WASHINGTON — It’s been a frantic, furious comeback, from a halftime deficit of 19 to a favored William & Mary team that couldn’t miss from three-point range early. But only in the final couple minutes does it actually look like Howard, led by the smallest man on the floor, might actually pull off a miracle in front of a few hundred enthusiastic fans who have trekked out to Burr Gymnasium on Georgia Avenue, smack in the middle of D.C., on an overcast Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving.
The Tribe crack the door ajar one final time, missing the front end of a 1-and-1, and the Bison get the ball back. 5-foot-11 point guard James “J-Byrd” Daniel III rushes it up the floor. Everyone knows he wants to take the shot, that he’s Howard’s best chance, down by one, the final seconds ticking away. He’s already netted 36 of the Bison’s 76 points on 10-23 from the floor and 13-15 at the line.
In the land of Georgetown and Maryland, of strong mid-major programs like George Washington and VCU, of recent NCAA Tournament runs from George Mason and even American, Daniel is the shining light for D.C.’s long-overlooked program, a school full of pride and tradition for everything but its basketball program.
He’s also the nation’s leading scorer.
Down one, Daniel really shouldn’t pull up for a deep, contested three, not when he might be able to get to the basket, get to the line, to find another way to score. But there he is, pulling up from well beyond the arc, his release quicker than his defender’s ability to react. And there’s the ball, soaring over the heads of everyone gathered, a collective breath held, the hopes and dreams of what might be for a dormant program floating with it.
The nation’s leading scorer
It’s easy to dismiss Daniel as just a volume shooter; as a selfish player who doesn’t do anything but chuck it; as a guy who launches the ball up whenever he feels like it; as a guy who actually hurts his team by not always taking the most efficient shots. But to do that depends upon ignoring his 176 free throws attempted and 154 made, both best in the nation. It means dismissing his 2.8 steals per game, the fifth-best mark in the country. And it requires overlooking what has happened to Howard this season.
“Man, I have never had the injuries I’ve had this year,” laments Howard head coach Kevin Nickelberry, who used 11 different starting lineups in his first 16 games. “Coming into this year, this team was built — everything we did in preseason, everything we did in practice — was built around (Daniel), (James) Miller and (Marcel) Boyd. Those are the three guys we’re going to go through, and two of those three missed most of the year. We were 5-2 with those guys there, playing really well. Now those guys are gone. (Daniel) has had to still try to find a way to get shots up with an unbelievably shrunken court.”
Nickelberry says he understands where people might perceive that Daniel is taking too much of the offensive burden on himself, but insists that it’s the only way they’ve been able to survive their injury woes. More so, it’s what Nickelberry has asked him to do.
“Early in the year, it was ‘you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread,’” he says of fans’ reactions to Daniel. “Now it’s ‘you take so many bad shots.’ But it’s necessary for us to be competitive in any game.”
Nickelberry dismisses the grumbling, choosing instead to compare Daniel to another D.C. college hoops legend.
“He’s like an Allen Iverson,” says the coach. “You know, the old school guys sit in the stands, ‘he’s taking too many shots, he’s doing this and that.’ But the young kids come in and get excited, because he’s so fast, he jumps so high on his three.”
Daniel has brought a different energy to campus, one which hasn’t existed in years. His season low — season low — is 19 points. But it takes more than energy to turn a program around, especially one coming off 11 straight losing seasons and just two years with double-digit wins going into his freshman year.
In it for the long haul
Of the 15 players named to the three MEAC all-conference teams last season, all but six played their final year of eligibility as seniors. Daniel, a second-team selection, was the youngest as a sophomore. Coppin State’s Sterling Smith (Pittsburgh) and Hampton’s Deron Powers (Hofstra) used that springboard to transfer to larger programs. Standout Norfolk State forward RaShid Gaston transferred to Xavier.
Not Daniel. He stayed in D.C., to watch Nickelberry’s plan come together as he predicted it would.
“He talked about this year, our third year in general,” says Daniel of Nickelberry’s recruiting speech. “He said our first two years were going to be rough. Our first year (in which Howard went 8-25) he especially said was going to be rough. When we get through that second year, we were going to be able to build. Third year, this was going to be the year where the program turns around, where we can make this run. He said that from the gate.”
Daniel had reason to believe. He’s known Nickelberry since his elementary school days, attending camps run by the former Hampton coach in Daniel’s backyard. Daniel’s father — the original J-Byrd, a nickname with an origin unknown to the Howard star — was a local high school coach, who already had a relationship with Nickelberry. So when he came to recruit Daniel to Howard, the decision was easy.
“I knew when I came up here to open gym,” Daniel says of the decisive moment in his recruiting process. “He really just instilled a confidence in me that he really believed in me. He had the full support. My parents supported him. So it was a great fit.”
Now that he’s been on campus for a couple years, Daniel has experienced the school’s proud tradition firsthand, and understands better the opportunity he and his teammates have to raise the school’s profile through what they do on the hardwood.
“People from Howard, they’re really prideful,” he says. “The tradition here is just crazy. People really take care of the school, they love it.”
Dreaming of the dance
Still, Howard doesn’t get a lot of chance for showcase games. Even Saturday’s tilt with Harvard won’t be televised, despite the buzz it may generate locally. In fact, only one game on the rest of the Bison’s schedule is slated to get national TV coverage — their Feb. 1 road game at Maryland-Eastern Shore, on ESPNU.
That’s why making the NCAA Tournament, nearly a foregone conclusion for many power programs, is the Holy Grail for schools like Howard. But to become more than a footnote on America’s brackets, you need a transcendent player capable of greatness on the biggest stage. Think C.J. McCollum at Lehigh in 2012, Stephen Curry at Davidson in 2008, Bryce Drew at Valpo in 1998, or Steve Nash at Santa Clara in 1993. You need someone not only capable of scoring 30, of carrying you against a stronger opponent. You need somebody who can hit that shot.
“We need this — the athletic program needs for basketball to be successful,” says Nickelberry, who notes that his recruiting has already taken a major leap, but that for the progress to transcend basketball, it needs that marquee moment.
“We’ve taken the jump, but getting in the Tournament, getting in the postseason validates it.”
“Oh man, that’s everything. That’s the goal. That’s the season, to get to the Tournament,” he says.
Daniel says the team’s goals coming into the season were simple. 20 wins. A MEAC championship. An NCAA Tournament berth. But he also knows it’s not as easy as just saying it.
In case he ever forgets, there’s a constant reminder hanging in the south rafters of the Burr, a lone swath of navy blue with white lettering on its own rail. It’s the 1991-92 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champion banner, a signifier of just how long it has been since the program has been to the dance — 24 years, longer than anyone on the team has been alive.
But that doesn’t mean Daniel doesn’t know what it would mean for the program.
“Oh yeah, I do, I do,” he says. “It would really just boost the program up tremendously. That’s what the Tournament does to every school. You could say that any small school that makes a run in the Tournament, that’s just what the Tournament does.”
To get there, Howard will look to Daniel to carry them, to score, to hit the big shot. The one that might win the MEAC Tournament, that might return Howard to the promised land of college basketball. The one that hangs in the air with the chance to beat William & Mary.
Finding his spot
Daniel took the same shot last season, from just about the same spot, after Howard had blown a late nine-point lead at home against Hampton, their hopes of a winning season slipping away. And he missed.
It was Howard’s 11th straight defeat at the hands of the Pirates, Nickelberry’s former school. Even though others contributed to the defeat — four teammates combined to miss seven of the team’s final eight free throws — the loss ate at Daniel. He went out to the spot to practice, over and over, to make sure he wouldn’t miss the next time the ball was in his hands with the game on the line.
Two days later, Howard faced a Norfolk State squad looking for its 11th straight win over the Bison. Howard forced the game to overtime, and, trailing by one, Daniel dribbled the clock down, created space, and found the spot. His deep three flushed the bottom of the net as the buzzer sounded, sending The Burr into pandemonium as his teammates mobbed him on the court.
Flash-forward to the gray, late-November Saturday against William & Mary, and here is Daniel again, at that same spot. The ball is already out of his hands, a shot that suddenly doesn’t look so desperate, but rather rehearsed, calculated. Now it’s a shot that he’s visualized, that he’s promised to himself he won’t miss again, not now, not when it really matters. It’s a shot he’s hit before, the one that Nickelberry wants him to take.
It’s all a part of the plan. And it’s good.