They get amped at Hampton
This season, espnW will take a journey across America, bringing you an in-depth look at 16 women's college basketball programs -- our Sweet 16. We'll begin the first week of the season and conclude just before the conference tournaments. We'll visit powerhouse schools and those off the beaten path, programs that are emerging and those that were there from the beginning. At the end of these 16 weeks, we hope you'll have a true flavor of Hoops Across America.
HAMPTON, Va. -- DJ Vince looks up at the game clock, which started ticking down at 59 minutes to tip-off on the big scoreboard, and excitedly says, "Here we go baby. It's showtime."
He picks a song out of his 900-plus playlist stored on his MacBook and the thumping baseline of a dance club jam fills the Hampton Convocation Center. The music dominates the arena, forcing all conversations to ratchet up to yelling to be understood.
Time for DJ Vince to get on the mike. "To the beat y'all uuh! to the beat y'all Hampton ladies let's go!" he says on rhythm between the big beats. The Hampton women's basketball team trickles out onto the court to start warming up for its big game against crosstown and MEAC rival Norfolk State. They look up to find DJ Vince, who has his setup on the walkway between the first and second levels of the 7,200 seat arena, give him a wave and a small hip and shoulder shimmy to show they like the groove.
Hardly anyone is in the arena yet, but it's never too soon to start setting the festive mood.
The party starts early at Hampton, even if the women's basketball crowd tends to arrive on the fashionably late side. The electric atmosphere is the product of an elaborate production, containing multiple players and acts: the Lady Pirates basketball team, which is second in the MEAC with a 7-1 record (15-4 overall); the 60-plus-piece band, called "The Force;" a full cheerleading squad; DJ Vince spinning tunes; and a 15-member dance team called "Ebony Fire." Then throw in their mascot, the Pirate, a fog machine to add drama to the pregame introductions and Rev. Jerome Barber lending his radio-worthy baritone on the public address system
It's a full-on tour de force at Hampton, a historically black university, that happens at every home game with flourish and pride. Conference rival Morgan State will get its taste of the Hampton experience, visiting the Lady Pirates on Monday.
"I think we all want to do our part and put on a total show from start to finish," said Rasan Holmes, director of Hampton's university bands. "It's a vibe, a groove, a relationship we all have with each other. The basketball team gives us energy with the way they play, and then we give it back to them with the way we play. We're all here to support each other.
"And when it's going right, you feel the goose bumps."
Hampton is a small school (enrollment of 5,400) with a rich story. It was founded in 1868 on the banks of the James River, on the grounds of a former plantation and near Fort Monroe, held by the Union Army. The American Missionary Association created the school to educate former slaves after the Civil War. The institution quickly flourished as a place to develop teachers. Notable alumni include Booker T. Washington, Alberta Williams King (the mother of Martin Luther King Jr.), and more recently, comedian/actress Wanda Sykes.
The campus is steeped in history. It shapes the view of those who work and live in the area today.
"This is a special place, and we know that," said sophomore Alexis Best, a native of Raleigh, N.C. "We have real pride because of who we are."
Best and five other sophomores came to the game decked out in blue and white wigs and T-shirts that spelled out "I [heart] MY H U !"
Hampton's players, coach David Six and all the supporting elements create a spectacle during the game that can make one's attention wander. Do you turn to the band in the northern corner of the arena, doing chants and dance moves? Or when The Force is playing, do you scan to the left to see the intricate and athletic routines of Ebony Fire?
Or do your eyes stay trained on sophomore forward Alyssa Bennett and senior point guard Jericka Jenkins?
It's a tough decision, one with options depending on the situation.
Fun for the fans, support for the players
"There is so much going on around us, the music, the cheering, the noise of the crowd, yeah, but we have to tune it all out. We feel this wave of energy coming at us, and you know it here," Jenkins says as she points at her heart. "It's crazy how they do it up, and we love it. To know that people are coming out and really behind us, they're watching us closer now because we're winning, and that makes us want to play even harder and win."
Hampton's women's program is on the upswing since it hired Six three years ago. He was well-known in the Hampton Roads area, thanks to success as a high school coach. He made the unlikely jump to a Division I team and hasn't looked back.
The Lady Pirates won the MEAC regular season and postseason titles last year and went to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the past decade. Hampton, a No. 13 seed, drew No. 4 Kentucky in the first round in Albuquerque, N.M., and created a stir when its home production became a road company.
The Force and cheerleaders went along, inspiring some neutral fans into rooting for the underdog Lady Pirates. Kentucky won 66-62, surviving a scare in overtime. Six and many other members of the Hampton athletic department found their email and voicemail boxes stuffed with congratulatory messages after the game.
"People got to see what this place is really about from our team and all the support we bring with us, like The Force," Six said. "Obviously, we wanted to win that game, and when you look back at it, we really had a chance. But in the long run, that opportunity helped us get the Hampton name out and show what this program is about.
The production that is Hampton basketball, on and off the court, is not a new development. DJ Vince has been spinning tunes since 2000, and The Force, cheer and Ebony Fire squads have been staples for even longer. MEAC games are mostly doubleheaders, with the women playing first and the men second. Having both teams together allows for the spectacle to occur twice in one day at Hampton.
Hampton president William Harvey said having the women's team supported as much as possible is by design. He is a regular at games, many times accompanied by his three young granddaughters.
"We're about giving a range of life experiences; we have students learning music, dance, athletic administration, many skills that they may come to use when they graduate from Hampton," said Harvey, president since 1978. "It's also an opportunity to be part of something greater, a whole, of the Hampton community. We support our women in every way, just as we support our men. We believe that is the right thing, and that's something I have fought for in my time here at every level.
"I'm a big basketball fan, so I come here and get into everything -- the picks, the screens, who is guarding who. I know these ladies have game and I love to watch them."
Harvey relayed his thoughts in a raised voice, a necessary evil when trying to communicate above the booming noise. Fans may leave games a little hoarse from yelling, ears ringing from the sound, but happy for being entertained.
Some classics are staples
The Force, which starts playing 10 minutes before the game, can be counted on for some staples. Cameo's "Talkin' Out the Side of Your Neck," a 1984 song meant as a protest against former President Ronald Reagan, is an unlikely jam. It has become less of a political message and more of an extended riff for the horns, drums and other instruments to put their stamp on.
The song is a must for pregame, as dependable as The Force playing a soft and respectful version of the national anthem before tip-off.
"We love playing 'Neck,'" said sophomore Lauren Highsmith, the piccolo section leader. "We never do it the same way, we're always playing with it somehow. It's great playing for these games because we really are part of what's going on. We get into it, too, and pumping everybody up is fantastic."
The basketball team sometimes requests songs from DJ Vince and The Force, usually asking for something up-tempo and intense. Students also give DJ Vince in-game requests and feedback, thanks to his Twitter account.
Newer hits by Rick Ross, hip-hop/new jack swing classics by Heavy D and Bell Biv Devoe, plus old-school staples by the Sugarhill Gang and Earth, Wind & Fire get the crowd going.
"I can't play anything with cuss words, and that's a challenge with a lot of the songs today -- the kids don't get that," DJ Vince said. "If I put something on they don't like, I will start getting the tweets two seconds later. They don't hold back on me."
Ebony Fire is the wild card in the mix, giving dramatic life to the music. The 15-woman team performs with The Force during football games and has a strong relationship with the band members.
Their outfits for basketball games are sparse despite the winter chill outside. Blue halter bikini tops and white short-shorts allow for freedom of movement.
Members of Ebony Fire sit, legs crossed, to the right and angled to the right when the basketball team is playing. They leap to their feet the second a timeout or break is called and start dancing.
Their routines are complex and athletic, along the lines of a Zumba class mixed with a Janet Jackson video dance routine. It's not for the uncoordinated or out of shape, and the members of Ebony Fire are only politely breathing hard when they finish dancing. They practice four hours a day, often five days a week, to build up endurance.
"We're here to keep everybody fired up and inspired," said Raven Randolph, a junior from Hampton, Va. "We always want to be in step and looking good. I think we're doing pretty good."
This whole show has a purpose: to fire up the Lady Pirates and intimidate opponents. New Hampton athletic director Keshia Campbell understands what it feels like to play, and later, coach in a frenzied and hostile atmosphere. She starred at small forward at South Carolina State and was the 1991 MEAC player of the year. She returned to the school to become its coach for seven years before she turned to athletic administration.
"I hated coming here because I knew it was going to be so loud, so tough and they were going to get on you," Campbell said. "Hampton teams always fought hard on the court, and were good, and then you'd get the band blasting during timeouts, people saying stuff to you to point out your mistakes -- it gets real intense, real quick. This is a real basketball school at its core.
"When I was coaching, I would try to prepare my team for what they were going to get into here. But until you've experienced it, you can't really be ready for it."
Campbell leaned back in her courtside seat and smiled as Jenkins dished out one of her 17 assists a few feet away.
"I like this now a lot better, sitting right here, being on Hampton's side," she said, adding a nod. "I like this a whole lot, seeing all of this is fun now."
A few minutes later, the Hampton women finish a 92-43 drubbing of Norfolk State, and the band, cheerleaders, the Pirate and Ebony Fire launch into congratulations. Smiles, music, dancing and cheering are all around, as everybody celebrates their part of the production.
Just another day of basketball at Hampton University.