"Would either of you be interested in participating in a halftime contest?"
A young woman with a walkie-talkie leaned into our row, waiting for an answer. Friend and #800GP partner-in-crime Thomas McCaffrey beat me to the punch: "I know HE would love to." She introduced herself as Sarah, had me sign the appropriate waiver form, and said she'd come back for me with a few minutes to go in the first half. Off she went. Up went the ball. Game time.
Before the season, I scoured the schedules of Other 24 teams in the DC area with Tom to find games we could attend as a team. We considered quite a few (there are a lot of teams in the DMV, after all), circled many as maybe, but only a few made the "absolutely, positively, must go" list. Last night's matchup between Howard and American was one of those.
One of six possible Division I matchups you could rightfully call "The Battle of D.C.", it's the only one that's been played almost every year for the past two decades. American - the smaller, Congressionally-chartered institution of Tenleytown - has owned the far better end of the rivalry, winning seven straight. Howard - one of the oldest and most prestigious historically black institutions in the country, and possibly the institution that best represents the juxtaposition of the "transient and political" and "resident and overlooked" realities of the D.C. psyche - has fallen on hard times, finishing in the bottom half of the MEAC and below .500 every year since 2001-02.
That the game took place in our nation's capital was painfully obvious. Most PA announcers don't need to practice the pronunciation of the name of the ambassador of Gabon, who - along with diplomats from Australia, Finland, India, and Taiwan - attended the game as part of a cultural exchange requiring merely a long stroll up Massachusetts Avenue. By wearing jeans while not being students, Tom and I stuck out among the adults in the crowd, most of whom came straight to the game from the office with, at most, an AU/HU cap or sweatshirt pulled over their suit. Also, as if a final exam for "Random DC Trivia 401," the AU Pep Band played the ubiquitous jingle from the ads of used car group Eastern Motors. (Outside the Beltway? Watch this, then watch it again 10 times before bed, then do it again tomorrow and every day this week, and you'll know what it's like to listen to the radio or watch any sports programming around here.) The crowd from both teams chuckled with appropriate "Yup, we get it, but we won't laugh TOO hard because it would be unseemly" approval.
Our Beautiful Game is often anything but. This was one of those nights. Howard started in a 10-1 hole, keyed by big plays from American's Riley Grafft (more on him in a minute), and never fully recovered as they squandered chance after chance. Prince Okoroh blew a completely free fast break by dribbling the ball too far in front of him, throwing his desperation backwards pass straight into the hands of an Eagle.
Not that the Eagles were putting them away. American's Simon McCormack had clearly received directions not to shoot, passing up several wide open looks - everywhere from the corner three to a left-handed layup - to make ill-advised passes. Star Charles Hinkle, who had lit up the scoreboard in last week's win against Quinnipiac, went 2-10 from the field (both hits, oddly, from behind the arc), and appeared visibly frustrated with his own and his teammates' struggles as the night wore on.
But AU made enough plays to stay in front. A beautiful entry pass from Blake Jolivette to Grafft for an easy dunk stymied a Bison run, and the Eagles clung to a four-point lead at the half. Both teams headed off, hopeful.
When the time came, I handed my phone to Tom for documentation purposes. Sarah explained the contest that we've all seen before: 25 seconds to make a layup, free throw, and three-pointer in that order; can take as many cracks at each level as necessary. "Here is what will happen," I said, turning to Tom. "I'll nail the layup. But the free throws will be ugly - I'll probably hit the pads [underneath the hoop] with the first, then run out the clock chasing down rebounds when I clang the rest." Sarah laughed and claimed she picked me because it looked like I might play basketball. Um, no.
"You're up!" She smiled and handed me the ball as the dance team finished their routine to Adele's "Rumour Has It." The PA voice announced the contest, brought to you courtesy of [large corporate sponsor that I don't particularly care for, so let's say BLAPP]. The prizes: a free month's subscription to the Patriot League Network for the layup; the aforementioned tote bag for the free throw, and a gift card for rotisserie chicken for the three-pointer. I walked onto the court and took a few nervous dribbles, promptly causing my wedding ring to pop off. (Hi, hon! Yes, you're right, I should get it resized. Let's get back to the recap.)
The buzzer rang. I'm sorry to report that I was terrifically accurate in my prediction. Despite helpful rebounding from the cheerleaders (especially after the inevitable airball on the first free throw), cheers from the crowd, and hours of practice with the small hoop and plush ball in my office, I wasn't able to drain a single shot from the charity stripe. I smiled, took my prize*, and headed for a hug and a picture with AU's mascot, Clawed Z. Eagle.
As it turns out, though, I didn't have the most embarrassing experience during the contest. While Tom - who, I should note, is less than a year older than me and has the dashing looks to match - was taking pictures of my misadventures on the court, a security guard walked up to him. Before Tom could offer an explanation as to what he was doing, the guard asked, "Hey, is that your son?"
Some Other 24 teams have the benefit of being the only show in town. Not American and Howard. DC sports fans all but ignore college basketball until the Redskins are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, and even then, turn their eyes squarely to the Jesuit school on the Hilltop and the Big State U in a suburban park - the ones with national titles, NBA alums, dedicated beat writers, and games in NBA arenas and on basic cable. It leaves the Eagles and Bison, along with the other DMV teams below the Red Line (no Metro jokes, please; besides, Howard's on the Green Line), playing to a much smaller audience.
But size isn't everything. And for the players on the court last night, the TV cameras (the game was on local cable) and media row served as background in a game for bragging rights on Thursdays in Adams Morgan. Nowhere was this more evident that in the play of Riley Grafft, the game's unquestionable star. A senior forward from the political hotspot of Wisconsin who still looks uncomfortable in his 6-11 frame, Grafft saw little action last year after starting most of his sophomore season. He found his way back into the Eagles starting lineup to notch a career night against the Bison.
Grafft's jump shot looks a bit like it came from a water pistol - straight, no arc, no discernable power, but only a slight fade as it approaches the target - but you can't argue with the results: 21 points on 7-8 shooting, including an early three that helped AU to the 10-1 lead that set the tone for the game. Later in the first, when Howard found some success using a full court trap, Grafft slammed home a half court pass that brought the crowd back into the game and swung momentum back to the Eagles for good. Beyond the points, though, Grafft was everywhere on the court: hustling for rebounds, forcing steals and bad passes, and disrupting Howard's attempts at any kind of inside offense.
Foul trouble kept him on the pine for most of the second half, but he directed the outcome of the game in the 20 minutes he saw. When he headed to the bench with 10 minutes to go in the 2nd after picking up his fourth, the crowd from both teams showered him with applause and his teammates and coaches showed him with hugs. On a night when his teammates struggled, Grafft looked like the one guy on the court who was absolutely having fun. He brought his team along with him. The results showed.
As the night wore on, the scoring increased, but the pace was still a slog as AU slowly but surely pulled away, building a double digit lead within the first five minutes of the half that would last until the end. Both teams shot under 40%, and had it not been for free throws - unclear whether the refs were blowing their whistles out of confusion, frustration, or mercy, but boy were they blowing them - neither team may have cracked 50. A Howard player lost a shoe mid-play; no one so much as blinked an eye. Even the pep band began to fade - after a fun version of "September", they struggled through "Eye of the Tiger." They, like many of the players, had seemingly run out of gas.
Howard's Brandon Bailey slammed home an alley oop with five minutes to go that go their fans back into the game - but by then, it was too late. The last five minutes dragged as American ran the modern Four Corners, and Howard's efforts could do little but mitigate the final margin. Even in the final minute, the players dogged the American ball-handlers, fouling to keep their slim hopes alive. Never once did their heads go down. Not until AU pulled down the final of its 32 rebounds on yet another misfire did the Bison admit defeat. Even as they shook hands, they smiled with their teammates. In defeat, they still found the joy in Our Game.
Sarah and I watched the final minutes of the first half from the bottom of the bleachers behind media row at Bender Arena. She twirled a basketball in her hands while also juggling her walkie-talkie and the tote bag I would fail to win; I stood empty-handed, tapping my foot nervously while trying to remember whether the year in which I last made a free throw started with a 19 or a 20. We chatted aimlessly about our hometowns and how we came to DC. Sarah's an undergrad at American, one of the many who left her hometown (central Pennsylvania, in her case) to start adulthood on the campus in the nation's capital. She's operated in-game promotions for the athletic department for three years after seeing a flyer seeking interns in her freshman orientation packet. "They try to get me to do other sports," she said while checking the game clock, "but it's not like they pay me. I already do every men's and women's basketball game - and I do this for fun, you know?"
I do, Sarah. So do the players on the courts of the Other 24. So do we all.
* - Big fan of the Patriot League? Want a free month of their online games during January? DM or @ me on Twitter and we'll see if I can transfer it to you.
at AMERICAN 77, HOWARD 66 11/29/2011
HOWARD 2-4 (0-0) -- P. Okoroh 1-2 3-5 5; S. Frazier 3-5 4-7 11; A. Leary 2-5 5-7 9; C. Thompson 1-6 3-3 5; M. Phillips 2-9 2-3 6; B. Ford 0-5 4-6 4; A. Dickerson 1-6 3-4 6; O. Ellison 0-4 2-2 2; T. Boyomo 2-2 0-0 4; B. Bailey 3-3 0-0 6; D. Collins 2-7 2-3 8; C. Cuffee 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-54 28-40 66. AMERICAN 5-2 (0-0) -- C. Hinkle 2-10 11-12 17; D. Munoz 2-4 5-6 10; T. Brewer 2-7 9-10 14; B. Jolivette 2-5 1-2 5; R. Grafft 7-8 6-6 21; T. Wroblicky 2-6 2-4 6; J. Schoof 1-4 0-0 3; S. McCormack 0-0 0-2 0; W. Simon II 0-1 1-2 1; D. Fisher 0-1 0-0 0; J. Hill 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-46 35-44 77.
Three-point goals: HOW 4-15 (C. Thompson 0-1; A. Dickerson 1-4; D. Collins 2-7; B. Ford 0-1; S. Frazier 1-2), AMER 6-15 (T. Brewer 1-4; C. Hinkle 2-4; R. Grafft 1-1; W. Simon 0-1; D. Munoz 1-1; J. Schoof 1-4); Rebounds: HOW 34 (A. Leary 6), AMER 32 (C. Hinkle 7); Assists: HOW 8 (S. Frazier 4), AMER 14 (T. Brewer 5); Total Fouls -- HOW 33, AMER 26; Fouled Out: HOW-P. Okoroh; AMER-None.