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
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
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
Songaila scored in double figures in Wake Forest's final 14 games
to end up as its leading scorer and then spent three months last
summer as a member of the Lithuanian national team, earning a
bronze medal at the Olympics. Songaila ranked fourth on that team
in scoring and had 28 points and 10 rebounds in two games against
the U.S. He's shooting 54.8% from the field this season and has
even improved his foul shooting, making 19 of his 21 free throws
Songaila almost didn't make it to America. After having been
recruited by Odom's son, Lane, who at the time was an assistant
coach at East Carolina, Darius was preparing to come to the U. S.
when his father, Ignas, a builder, fell from the third story of a
construction site. Ignas broke his back and is paralyzed from the
waist down. Darius offered to remain in Lithuania, but Ignas told
him, "Go take care of yourself, because I can't do it anymore."
Then Songaila so improved his game while playing a year at New
Hampton (N.H.) School that the ACC came calling.
Songaila's emergence in the middle has helped create so many open
looks for Wake Forest's perimeter players that the previously
one-dimensional Demon Deacons entered the Kansas game with five
men averaging in double figures. Wake's leading scorer is its
sixth man, sharpshooting junior guard Craig Dawson, who honed his
jumper playing against his uncle, Detroit Pistons guard Jerry
Stackhouse, on his Grandma Minnie's backyard hoop in Kinston,
N.C. Dawson wears jersey number 42 as a tribute to Uncle Jerry
and prepared for this season by working out with several Pistons
over the summer. Dawson, who's shooting 44.1% from three-point
range and has scored 113 points in only 166 minutes, dreamed of
following his uncle to North Carolina, but he was spurned by Tar
Heels recruiters. Odom, whose only McDonald's All-America recruit
in his 12 seasons at Wake was Rodney Rogers (now of the Phoenix
Suns) in 1990, acknowledges that none of his players grew up as
Wake Forest fans or considered the school their first choice.
Even Howard, the hometown kid, would have chosen N.C. State or
Virginia but signed with the Deacons after those two schools
stopped recruiting him.
In the victory over Kansas, Dawson scored 20 points in 24
minutes, and O'Kelley chipped in with 11. Howard showed why he
might be Wake Forest's best player with a variety of treys,
slashing moves and dunks in transition. Songaila produced 10
points and eight rebounds despite suffering a bruised thigh early
in the second half, and senior forward Josh Shoemaker led Wake
with 12 boards as the Deacons outrebounded much taller Kansas
43-26. Finally, with Murray's steady hand at the controls, Wake
committed only two turnovers in the opening half and shot 68.0%
from the field in the second half. "I'm shocked," Kansas guard
Jeff Boschee said. "It felt like every time we were on defense,
the ball was going to go through the hoop. That's not a good
feeling to have."
Despite playing without 6'9" senior center Rafael Vidaurreta,
who's rehabbing a knee injury and could return to the lineup for
Wake Forest's game on Saturday against Georgia, the Demon Deacons
own a 12-game winning streak, the second longest in the nation
behind defending national champion Michigan State's 18. They are
also ranked No. 6 in the AP poll, their highest ranking since the
Duncan era. "We don't have marquee stars like Duke and North
Carolina--we're just a balanced team of players trying to exceed
expectations," says Murray. "Hopefully, anybody who saw what we
did to Kansas will believe that we're for real."
Late last Thursday night Wake Forest students celebrated the win
over Kansas with a school tradition known as "rolling the quad,"
which involves tossing dozens of rolls of toilet paper into the
limbs of the giant oak trees on campus. Meanwhile, Odom lingered
inside Joel Coliseum, savoring one of his most impressive
victories at Wake but keeping the Demon Deacons' success in
perspective. "We're just a nice little school that ultimately
poses no threat to anybody," Odom said. "The best programs are
despised for their success, but even when we win, nobody really
hates us. We don't even have a natural rival. We are what we are,
and that's a challenge that I enjoy."
Odom invariably treats Wake Forest's underdog status with humor.
With two minutes left in that evening's blowout, a group of
students behind the Deacons' bench targeted the Kansas players
and began the customary upset chant, "Overrated! Overrated!"
Odom turned to them and said, "Hey, let's hope they're not
overrated, because that means we're not this good."
Odom, "and if he didn't score 25, we'd lose."
to anybody," says Odom.