Josh Howard was raised by his maternal grandmother, Helen, who lived at the south end of Winston-Salem, N.C. Helen worked as a custodian at Glenn High, and on Tuesdays she moonlighted as a maid for a lawyer who lived on the north side. Helen often brought Josh with her on Tuesdays, and as she and Josh drove the eight miles across town, they would pass the gate to Wake Forest. Josh never took much notice. "Growing up, I didn't even know Wake Forest was a college," says Howard, a sophomore forward for the Demon Deacons. "It's funny, but as a kid I saw the sign for Wake Forest and probably thought it was just a bunch of trees."
With an undergraduate enrollment of 3,850 students, Wake Forest is the second-smallest school (bigger only than Providence) in college basketball's six power conferences. Wake's rare moments of national athletic glory have come mostly in golf, notably Arnold Palmer's two NCAA individual titles in 1949 and '50. In basketball the Demon Deacons have been respectable, though they've usually been relegated to the slow lane on Tobacco Road by their more celebrated and successful ACC brethren, Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State. This has prompted coach Dave Odom to jokingly refer to Wake Forest as "every North Carolinian's second favorite team."
The Deacons have won only four ACC basketball crowns in 47 years, two in the early '60s when they were led by a gap-toothed brute of a forward named Len Chappell, and two more in the mid-'90s after Odom discovered a lanky former swimmer from St. Croix named Tim Duncan. Not until Duncan and the Deacons won the '95 ACC tournament championship did a ninth-grader from across town, Josh Howard, finally experience his epiphany. Wake Forest? Isn't that the place Grandma and I used to drive by?
While preparing to do the introductions for a media teleconference preceding Wake Forest's showdown last Thursday with then No. 3 Kansas in Winston-Salem, the call monitor in Kansas City asked Odom, "Are you the College of Wake Forest? Wake Forest College? University of Wake Forest? Or what? And where exactly are you located?" No wonder Odom kept hammering home this reassuring theme as he prowled the Deacons' dressing room before the game: "Remember, you guys belong in this game! You know you belong!"
After Howard had scored a career-high 21 points and Wake Forest had humiliated the Jayhawks 84-53, the second-worst defeat in coach Roy Williams's 13 seasons at Kansas, Williams was questioning whether his team belonged. "They kicked our tails every which way they can be kicked," Williams said. "They dominated on both ends of the floor with toughness and made us look like a bunch of pansies."
Odom credits Wake Forest's 7-0 start to a defining moment during the middle of last season when he had to make what he describes as "the hardest decision I've ever had in coaching." With the Demon Deacons in the midst of a terrible stretch during which they would win just five of 16 games, Odom summoned his staff to his office on Jan. 30 and delivered the stunning news that he was planning to shift junior point guard Robert O'Kelley, who was shooting a dismal 36.7% from the field, to the two-guard spot and replace him with sophomore reserve Ervin Murray, a 6'5" guard who had been recruited to play on the wing. "We had reached a stage where Robert was our only scorer, and if he didn't get 25 points in a game, we simply weren't going to win," Odom says. "We were in a virtual free fall, so I had to try something to salvage the season."
The move was especially tough because O'Kelley had been Wake Forest's top scorer and unquestioned leader during his first two seasons. "Coach, have you lost confidence in me?" he asked, crestfallen, when he was told the news.
"Not at all," Odom said, "but this is best for the team."
Odom explained that O'Kelley could shed his playmaking responsibilities and concentrate on rediscovering his lost jump shot. "I was disappointed because I felt that Coach didn't have faith in me," O'Kelley says, "but it wasn't the time to be stubborn and selfish. Looking back, I can see that it was a turning point for our team." Wake Forest concluded its season with eight victories in its last nine games, and O'Kelley scored 19 points in the NIT title game against Notre Dame to lead the Deacons to the championship and earn the tournament's MVP award.
Another change for the better for Wake Forest was the evolution of 6'9", 245-pound Lithuanian import Darius Songaila into an offensive threat in the post. As a freshman in '98-99, Songaila (pronounced sun-GUY-la) had too often been banished to the bench: He led the conference with 116 fouls and fouled out of eight games. Last season, however, he began to use his aggressiveness more effectively. "Darius had to learn that too many of his fouls were retaliatory," Odom says. "His blood pressure tends to rise suddenly, but I didn't want to douse his fire completely because fearlessness is his strength." With Murray concentrating on getting the ball inside, Songaila began to be the foulee, not the fouler, and ended up attempting more free throws than any other ACC player. Better yet, he led the conference by shooting 83.5% from the foul line, including a string of 33 straight made free throws.