The basketball game begins not with the national anthem, but a prayer.
The coach, standing at midcourt in front of the scorer's table, addresses everyone in the building. Players and spectators in the stands bow their heads.
"Father, we thank You for the privilege of basketball . . . Now bless this time together . . . We thank You for all these things in Christ's name. Amen."
With that, the Washington Bible College basketball team takes the court.
Its coach, Wally Webster, concedes the Washington Bible College has "probably the least well-known basketball program in the area, including high schools, with teams like DeMatha."
The program at Washington Bible is a revelation. Situated on 63 green acres in Lanham, WBC plays in a sparkling, $1 million facility called the Wagner Center. The building is so complete -- the college got more than its money's worth because some materials were donated -- it even includes guest rooms for visiting teams.
"The Lord's been good to us," said Webster, who also teaches the Old Testament at the school.
The Lord's name comes up often in conversations with Webster and his players: the nondenominational Washington Bible College, with 383 students, 172 full-time, stresses education in the Bible and devotion to the Lord.
Most graduates of WBC become church pastors or go into Christian education or missionary work.
Young men play basketball there because they like the game; no athletic scholarships are given.
"A choir member can get as much financial aid as a basketball player," said Geoff Wheeler, the athletic director and soccer coach.
The team is a member of the National Christian Collegiate Athletic Conference's nonscholarship Division II. Having won six of its last eight games, Washington Bible has an 8-8 record. Though not particularly tall, the team likes to run and shoot. Webster's brother Tim is the playmaking guard, and the top player is 6-foot-5 Chris Graham of Sterling Park, Va., a transfer from Glenville State in West Virginia who is averaging 24 points and 12 rebounds.
"Last year, I really didn't think about the Lord at all," said the sandy-haired Graham, one day after practice. "Coming here has opened up my eyes. It's started me thinking. Do I want to be a pastor? A businessman? It's helping me see what I should be doing. And while I'm doing that, I get to do what I love, play basketball."
Graham said his father, a Washington Bible College graduate, recommended the school. Like Graham, many students are guided there by religious families or Christian secondary schools. In his 1 1/2 years as coach, Webster simply hasn't had a 7-foot sinner come walking down Good Luck Road and happen into his office.
"I'd like to get one player like Chris every year -- or every two years," Webster said. "One player like him and two other solid players."
A 1976 graduate of Washington Bible, Webster, 30, comes from the Eastern Shore crossroads of Wenona, Md. He has a master's in Bible exposition from Pensacola (Fla.) Christian College and is working on a master's of divinity at the Capital Bible Seminary, also located on the Lanham campus. As teacher and coach, he emphasizes the Bible.
"Spiritual perspective" at WBC is more important than victories and losses, he added.
If, as it might be said, Washington Bible plays with a spiritual Sixth Man in its lineup, this is not an unfair advantage because most of its opponents, being Bible colleges, also boast the same Sixth Man.
Philadelphia College of the Bible and Lancaster Bible are WBC's main rivals. The perennial conference champion is Baptist Bible College of Clarks Summit, Pa. Baptist Bible has beaten WBC 25 straight times since 1968.
But Webster and his players meet obstacles with joy. Once, on the way to a game at Appalachian Bible College, their bus broke down and they had to wait 2 1/2 hours for a replacement. The other night, on the way back from Allentown, Pa., and an overtime victory over United Wesleyan, they had to get the team bus jump-started twice.
"Sometimes when we get into our vehicle," Webster said, "we just pray . . . to get us there and get us back."
Yet, if they love the game, WBC players also want to win.
"A lot of times our faith can be put to the test," the athletic director, Wheeler, said. "Because in the heat of battle you can do something you don't want to do. We want to be an example of strength under control."
Not to say that everyone is perfect -- even Webster admits to once getting charged with a technical foul, although he says he isn't sure why and (sounding like any coach hit with a technical) doesn't think the official was fair.
And, too, Webster cares enough about the team's record, as well as the individual himself, not to want his star player to drop out of school. Last week, Graham said that because he is engaged to be married, perhaps he should withdraw and get a job.
"I've been praying about it," Graham said.
The Miami Christian College team -- eight strong, plus its coach, the coach's wife and two small children, and a young man filming the games -- rolled into Lanham at noon last Saturday in a white van for an afternoon game with WBC. Miami Christian was nearing the end of a between-semesters road trip, having defeated Valley Forge Christian College before losing to Yeshiva, Lancaster (Pa.) Bible, United Wesleyan and Nyack (N.Y.) College.
"We hope to honor the Lord on the court in some way," said Charles Temple, Miami Christian's coach.
This is accomplished, he said, not by the final score but "by doing the best we can, playing up to our potential."
Quickly, Washington Bible began running and shoooting and Miami Christian fell behind. At the half, with WBC leading, 39-31, Harry E. Fletcher, the school president, reminisced about the days when he attended the college, when it was on Rhode Island Avenue NW. "We played our games at the Salvation Army and the YMCA," he said.
Second half: The thing about Miami Christian, it never gave up. "All out, let's go," one player urged his teammates in the final minute, though they trailed by 15. Final: 90-77, WBC.
The players shook hands after the game; they genuinely wished each other well and lingered to talk. The officials whistled in the showers; they had just worked a game in which no one had given them a hard time.
Webster had several reasons to be happy. Among them, three transfer students will become eligible to play in the second semester. One is 6-5 Troy Thomas of Largo. A leaper and shooter who hopes to become a high school coach or a youth pastor, Thomas visited a school in North Carolina but was put off by its "parties."
"We don't have that here and I can get to my studies," he said.
The addition of the three players means that Mark Fletcher, nephew of the president, will be able to hand in his sky blue-and-white Cougars' uniform. The team manager, he was activated when there were only nine players. In the game of his life earlier this season, he got 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But Fletcher, who also hopes to be a pastor, says, "It was a great experience. It was fun. But, even more, I just like going along as support, spiritual support."
Perhaps what made Webster happiest was Graham's decision: He's going to stay at WBC.
"I never quit anything in my life, especially basketball, my love," Graham said. "And a whole year of Bible college will really help me in my spiritual life, getting married and everything."
In the lobby, the coaches, Webster and Temple, mulled over an uncommon problem: Both had had basketballs go lopsided on them this season. With their limited budgets, they like to get a whole season out of the balls. "I guess the big colleges don't have that problem," Temple said.
They'll make do, though, and happily. What's an annoyance when their goal is something bigger than the game?