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Some 20 minutes before tip-off at Saturday night’s Howard/Maryland-Eastern Shore men’s basketball game, a group of students was walking away from the Georgia Avenue campus. The kids were asked why their social schedule wouldn’t be including the intra-conference rivalry that was just about to resume back at Howard.

“Uhhhh…because we suck?” the brashest Howard coed in the three-girl, three-boy clique replied, her mocking tone clearly indicating that she didn’t have to think hard to come up with an answer.

You could attribute her response to collegiate haughtiness, but you could also build a pretty good case for roundball suckdom. Howard students hadn’t had much to cheer about since the O.J. verdict: Going into the weekend, the Bison were the only Division I team without a win, with a perfectly abysmal 0-15 record. According to the Howard athletic department, no other team in the school’s history had gone so far into a season without winning.

Howard backers occasionally—and rightfully—gripe about being neglected by the local media, who accord scads of soundbites to traditional basketball powerhouses like Georgetown and Maryland and aspiring wannabe George Washington. But while Howard may be in the tank right now, they have put together some noteworthy teams in the past few years. Cloaked in relative anonymity, the Bison qualified for the NCAA tournament just three years ago. Butch Beard coached the team that achieved March Madness, and he snagged a job with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets as a result. Beard was replaced by Mike McLeese, who had no prior college coaching experience, but had cut down some nets while coaching D.C.’s Dunbar High School to three city titles. It’s been a tough adjustment.

The NCAA bid notwithstanding, Howard flaunts its nonpreoccupation with sports in much the same way Northwestern did for years; this campus grooms David Dinkenses, not Darryl Dawkinses. So it follows that athletic department officials, though surely disappointed with the team’s ignoble national ranking, were downplaying the losing spree.

“This team is as green as spring grass,” cautioned longtime head trainer Bernard James. “You shouldn’t expect too much from a team this young.” How young? Well, four freshman are on Howard’s roster, and all of them are now starters. The only nonfrosh on the first team, senior forward Khalid Ross, averages 3.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game.

The Bison players may be young, but they are first-rate athletes who couldn’t help but feel the loser noose getting more taut as the defeats and bad luck piled up.

“I’ve never been through anything like this before. Never,” shrugged freshman center Lionel Allen, who, according to the Howard media guide, refused an academic scholarship from Harvard to play here. “You practice, you sweat. You play, you sweat. You lose, again, and you go down to the locker room with tears in your eyes, and the tears are there because you’re really not having any fun. Nobody’s had any fun on this team, because we haven’t won a game.”

But last Saturday night, players and fans alike checked their depression at the Burr Gymnasium door. The losing streak be damned, the host arena was buzzing. All night.

“This is good,” tittered sports information director Ed Hill shortly before the center jump, as he giddily took in the near-capacity crowd that was filing into the field house. “Far and away, this is going to be our biggest crowd of the year.”

And the loudest. Conflicts with the football team’s games and the Christmas break meant the date with the UMES Hawks was the first time all season that the Howard cheerleaders and band would be performing before their home fans at a basketball game.

It began auspiciously. The Howard band’s live and lively rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” James Weldon Johnson’s black national anthem (a regular feature of Howard games, during which the student body stands and gives a one-fist-raised power salute), fired up the congregation palpably during pregame warmups. And the already peppy arena took on a contentious playoff-type ambience when Hawks players tried to upstage their hosts by huddling up in the jump circle, which is traditionally the home team’s meeting spot just prior to tip-off. Not even a team alleged to be the worst in the country can be expected to endure that kind of home-court dis. Coaches from both benches and referees broke up the punchless donnybrook without much difficulty, but the temperament was set.

“You don’t do that at somebody else’s court,” stated former Howard basketball coach A.B. Williamson, viewing the squabble from a perch just behind the south basket. Williamson, a strong, silent type who has the kind of physical presence you’d want from a sports tutor, became the winningest head coach in the school’s history during his 16 years on the job (1975-90). After witnessing the minor row, Williamson—who still looked sturdy enough to kick anybody in the gym’s ass if it came to that—was convinced that coach McLeese would be getting his first win of the year before the night was over.

Once the game was under way, it became clear that UMES was trying too hard to avoid the jacket of being Howard’s streakbreaker. In the first half, the Hawks made just three of 12 free throws and scored just 20 points. Howard only tallied 23 in the half, but nevertheless had a halftime lead for the first time this season. During the break, the UMES play-by-play announcers started building a rationale for the radio audience back home just in case something cataclysmic took place in the nation’s capital.

“Nobody wants to be the first team to lose to Howard,” warned a disturbed UMES broadcaster. “But don’t think the refs don’t know that this is an 0-15 team we’re playing here! The Bison are getting every call! Every close call! Everything close the refs are giving to them!”

For most of the second half, Howard maintained its lead, at times extending the advantage to double digits. But with about two minutes left, things began to fall apart. Almost as if scripted. Howard’s lead was pared to a single point. Ever since the NCAA’s freshmen-eligible rule was reinstated, a tenet of college coaching has been that when the game is on the line and you’re behind, foul a freshman. UMES coach Jeff Menday had a fresh-faced smorgasbord to choose from.

With 20 seconds on the clock and his team down by a single point, Menday had his players foul Allen, who was awarded two shots. The young center missed the first badly. The crowd groooooaaaaaned.

After the game, Allen, who is either too young and genuine or too smart to give a Bull Durham interview, candidly explained why he clanked the first crucial free throw.

“Oh, I was nervous,” he said. “And I was at the line thinking about everything I shouldn’t have been. I was thinking: ‘Oh, if I don’t make this shot, we don’t win…again.’ And: ‘Oh, look at all those people in the stands! If I don’t make this shot, I’m going to be the heel of the whole Howard basketball program to every one of them!’ “

Not this week, Lionel. After a timeout, Allen swished his second free throw for a two-point lead. The shot got the home crowd back to its feet and screaming for the game’s final moments, and the Hawks never did catch up. Final score: 58-55. Howard’s 15-game nightmare was over.

After the buzzer went off, Allen stormed joyously toward the locker room. When he got to the south end of the court, he stopped briefly to exchange hugs and excited pleasantries with Williamson, who hadn’t left his spot beneath the basket all night long.

“I told you!” said Williamson.

“I told you!” said Allen.

As the drained crowd made its way to the exits, an announcement went over the Burr Gym public address system: “There are now no winless teams in Division I!” And then: “Howard’s second win will come Monday night, right here at Burrrrrrrrr!”

The streak is dead. Long live the streak. CP