Firebirds rising from scandal

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Julius Smith was out of work and living in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina washed him back into coaching. Willie Shaw was plucked off a construction site on Connecticut Avenue. Antwon Hawkins spent last season working as a postal worker in Capitol Heights.

Welcome to the University of the District of Columbia basketball program.

“I got some second- and third-chance guys,” said Smith, who had been out of coaching for four years before he took over at UDC in September 2005. “I am a brutally honest individual. When we recruit them, we tell them, ‘This is your last chance. If you don’t go to school, you can’t play for me.’ ”

That this wayward trio landed in Northwest Washington with the Division II Firebirds is fitting. Basketball itself is getting a second chance at UDC.

The school abolished all team sports on the eve of the 2004-05 basketball season in the wake of a scandal that included recruiting violations, financial aid misuse and the use of ineligible players under former basketball coach and athletic director Mike McLeese.

The administration decided to bring back athletics to the 5,700-student public school a year later, and basketball resumed last season.

Restarting the program was anything but easy. Only three players from the previous regime remained on campus. Smith accepted just about anybody willing to don a jersey. Some of his players had never even played in high school.

“We had seven players,” Smith said. “Let me correct that. We had seven people, not players.”

Not surprisingly, the Firebirds struggled badly. They lost their first 18 games and finished with a 1-22 record, the lone victory over Division III Johnson & Wales.

“It was rough,” said point guard Frank Peterson, a District resident who transferred from Pace (N.Y.) University. “The hardest part was I couldn’t just take over the game and give us 60 points so we could win. Other than that, it was one of the most enjoyable years I had playing ball. No one ever complained. No one ever quit.”

The program’s dubious history was not in evidence on a recent night at nondescript Physical Activities Center. A small but enthusiastic crowd — attendance averages 150 — cheered on the home team against Bloomsburg (Penn.) University. The Firebirds looked sharp, showing athleticism and exploiting the visitors with their speed and ability to finish on fast breaks.

The Firebirds led by 18 with just less than four minutes remaining but watched that sizable lead evaporate. UDC made free throws down the stretch to hold on for a 76-73 win.

The team, nonexistent two years ago, now holds a 13-6 record and aspirations of making the NCAA tournament.

It isn’t quite the glory days — the Firebirds won the Division II national championship 25 years ago — but the program at least is playing and winning again.

“I am having a ton of fun. I am living,” said Hawkins, who averages 13.2 points. “We are not really playing to clean up the image. I am playing for my team, my coaches and my family. People are going to look at us as a negative. But once they see us, they will see the positive and maybe change their minds a little bit.”

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