Hawks trying to restore mid-'70s glory

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- A quick check of the clock: 3.1 seconds left in regulation.

Maryland-Eastern Shore coach Larry Lessett's maroon-clad road team was shooting free throws, ahead 58-57, and his raw freshman guard had just fallen victim to the pressure, bricking his first attempt. Lessett dropped to one knee, sunk his head and clasped his hands as if in silent prayer.

In the past year, the Fighting Hawks and their second-year coach have learned just about every possible way to lose on the basketball court. In 2004-05, it happened 26 times, often by humiliating scores like 100-53 and 94-68 -- and those were just the MEAC games. They'd had lost to this very same Brown team by 49 last season.

Lessett had no use for a lesson in blowing a close one.

The second foul shot rolled perilously along the rim and fell in. As Brown inbounded and those remaining three ticks evaporated, the Bears' Damon Huffman rushed the floor and drove for a desperate last-second layup. The shot went in, but was released under the glare of the red backboard light that signaled the game was over -- there would be no overtime.

"It's in, but it's waved off!" exclaimed Hawks radio voice Josh Maurer, an animated bobbing head against a scattering of sullen Brown fans. "Waved off! Maryland-Eastern Shore wins! What a breathtaking finish here in Providence! The Hawks, with their third win of the season, have surpassed the team's win total from a year ago!"

Folks in Princess Anne, Md., insist that you spell out the school's four-letter acronym -- U-M-E-S -- but it's so easy to just sound it out phonetically. Indeed, by most standards of measurement, Maryland-Eastern Shore was just about the messiest team in Division I last season. The 2-26 Hawks were saved from finishing dead last in the RPI by 0-28 Savannah State, and finished with a 1-18 record (including the conference tournament) in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league that's always in danger of sending its champion to Dayton's play-in game.

"Last year, most of the games were over by halftime," said Maurer, as he packed up his makeshift announcer's booth. "To fill time, I'd try to come up with different things about the schools we were playing. Famous alums, state birds, anything."

There was a time, though, when it wasn't difficult at all to find things to say about Maryland-Eastern Shore basketball. Thirty-two years ago, UMES was chasing a spotless record, earning national respect and breaking ground.

"The whole East Coast was aware of who the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore was," recalls Talvin Skinner, a star forward for the 1973-74 Hawks who went on to play two years in the NBA for Seattle. "They were taking games off campuses and moving them to arenas. There were always nine, ten thousand people who wanted to see us play. A lot of times, people just couldn't get in. And those were the road games."

Basketball's black Beatles were a high-flying show on wheels, much more dipsy-do than "Love Me Do." The 1973-74 UMES squad averaged 97.6 points per game -- without the benefit of a 3-point line, which was still 13 years away from being implemented in college. The Fighting Hawks were nationally ranked and became the first historically black college to be invited to the NIT tournament -- despite the fact that they weren't a Division I school. They didn't even play a Division I schedule.

"[Maryland coach] Lefty [Driesell] wouldn't play us, and I understand that," said John Bates, who coached UMES to a 73-14 record over two seasons. "He had too much to lose. We tried to get quite a few ball clubs to bite, but nobody would."

At that time, Maryland-Eastern Shore of the then-fledgling MEAC held a dual citizenship in the NAIA and Division II. The Hawks had advanced to the NAIA championship in 1973, losing on a buzzer-beating Hail Mary to M.L. Carr, World B. Free and Guilford College. That Hawks squad had gone on a 15-game tear at one point, matching UCLA for the nation's longest winning streak.

But it was the 1973-74 team that would make basketball history. That February, the 17-0 Hawks embarked on the type of excruciating weekend bus trip common at black schools at the time -- but this was a trip that would vault UMES into the national spotlight.

On Friday night, they played North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., and won in overtime. The next night, they beat North Carolina A&T in front of 8,500 fans at Greensboro Coliseum. Sunday was a travel day, and they pointed the bus back north toward Washington and a date with Howard. After taking care of business in D.C. on Monday, there was one game to go.

"That wasn't just four games in five days," Bates said. "That was four games in five days in two states and one district. And it was cold, real cold. That was a tough trip, I'll never forget it."

On Tuesday morning, newspapers across the country published the new Associated Press college poll -- Maryland-Eastern Shore, at 20-0, was listed as a new entry at No. 20. That night, 12,000 screaming fans packed the Baltimore Civic Center to see the nationally-ranked Hawks play Morgan State, a tough squad that featured a 7-foot-1 future New York Knick named Marvin "The Human Eraser" Webster.

"That was the day the rankings came out," Skinner said. "We had finally broken through, we were being nationally recognized. And we lost by two points. Two points. It hurt so much."

"I knew we had weary legs," Bates recalled. "But we played well. The conference did all the scheduling, I certainly wouldn't have scheduled it that way."

When UMES finished the season with a 26-1 record, they were presented with a difficult choice. They had an obligation to play in the NAIA playoffs, but their play had earned them a national invitation -- to the NIT. For accepting the NIT bid, the UMES program absorbed stiff financial and probationary penalties from the NAIA. Skinner and the other Hawks would not be allowed to be considered on the All-America ballot.

"We thought this was the stepping stone," said Bates. "Not only for us, but for all black schools. We were pioneers, and we were going to accept any penalty. Any black school would have done the same thing."

But Skinner maintains to this day that the 1973-74 Maryland-Eastern Shore Fighting Hawks had earned an exception from the "real" Tournament, that his team deserved a chance to contend for the NCAA national championship.

"I thought we were good enough to beat a lot of those teams," Skinner said. "The NCAA told us we weren't good enough. Because we had one loss, they told us we wouldn't be able to compete. They wouldn't let us in."

"I always thought we had to be perfect [to be invited to the NCAAs]," said Bates. "If we'd beaten Morgan and gone undefeated, and had been ranked in the top 20, I don't think they would have had a choice. But we'll never know."

The MEAC champion Hawks headed to Madison Square Garden, where they dispatched Manhattan in their first game, but didn't get past round two, their season ending at the hands of Jacksonville. It was the last collegiate game for seven Hawks seniors, four of whom were drafted by ABA and NBA teams that summer.

And Coach Bates, frustrated with the aftermath of the dream season, moved along to Coppin State, where he coached from 1974 through 1986. In his second season at CSC, his Eagles went 39-2 and claimed the NAIA national championship that had eluded him at UMES.

"The [UMES] administration at the time chose not take advantage of the situation," Bates said. "They didn't want the program to become bigger than the school."

"The season after the NIT, that was the beginning of the downfall," said Skinner, who was selected in the third round of the NBA draft, four slots behind George Gervin. "For a long time, they didn't win more than five or six games in a season."

The 1974-75 Hawks went 2-24, a record very much like 2004-05's. Four years later, UMES dropped its struggling football program. And in 1980, the MEAC was reclassified as Division I, which earned the conference the right to send a team to the NCAA Tournament every year.

"After they went to Division I, everyone wanted to play them," Skinner said. "They were like the sisters of the poor. It was like, 'Of course we'll play you, you don't have any talent.' But back then, they'd see our name and they'd say, 'Oh no, we're not going to play those guys, no way.' "

Maryland-Eastern Shore has never taken advantage of the MEAC's automatic bid. The Hawks have never even come close. They have had a single winning season since 1974 and a single conference tournament victory in the past 10 years. The past three seasons have yielded only 15 total wins.

But things are slowly turning around in Princess Anne. Only four members of the 2004-05 UMES mess remain after a summer housecleaning. The key holdover is a 6-foot-9 NBA-bodied senior named Tim Parham, and the Hawks have added an array of speedy guards and size, too, in 6-11 freshman Qavotstaraj Waddell, the tallest player in the MEAC. Against Brown on Tuesday, the Hawks were outshot, outrebounded and just about outeverythinged, but they outworked their Ivy League opponents, leaving their hearts and guts on the Pizzitola Center floor.

"We really made some great strides tonight," said Lessett after the game, his voice quavering and cracking. "I apologize for having tears in my eyes, but I'm really proud of these kids.

"We don't fold. That's the difference between last year and this year. We don't fold."

And 3,000 miles away in Seattle, UMES's biggest star smiled at the news that his Hawks are once again showing a little fight.

"How long's it been, 32, 33 years?" Skinner chuckled. "Oh man, it's about time they got good."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.