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Firebirds rising from scandal

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

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."

Hawkins is one of nine newcomers on the team, which returned only two players. Most first-year players transferred directly from junior college. Leading scorer Charlie Smallwood, for example, came from Prince George's Community College.

Others took a more circuitous route.

Shaw was walking across Connecticut Avenue in front of the campus, headed back to his job at a construction site, when Smith spotted him.

At 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, the Alexandria native and former T.C. Williams star was hard to miss.

"He was across the street at Giant," Smith said. "They were remodeling. He was nailing stuff in, putting down floors. We got to talking. We were like, 'Hey, man. Who are you? How big are you? Do you play?'

"Craziest thing about it was he was a top-50 recruit coming out of T.C. Williams. He signed with Pete Gillen [at Virginia]. He just didn't make a test score."

Shaw played two seasons at Central Arizona Community College before trading in his basketball for a tool belt. Now, in his first season at UDC, he is averaging 14.8 points and 10.8 rebounds.

Hawkins, a Mitchellville, Md., native, began his career at a Kansas junior college. He returned home and was working at a post office before deciding to go back to school.

Eight of the 11 players on UDC's roster are local.

When the university decided to restart basketball, its first goal was to avoid problems of the past. President William Pollard felt the athletic programs had become too separated from the rest of the school and that closer supervision was essential for success. The school hired a new athletic director and a full-time NCAA compliance officer.

"We had to understand what happened to us," said Pollard, who is in his sixth year at UDC. "We wanted athletics to be about a sense of community and camaraderie. It was about putting the student back in athletics. We wanted people who had a certain kind of university experience that understood the wedding of athletics and academics."

Enter Smith, a D.C. native and Katrina refugee. He had spent 19 seasons as a college assistant, most recently at Indiana with coach Mike Davis in 2000-01. That came after an eight-season stint at Tulane from 1991 to 1999, a school that itself was rebuilding a basketball program that had been dropped in 1985 because of a point-shaving scandal.

Smith returned to the District after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane ravaged New Orleans and destroyed the interior of his Uptown home. He did not have a steady job the last four years and was surprised to learn the UDC job was still available in September, just weeks before practice was scheduled to start.

"When I came interviewing, I came begging," said Smith, a high school classmate of Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan at Archbishop Carroll. "Katrina ran me out. I was out of work. I didn't care what had happened here. I had a wife and kids to feed. They said, 'This happened.' I said, 'That's fine. When is my check coming?' "

Smith, who sold his New Orleans home and took "a beating," deliberately tuned out events that led to the problems at UDC, trying to focus instead on building for the future. He runs a daily study hall for several hours and said seven guys on the team have a grade-point-average of 3.0 or better.

And players have begun to flock back home to the once-relevant program. Peterson had wanted to come to UDC after graduating from nearby St. John's College High School.

"But the programs had violations, so I went to another school," the junior said.

It is a familiar story among local players, who often went to UDC games growing up and even played in the gym. Smallwood had a similar decision to make after finishing his second season at Prince George's Community College last year.

"I always wanted to play here," said Smallwood, who grew up in Palmer Park. "I knew the program was going downhill, and I was skeptical at first. But a friend of mine who had played here said things were better, so I decided to give it a shot. I knew some of the players coming in. There were like five or six of us from the area. I knew we had some good players and would win some games."

And, maybe, begin to restore a tarnished image.