NCAA Basketball

‘That did bring us closer together’: The oral history of the 1997 Coppin State-Howard fight

Coppin State’s upset of second-seeded South Carolina in the men’s NCAA tournament was preceded by an unforgettable brawl the Eagles claim saved their season

It’s been 25 years since Coppin State’s 1997 NCAA tournament win over South Carolina, a shocking smackdown of the SEC regular-season champion that entered March Madness with a No. 2 seed, a No. 6 ranking and high expectations to compete for a national championship.

The standout games for Coppin leading up to that upset: a 34-point thrashing of Duquesne from the highly respected Atlantic 10, an overtime loss at Kansas State that proved the Eagles could run with the big dawgs, and the team’s resolve in overcoming a 19-point first-half deficit to win in the first round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament.

But the pivotal moment that players and coaches cite as saving the season occurred in a tight staircase just off the playing court of Burr Gymnasium on the campus of Howard University when Coppin visited the nation’s capital on Jan. 30, 1997.

This wasn’t two teams grabbing and holding one another: It was an all-out battle royal that lasted nearly 15 minutes with players and coaches from both teams fully involved. Aside from the participants, there were few witnesses (and a few brave souls eventually entered the fray in an attempt to pull the participants apart). And the only minor details that went public were in a brief story in the next day’s Washington Post: Bison Men’s Loss Marred by Brawl with Coppin St.

Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t shine a spotlight on a fight. “Why are you doing something about that?” Coppin’s coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell said to me when I asked him about the incident. “It seems like that’s a negative.”

But citing that fight’s importance to a season in which Coppin came within one possession of advancing to the Sweet 16 (after the South Carolina win, the Eagles lost to Texas 82-81 in the second round), we reached out to players and coaches from both schools to offer their perspectives of what went down.

Here’s the oral history of “The Brawl in the Burr.”

According to then-Howard coach Mike McLeese, guard Antoine Brockington was the catalyst for Coppin State’s success.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Coppin entered that season with the nation’s longest home winning streak, which ended at 42 games in a Jan. 15, 1997, loss to North Carolina A&T. That defeat dropped Coppin’s record to 1-2 in the conference for the season and, to some of the players, revealed signs of conflict.

Kareem Lewis, Coppin State forward, 1995-98: Losing that game was hard. We crushed Duquesne at the Coppin Center in December, and we expected to win every home game. When we lost that game, it was like we let down all the guys from the previous teams that kept the streak going.

Troy Lewis, Coppin State guard, 1996-98: You had players on the team that had different ideas of their purpose to the team. People had aspirations.

Kareem Lewis: We all had our own egos. We had certain cliques, people feuding here and there. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. Everybody thought they were going to the NBA.

Derek Brown, Coppin State assistant coach, 1986-2000: I once did a survey of all of our players, and just about every one of them thought they were going to go to the NBA. And I asked them: Did you make first-team, second-team or third-team All-MEAC? For most of them, the answer was no. But they all think they’re going to get to that level.

Fred Warrick, Coppin State guard, 1996-99: I was the new guy on the team, and I noticed early on that nobody did anything together — everybody hung out in small groups. It was like that for most of the season. Until that incident at Howard.

Coppin and Howard weren’t considered rivals despite the two schools being less than an hour’s drive from each other. Coppin dominated the MEAC in the 1990s, winning nine regular-season titles and earning five trips to postseason tournaments (three trips to the NCAA tournament and two trips to the NIT). Howard did reach the NCAA tournament at the end of the 1991-92 season, the only year that decade that the Bison finished above .500.

But the Bison went into that January home game with a little pep in their step, entering with a three-game winning streak against a visiting Coppin team that had a four-game winning streak of its own.

Thurman Johnson, Howard forward, 1993-97: I remember that winning streak: For us, they were few and far between. Coppin was the big dog in the MEAC, but we were on the upswing and we were so confident. We weren’t going to let them punk us in our own house.

John Gay, Howard guard, 1994-97: Coppin State had this three-year run of not losing in the MEAC. The year before, we played a game at home, and I hit the game-winning shot just before the buzzer to give them their first conference loss of the year. I don’t know if there was animosity over that, but I just remember I was superhigh going into that game.

Mike McLeese, Howard coach, 1994-98: That was a really good Coppin team. Terquin Mott was a great player. I wish I had gotten him to play at Howard. But I thought the kid, Antoine Brockington, was the catalyst to their success.

As the Coppin players left their locker room and entered the staircase to walk up the one flight to the court for pregame warm-ups, they were surprised: The entire Howard basketball team had lined both sides of the stairwell.

Antoine Brockington, Coppin State guard, 1995-98: As we walked through, a couple players were calling us ladies and smacking people on the butt. Me and Terq were the last two through, and we were hot.

Johnson: It was something I did every game. I just tapped their star player or their big man on the butt as they walked past.

Danny Singletary, Coppin State guard, 1996-98: I think they were trying to psych us out. We’re the powerhouse in the league, and they’re kind of doing whatever they can do to get in our head and try to win the game. To me, it’s nothing. But during layups, Terq is mad. He kept saying, ‘They b—-ed us.’

Brockington: Terq was like, ‘If they’re still there when we come back down the steps, just stick with me. And watch my back.’

After Coppin’s players finished their warm-up, they entered the staircase on the way back to the locker room as a group.

Again, they were met by the entire Howard team lining the stairwell.

Johnson: Terq had transferred into the MEAC, and he was a pretty hot player, and he was cocky. So I just tapped him on the butt just to let him know ‘You at Howard now.’

Kareem Lewis: They’re lining the staircase, clapping in our face and saying, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ It’s one thing to clap in your face. But to smack us on the buttocks? To smack Terq on the buttocks?

Warrick: I know they’re trying to do something psychological because that’s what some people do in basketball. You tap me on the ass, and I’m going to go out and try to drop 30 on you. You tap Terq on the ass? I’m just gonna say they chose the wrong person.

Kareem Lewis: When they smacked Terq, he said, ‘I’m not taking this anymore.’ The next thing I knew, I see a Howard player coming down the stairs, headfirst. He was flying.

Eric Dedmon, Howard guard, 1993-97: I remember Terquin Mott sucker-punching my teammate John Gay. And then, all hell broke loose.

At 6-feet-8 and 240 pounds, forward Terquin Mott was Coppin State’s enforcer.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Delivering the most damage was Mott, a well-chiseled, 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward who would later become a legendary player in the Philippines. Mott was Coppin’s enforcer, assuming the role with a toughness instilled in him while growing up in one of Philadelphia’s toughest housing projects. While people in the MEAC didn’t know the specifics of Mott’s upbringing, they had heard whispers after his arrival in the league in 1995.

Kareem Lewis: I saw him put fear in guys — guys who would go to the NBA — and they had never even played against him. Obviously, they had heard about him.

McLeese: I had heard he had been in trouble and had been in a facility. I don’t know how true it was, but that’s what I heard.

Gay: Big bad Terq. I don’t know what the facts are, but you know how folktales happen, right? We had heard he was from Baltimore [Editor’s note: Mott’s from Philadelphia], who had been out of jail two times and Fang picked him up to play on the team and he was older than everybody. You heard all the rumors, and the story gets bigger and bigger.

Mott: I grew [up] in East Falls projects, a crack-infested place. There was one way in and one way out. Even the police were afraid to go there. I got in trouble and attended Glen Mills, a court-adjudicated school for juvenile delinquents. It’s your last stop before jail. I was sentenced by the courts to do 14 months, and I attended there for about three years.

Brown: Some people who were fearful, they feared Terq. The people who were fearless, I think they welcomed going against him. Terq was a physical specimen, but Terq was also a super-intelligent individual and was a GTE Academic All-American at Coppin.

The “Battle in the Burr” wasn’t one of those grab-and-hold scuffles. It was “The Malice at the Palace” on steroids. Mott stood out in a melee that lasted a good 15 minutes with punches thrown and bodies being thrown and slammed.

Dedmon: Teams get riled up before games, that’s common. To us, what went down seemed like it was premeditated. They were just so aggressive when it went down. We were startled; they were ready.

Brockington: Me and Terq are fighting with our backs against the wall and we’re coming down the steps. Some guy grabs me and throws me through the door. Now both teams are fighting. It’s total chaos.

Singletary: Punches were thrown, and Terq was knocking people out. People were trying to hold Terq, but trying to stop Terq is like trying to stop a bull in a bullfight.

Brown: When I got down the stairs, I see Terq. And he was like the Incredible Hulk, he looked like he had grown three times as big as he is. Just an unbelievable piece of flesh.

Johnson: Terq, he goes down the stairs and hits Jermaine Holloway, who hits his head on the wall and goes out like a light. I went downstairs chasing Terq, who gets to the second landing and hits John [Gay], who was facing the wall. Now he goes out and starts bleeding.

Gay: I was bouncing the ball on the wall and Thurman tells me Terq hit me in the back of the head and my head hit the wall. I don’t remember anything that went down. I remember waking up on the training table. I said, ‘What the hell happened?’ And someone said, ‘You got knocked out.’

Johnson: I went downstairs because I wanted to fight everybody. That’s my brother that got hit. They moved Terq in the back because they didn’t want to get him in trouble. But I get into a crowd of guys, and we just started rolling.

Kareem Lewis: Fang was there, he was yelling, ‘Stop that.’ But he couldn’t stop it. The fire was already burning.

McLeese: I remember Fang in it, but more on the perimeter, and thinking that’s where I need to be. I’m in the middle pulling guys apart and at one point Terq, in the heat of it, looked me right dead in the eye. What’s going through my mind? I’m like, ‘Man, I hope this motherf—er don’t swing on me ’cause I know he’s going to knock me out.’ Terq gave me the respect of being the coach and backed off. I respect the fact that he respected me.

Mitchell: I jumped in there, I had to jump in there. I got in there, started pulling people off. I didn’t go down, but I do remember messing up my $1,000 suit.

Ed Hill, Howard sports information officer, 1983-2017: I don’t know if I’d call it a fight. It was Howard players against Terquin Mott, and it was a no contest because he knocked a couple of people out. I remember talking to the security and they couldn’t believe how many players had blood on them.

The teams were eventually separated, and as both teams went to their respective locker rooms to cool off, it was time to assess the damage.

Singletary: The way the locker room was set up in the basement, you could see the Howard players going to the training room one by one to get bandaged up.

Troy Lewis: When we get on the floor for the game, you see the Howard players with bandages on their face, on their bodies, because their players got hurt.

Warrick: Howard had maybe 12, 13 people fighting. When the game started, I remember only seeing seven or eight players. Everybody else was injured.

Brockington: We wound up winning but Reggie Welch [who scored a game-high 23 points that night] broke his hand and missed a bunch of games.

Kareem Lewis: Whoever [Terq] hit, I feel sorry for him. I know he got scars on him up until this day.

Gay: To this day, I still have a mark on my lip. I had to get 20 stitches. My mustache doesn’t grow in that area. I tell Thurman all the time, ‘You’re the one that got me knocked out.’

Johnson: I was all over the place in that staircase, trying to get at everybody. I have a picture of me shooting a free throw during that game and I have a bandage on my arm. John’s behind me with a bandage on his face.

Gay: Thurman sent me a picture this morning with me wearing the No. 12. And I said, ‘What happened to my number?’ Apparently I had blood all over my jersey. I wasn’t on the bench when the game started, but I played. I didn’t have all my wits about me, but I played.

Howard’s Thurman Johnson shoots a free throw during the game against Coppin State while wearing a bandage on his right arm. His teammate John Gay (12) looks on.

Courtesy of Thurman Johnson

Coppin won the game 93-79. More important than that win was the bond the team created that carried over to the NCAA tournament victory over South Carolina.

Troy Lewis: It wasn’t you against the opposing team, it was your team against the opposing team, and we were in a situation that if you wanted to get out of it alive or healthy, you needed to rely on other members of your team. I think guys started to pull back from their aspirations and focus more on working together. That did bring us closer together.

Warrick: We started doing everything together, everything as a team. Conversation started to happen in practice, and we started pushing each other more. That helped us for the rest of the regular season, and through the NCAA tournament.

Kareem Lewis: We went from having different cliques and crews to being one team after that fight. We hung out as a group, went to homecoming as a group, we started to do everything together.

Coppin State coach Ron “Fang” Mitchell (right) hugs Antoine Brockington (left) after upsetting South Carolina during the first round of the NCAA tournament on March 14, 1997. Coppin State’s players say the brawl against Howard in 1997 helped bring the team closer together and set the stage for its win against South Carolina.

Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo

In the summer following the 1996-97 season, Thurman Johnson walked into a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia to grab a cheesesteak. Who did he encounter inside the carryout? Terquin Mott.

Johnson: I tapped him on the shoulder, and we just hugged it out. We talked about what happened, he apologized for the whole scene and we squashed it.

Everyone’s version of what went down that night pretty much falls in line. Everyone’s version, except for Terquin Mott. Here’s his recollection.

Mott: The game at Howard was very interesting. Pregame event, and those guys had some cupcakes they wanted to share with us.

There’s a lot of stories going around that there were some punches thrown and people had to go to the hospital and things like that. I mean, I was trying to break it up and keep everybody safe and enjoy the cupcakes.

We ate cupcakes, and we played the game. That’s all I remember.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.