Some of the area's most competitive college basketball is being played in buildings that don't have corporate sponsors. Rather, some of the area schools looking forward to March with high basketball hopes play in gyms with numbers instead of names; with players who recruited schools rather than the other way around; with assistant coaches who squeeze in practice around their "real" jobs.
The players are "all here for a reason," as one put it. For some, that means academic issues; for others, financial. For many, it means not having the exact combination of physical gifts (few are tall by basketball standards) and basketball skills Division I schools look for.
Collectively, they pile into buses and hit the road in pursuit of their basketball dreams.
Locally, the pursuit of those dreams is heating up. Catholic University, Bowie State and the University of the District of Columbia each have been ranked among the top 10 at their respective levels.
All are succeeding away from the spotlight of major athletics, but each occupies a special place on the landscape. From Catholic players keeping stats at lacrosse games for money to the winding paths of Bowie State's 10 seniors converging in this season's success to UDC's desperate search for a conference, each school has a story. And their stories are part of the texture of college basketball.
More often than not, the person who picks up the telephone and says, "Catholic basketball office" in rapid-fire syllables is Coach Mike Lonergan. During most mornings and afternoons, he is the only one in the office.
Two of his three assistants teach at local private high schools. The third has an internship on Capitol Hill and also waits tables.
"It would be nice to have a full-time assistant," Lonergan said. "Most of the time in here it's just me, myself and I."
Things pick up soon enough. The assistants filter in. One of the team's managers, a junior political science major, arrives in the early afternoon, after classes. His duties include compiling the two-page scouting report on the upcoming opponent.
There are plenty of game-day duties to go around as well. Lonergan's nephew, a freshman in high school, runs the 30-second shot clock during home games.
At least five of Lonergan's players can understand the unusual, and myriad demands, of coaching. That's because those players have fathers who are successful coaches.
Starting point guard Adam Dickman's father is the coach at Thomas Johnson High in Frederick and will coach Division III Hood College next year. Reserve forward Blair Mills's father was a high school coach on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Reserve point guard Patrick Satalin's father was the head coach at St. Bonaventure for nine seasons and led the school to the NIT title in 1977. Two other players have fathers who coach AAU basketball in New Jersey.
"I think it definitely helps us," Dickman said. "We have guys who have always been around basketball. Even in the training room, guys will throw out names of players from the 1980s and we'll talk about them."
It's a good thing they like basketball, because many of them are paying for the privilege of continuing in the sport.
Catholic does not grant athletic scholarships. Many receive financial aid to help defray the tuition, which is around $36,000 per year.
Dickman said he has financial aid, school loans, a partial scholarship and a grant. His parents, however, still pay roughly $12,000 per year in tuition. Junior starting forward Will Morley was not eligible for much financial aid; instead, his mother and several aunts and uncles are chipping in to pay his tuition.
Some players also do "work study" programs at the school to make money for tuition. They check IDs at DuFour Center, the student exercise center, or keep statistics during volleyball and lacrosse games. Morley also works the football games and sometimes even handles the chains and first-down markers on the sidelines.
Dickman's job as a freshman was checking student IDs at a dormitory from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. He was on duty the night after Catholic returned from winning the Division III national title in Salem, Va.
"It was kind of hard, because I would work until 3 and then I had an 8 o'clock class," Dickman said. "I sent the money home my freshman and sophomore year before my parents told me to stop. . . .
"For a lot of us, the choice came down to playing basketball or going to a bigger school and not playing. Going here is expensive, but really, I don't think any of us were ready to give up basketball."
Not far from the Van Ness Metro station in Building 47 of UDC's nondescript concrete campus, the Firebirds play a style of basketball that not only is entertaining to watch but also successful.
UDC, which was ranked as high as No. 9 in the Division II East Region this season, is 19-7. Last season, the Firebirds went 18-9. It is believed to be the program's best back-to-back seasons since UDC won the Division II national championship in 1982 and was in the final in 1983. (The school's athletic department was unable to verify this because it lost most of its records when it was closed for one year in 1997.)
The Firebirds have won 14 of their last 16 games and have a 20-game home winning streak that dates from last season. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find many students on campus who are aware of the team's success.
"Everybody here, they come to school and then they leave," sophomore forward Rasheim Wright said.
Being overlooked is nothing new to the Firebirds. Most of the players ended up at UDC because Division I schools took a pass on them.
"When you look at our team we have Division I talent guys who are just making the best out of where they're at," senior point guard and Washington native Christopher Turner said. "We're not saying we can't play Division I. It's for some other reason that you're here. Collectively as a group, we've decided we're going to make the best out of it."
Mike McLeese, the former Dunbar High School and Howard University coach who took over for Wil Jones four years ago, uses this slight to his advantage. He says it is easier to work with the Division II players than the ones he had as a Division I coach.
"The reason I say that is I think they're a lot hungrier," McLeese said. "They understand a lot of them have had some opportunities that didn't come their way, that they thought they were going to get. They know, 'This is my shot.' I tell them in a heartbeat: 'You aren't that good. You've got to work hard.' "
Their efforts might not be rewarded, though. Despite its record, UDC might not make the NCAA tournament. The first 20 spots in the 48-team tournament are awarded to conference champions. Because UDC has not been affiliated with a conference since the school opened in 1977, the Firebirds must vie for one of the 28 at-large bids. The selection committee tends to favor conference schools over the four Division II independents. (UDC is the only independent school with a winning record.)
UDC, which hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1987, has made overtures to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Central Atlantic Collegiate Association. Those conferences each have an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"It's tough," McLeese said. "It really is. . . . We lost a couple of recruits my first year here because we didn't have postseason play."
Going over his roster last fall, Bowie State Coach Luke D'Alessio took a step back, like a painter from his easel, and sighed.
A team four years in the making, the Bulldogs had four returning starters from the year before, another pair of starters from the 2001 team that had been medical redshirts, and a pair of Division I big men transfers.
"There's nothing I can add to this team to make it better," D'Alessio said. "If we don't make a serious run at the national title, it's going to be a great disappointment."
The Bulldogs (23-4) have been as good as D'Alessio advertised, entering this week's CIAA tournament in Raleigh, N.C., and a far cry from the bare cupboard D'Alessio inherited four years ago.
A former Catholic University player and assistant, D'Alessio took over a program that had not had a winning season in its three decades of existence.
D'Alessio, who had built a power at Catonsville Community College, was accustomed to quick fixes.
"If you can win at that level, you can win anywhere," said D'Alessio, whose position was made full-time before this season. "You're constantly reshuffling your roster, and you're dealing with a dozen kids who are ultimately trying to play elsewhere."
But he knew that to compete at a high level in Division II, "you need to have Division I talent."
There are but two avenues to acquire those kind of players: junior college players and Division I refugees. Players from both groups tend to come to Division II because they were unable to fit in somewhere else, because of grades, ability or attitude. Talented high school kids are a tougher commodity to find, particularly on a three-figure recruiting budget.
"You can have a great relationship with a high school kid for a year, get the pen in his hand to sign the letter, and as soon as a Division I school gets involved, you're done," said D'Alessio, who went 7-21 in his first season in 1999 after taking over two months before the season.
"We're all here for a reason," said center Jon Smith, who left anonymity at Virginia Tech last summer for stardom at Bowie, and is averaging 14.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. "But we've been getting along fine. Winning helps."
The first pieces arrived for the 2000-01 season, when two former all-Mets, Laurel Baptist's Dalonte Hill and Carroll's Tim Washington, arrived from North Carolina Charlotte and American, respectively. Even though Hill's career was cut short by a knee injury, that team went 19-9, followed by a 20-8 season last year.
"Those guys signaled to the D.C. area that Bowie was a place to play," D'Alessio said.
D'Alessio filled out the team around Washington, now a senior and still the team's mainstay, averaging 20.1 points and 9.3 rebounds. The only bad news about the success of this season's squad is that he's got 10 seniors.
"I've got to do it all over again next year," he said, with a different kind of sigh.