Each time they walked into their basketball arena, players and coaches
would see the banners, the vestiges of the days when hoops had a special place on the campus of Norfolk State University and in the hearts of those who lived in the coastal Virginia city.
Home to a naval complex still considered the largest in the world, Norfolk had a proud basketball tradition some two decades ago when it played at the Division II level in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and made 15 NCAA tournament appearances, highlighted by a 1995 trip to the Final Four.
But ever since the Spartans joined the Division I ranks in 1997, there had been nothing but disappointment when postseason berths were earned. The banners from their glory days gathered only dust until this season when a collection of New Yorkers made basketball fashionable once more in the navy town.
"It's something where you walk into the gym and you see the school's 20 to 25 banners and you want to put a banner up," coach Anthony Evans says. "You want to have that type of success again. Now, it finally feels like we're part of the tradition."
For the first time in school history, Norfolk State will play in the NCAA Division I Tournament as the 15th-seeded Spartans will face second-seeded Missouri Friday afternoon at 4:40 p.m. in Omaha, Neb. The Spartans grabbed their bid and electrified the campus and city by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament, and they did it through a spark from eight players with ties to the five boroughs and a head coach and assistant coach who grew up in New York.
"There's a lot of excitement and a lot of buzz at our school right now. It's just a dream come true," says Kyle O'Quinn, a 6-10 senior center from Jamaica Queens. "It's amazing around here."
As new as the current state of euphoria might be, for some it's just a sweet reminder of the way things used to be when players like Bob Dandridge and Rucker Park legend Pee Wee Kirkland helped build a Division II power.
"It's exciting for the alumni and exciting for the university and the city of Norfolk," said Dandridge, a 1969 Norfolk State grad who spent 13 seasons in the NBA. "It's great that the current players know that there has always been a good tradition. I'm proud that the team has been able to establish its own identity, especially at the Division I level."
Dandridge, a four-time NBA all-star, can thank the Big Apple for that. Evans, a Flatbush native in his fifth season at Norfolk, and assistant coach Rob Jones, from Jamaica, knew the talent base in New York could rejuvenate the Spartans. He brought in players like O'Quinn and Marcos Tamares, a senior forward from Bayside, and was rewarded for his faith with a 73-70 victory over Bethune-Cookman in the MEAC final that sent the Spartans to the Big Dance.
"I think it's special we all got a chance to play Division I basketball down here and we made it work," Tamares says.
O'Quinn has been the leader of the New Yorkers and emerged this year as the face of a Norfolk team that has risen from a 12-20 campaign a year ago to 25-9 this year.
He had a breakout senior year at Campus Magnet in Queens and Norfolk State was the first school to offer him a scholarship, which he quickly accepted. Last year, he was the conference's Defensive Player of the Year. This year, in addition to once again being the top defensive player, he was the MEAC's Player of the Year, averaging 15.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Tamares averages 6.8 points, the team's fourth-highest total, while sophomore Jamel Fuentes, from Brooklyn, comes off the bench and averages 3.2 points.
"You look at the locker next to you and there's a guy from New York, a neighborhood guy. We're all from the same city," O'Quinn said. "We just feel like we know each other."
The rest of the New Yorkers have played minor roles on a team that has brought back the buzz and madness of March basketball to Norfolk.
"It was nice to watch the NCAA selection show with our fans and alumni and see them so happy. They were proud of the way we brought back the winning tradition," Tamares says. "You could feel it in the air that this was something special for them."
Of course, much figures to change Friday, when the upstarts from Virginia try to become only the fifth No. 15 seed to topple a No. 2 seed.
Two who did it came from the MEAC -- Hampton and Coppin State --- and the Spartans are certainly aware of that history -- and their tradition.
"It's been done before and can be done again," O'Quinn says. "We're not just going to experience the tournament. We're going to get the most out of our time. Anybody can be beat. We're going there to win."
Matt Ehalt is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.