It takes proof of three miracles to achieve official sainthood. Art St. Martin is working on his third.
The 52-year-old retired teacher, one of the Baltimore area's most successful girls basketball coaches, joked that he took the Howard High job because his wife wanted to him out of the house.
More likely, he wanted the challenge of turning around yet a third basketball program. He already has accomplished the impossible for girls teams at Brooklyn Park and Catonsville Community College.
After just three weeks of practice at Howard, St. Martin's basketball knowledge and confident attitude have seeped into the minds of the Lions, who are ecstatic about their newest mentor.
If ever a program needed a savior, it is Howard's. The Lions were 10-13 the past two seasons, haven't had a winning season since 1988-89, and haven't won a county title since 1974-75.
The Howard challenge has swallowed up a bunch of hard-working coaches over the past 22 years. St. Martin is the third in three seasons. He replaced Craig O'Connell, a well-liked teacher who in the face of a police investigation committed suicide last August.
The Lions have never lacked for raw talent. They have lacked motivation. St. Martin is changing that and already has players believing anything is possible.
"He gives us motivation. We're playing to win," said Huguens Jean, a 5-10 guard from Haiti in his second season at Howard.
St. Martin said: "Wherever I've coached, I've always made sure my players got to the next level. It's just something I like to do. I've already written a half-dozen colleges, asking them to see us play. And one player has already heard from a coach. The players like that."
O'Connell's death also has motivated the players.
"It's sad what happened in August, but it has brought us together," said Ron Coursey. "I wasn't looking forward to the season. Now I'm excited. Our season is dedicated to Coach O'Connell. When you get tired, you think of him."
Jean said: "We'll be playing with two coaches, one [St. Martin] on the court who gives us direction, and the other [O'Connell] watching over us."
St. Martin likes his players and their talent. "For 17 days, every kid has done everything I've asked," he said. "They've busted their guts for me."
That positive feeling is reciprocal.
"We love him," said Lamont Anderson. "We want to win for him. He's real dedicated."
When St. Martin speaks, the players listen -- really listen. Highly organized, he ran Tuesday's practice with the confidence of someone who knows he's going to succeed.
"I haven't seen the other teams in the county, but I'd be surprised if we don't do well," St. Martin said.
That confidence is not hollow. Brooklyn Park's girls team was 1-18 when he took over. In 12 years under St. Martin, they won six state championships and posted a 218-69 record.
Catonsville Community College's women's team was 1-25 before he guided it to six straight winning seasons.
The changes at Howard from previous years are obvious.
"You don't see people fooling around in practice, said Anderson, a 6-foot-3 senior forward. "We have a winning attitude."
"Even the most talented players need to be coached," added Coursey. "We haven't been motivated to our potential. This is the most running I've done in my four years at Howard. In previous years, we were grabbing our shorts in the fourth quarter. This year, other teams will be. Coach O'Connell started to turn things around, but our new coach is O'Connell-plus. We're playing to our potential now."
Jean, a junior guard, said: "We're more mature. We have more spirit. We're playing together. Last year, we were kind of confused. This year Coach gives us a play, and we're mastering everything."
One of Tuesday's practice drills was a speed-shooting drill. The players paired off in two-man teams to shoot 50 shots, 10 each from five different spots on the floor -- all in two minutes and 30 seconds.
"It teaches us to speed up our shots, get a quicker release and more accuracy," Coursey said. "We have a reputation of not being able to shoot. I think we can prove that reputation wrong because of the drills Coach has given us to do. We work, every practice, 30 to 45 minutes on shooting."
Maurice Clark, a senior guard, has the record for that drill, sinking 44 of 50.
St. Martin has been up front, telling each player what his role will be. He asks for good attitudes and no whining. He asks them to wear ties on game days. He asks for no foul language during practices or games.
"I told them my standards at the first team meeting and not to come out if they didn't like them," St. Martin said, who also is big on fundamentals.
"I'm trying to break them of bad habits. Apparently, some of this stuff, they've never heard before," said St. Martin, whose free-throw shooting percetage of .896 is a Towson University record. He can still shoot and taught shooting last summer at the Boys' Latin Five-Star Camp.
"A lot of teams are sleeping on us, thinking we're going to be an easy win," Coursey said. "They're going to be surprised when they see us. We're going to tighten up the pressure. We're going to give teams 32 minutes."
Pub Date: 12/04/98