually shoots it from spectacular distances and Thurl Bailey grabs many of the misses.
Although brothers (Scooter and Rodney McCray) represent Louisville here, few teams ever have gotten so far in the NCAA playoffs with guards who also played together in high school. Lowe and Whittenburg met during the summer before they enrolled as 10th graders at De Matha, each having led their respective junior high school teams to championships.
Small stars, they still glittered. Bailey was as awe-struck as everybody else in the Baltimore Civic Center the night sophomore Whittenburg outdueled Albert King and Gene Banks in a slam-dunk contest. Bladensburg's 6-foot-11 Bailey was the slowest to develop; he may well go farthest in the NBA.
Theirs was no package gift-wrapped and shipped to Tobacco Road in a stunning recruiting coup. Each chose State for different reasons, and signed at different times. They have lit up the Washington area lately. Bailey's mother and Lowe's mother watched the regional championship together; Whittenburg's family was prancing about the living room as Dereck and Sidney were in Utah rolling about midcourt in a victory embrace.
"Whenever they go to the grocery store, my sister, father and mother spend an extra half-hour talking about us," said Bailey. "It's nice to know that people love you."
"All the people who were for Maryland and Virginia have gone with us," said Whittenburg. "Bandwagon people."
"It feels good that people are celebrating at home," said Lowe. "Something special. I know they're praying for us."
Dereck Cornelius Whittenburg, from Glenarden, loves to tell stories nearly as much as he loves an open 20-foot jumper. In both tasks, rarely does he miss.
Take the time he shook Pope John Paul II's hands. After his freshman year at N.C. State, Whittenburg traveled to Italy on a summer trip with Morgan Wootten, his coach at De Matha. Listen to Whittenburg take the story to heart:
"A lot of people were trying to get into the Vatican . . . There were these 85-year-old nuns smacking me to death. They kept throwing these elbows at me. A little lady next to me said I had to be ungentlemanly if I wanted to get in there. I felt bad, but I did it.
"I ended up with the Polish delegation. I had nobody to talk to. There I was, the only black guy in the Polish delegation."
Even as he suffered from a flu and temperature of 101 degrees today, Whittenburg sat up on his hotel bed, eyes glistening, and said, "I did get to shake Pope John Paul's hand. It was all right."
Fact is, most of Whittenburg's basketball career has been all right. With a giggle, Whittenburg, an engineering major, says he used to play every sport the human body could endure. "In my area," he'll say of Glenarden, "I was The Athlete. I was the guy who played everything: tennis, basketball, football, soccer."
Whittenburg is a 6-foot-1, 195-pound bundle of pride. "A boisterous, crazy guy," says Marty Fletcher, the VMI head coach who was an assistant at De Matha and at N.C. State. Those who know Whittenburg will tell you as much.
"He's always been a person who's wanted to win," says his mother Lillian. "After he lost a game, even when he was young, he has always fallen on the court or on the middle of the field and cried. I'd tell him, 'It's only a game.' And he would say, 'You're right, Mama.' "
Really, though, basketball has always been much more than a game for Whittenburg. Trace it back to when he was a 10-year-old playing at Riverdale Baptist Church or later at William Wirt Middle School.
"I must have played in every playground and rec center in Washington," he says. "In junior high school, I'd play with the older guys. We'd take five guys from our area, jump into the car and drive anywhere to play people."
Whittenburg went glory to glory: from all-Met at De Matha, to all-Atlantic Coast Conference teams last season and this season, to the West Regional's most valuable player.
Sidney Rochell Lowe, from Northeast Washington, has always been the master of imitation. In high school, his impressions of Wootten made even Wootten's belly hurt.
Wootten recalled the first time he heard Lowe's "imitation of Coach."
"Sidney hitched up his pants like I do," Wootten said. "And he went over to Dereck Whittenburg and started doing me-at-halftime. Sid said, 'Dereck son, what's wrong? That kid too quick for you to guard? Uh-huh? Oh, you're a specialist. Only play on offense, huh?
" 'And you, big fella (Percy White). Big first half you had there. One rebound. Think you can get two the second half?' "
Always fun, but never sassy, his mother Carrie says.
"Sidney only got one whipping when he was growing up," she remembered. "I came home from work one day and Sidney was playing basketball in the street with some school pals. He was about 9 or 10, and I had told him never to play in the street. So I spanked him.
"I told him that from then on, he was to go to the playground. So he started going to the Ludlow Taylor playground. He'd go there and he'd play the violin.
"When he got ready to go to high school, he wanted to go to Dunbar, because his little girfriend was going to Dunbar. But I wanted him to go to De Matha. He told me, 'Mom, if I go to De Matha and can't make Mr. Wootten's varsity, can I leave?' And I said, 'Sidney, you can make it.' "
And every day for three years, Willie Lowe would drive Sidney to De Matha, where his son made it. And Willie Lowe has been there for every layup and double dribble.
"I watch him play basketball and sure, I feel proud," Lowe says. "But you know what I'm really proud of? I like to keep the television on after the game and watch those postgame interviews. I love to see him speak well."
Sidney Lowe is 6-1, maybe, and the point guard at State the past four years. As Fletcher says, "Sidney always makes the right play. Always."
Yet, there were doubts four years ago. College recruiters kept saying, "But he can't shoot."
One day in 1979, Norman Sloan, then the N.C. State coach, came to De Matha and pulled Wootten aside.
"I'm real interested in Sidney Lowe," Sloan said. "But he's small and I'm worried about his shooting."
After that, having watched Lowe score 26 points, Sloan ran up to Wootten and said, "Let's make a pact. Don't tell anybody I questioned Sidney's shooting until he graduates or until I'm no longer at N.C. State."
Lowe is still shooting.
Thurl Lee Bailey, from Seat Pleasant, has escaped, for however briefly, from an enormous shadow. Ralph Sampson, Sam Bowie, Steve Stipanovich, Clark Kellogg, James Worthy, Terry Cummings and Dominique Wilkins were the glamor guys in an astonishingly talented group of high school front-court players four years ago.
Because he matured on the court quite a lot later than off it, Bailey was a bailout prospect. If a school knew it had no chance at, say, Sampson or Bowie, it began courting Bailey heavily.
"At one point in junior high," he said, "everybody was better than me. But basketball is like playing a musical instrument (he plays three); practice makes you near-perfect."
Some Bladensburg opponents surely argue Bailey is being too modest. Once he had "triple 20s." That was 20 points, more than 20 rebounds and 27 blocked shots in a junior varsity game. Projected mostly as a swift and skinny shot blocker, Bailey thought he could do better.
Bailey was content to "observe" his first year at State; he still knew he belonged in big-time basketball.
"That really didn't hit me until after the first few practices," he said. "Not until I got beat up a bit, and started giving it back. The older guys check your attitude, try to see if you're serious about the game. They want to be winners, so they're anxious to make sure you're not some loafing all-star.
"Once I started getting my foot in the door, they figured I was okay, that I could help a lot."
Lowe and Whittenburg have played side by side, guard by guard, for the last seven years. Watching from Bladensburg during their De Matha years, Bailey remembers, "Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe were like local heroes."
Friends off the court.
Once, the story goes, each had his eye on the same girl. Wootten says he brought the two players together and said, "Guys, I thought this was a love relationship."
Wootten says Lowe replied, "Yeah, love each other, not the same girl."
Today, Lowe laughed and denied it all, saying, "Wait a minute. That sounds like one of Coach Wootten's fairy tales."
Friends on the court, too.
On Jan. 12, Whittenburg broke his right foot. Out for the season, they said.
Lowe remembers the scene: "When the bone broke, I felt the pain. He was doing all the hurting, but I was doing all the crying."
Now Bailey has joined the relationship. It's a relationship born in Washington, alive and well in the final four.
"If we win it all," said Bailey, "maybe we'll go back to Washington and they'll have a 'Big T, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe Day.' "