I started not to write this column.

Didn't want to write it. Been down this road way too many times before. Sick and tired of having to constantly don the cape of antiracism crusader. Monitoring every "slip of the tongue" by "good people" who said bad things, and pointing out the error of their ways - as if they didn't know better.

The game is all too transparent: Someone spews hate. We react in outrage. Firestorm ensues. We quote Sharpton or Jackson, while the haters roll their eyes. We demand an apology, with some sensitivity training thrown in for good measure.

Controversy blows over, and said offender goes back to making millions, filled with all the redemption of a fraud with his fingers crossed behind his back. Dust settles, and we go back to opining about violence, disobedient dogs or Anna Nicole's baby daddy.

America's "shock" culture grows more insensitive, like a bacterial infection you can't shake. It wears you down, to the point where you're numbed by it.

But when talk-show yakker Don Imus slung his "nappy-headed ho" comment at the Rutgers' women's basketball team, a squad that was still basking in the improbable afterglow of an NCAA championship run, it felt like a hammer to my heart.

These were young women - 18, 19 and 20 years old. Someone's daughter, granddaughter, niece, sister. Black women dehumanized, portrayed as ugly and unkempt ("nappy-headed") and loose ("ho's").

It was so patently unfair for a group of athletes who had worked so hard and done everything right to be debased.

I bet there were more media at yesterday's news conference than at the Rutgers NCAA championship game vs. Tennessee, which tells you something about the lack of respect still accorded the women's game.

But the unflappable coach, C. Vivian Stringer, took full advantage of the captive audience, lauding her "young ladies" with a preacher's fervor, while chastising the powers that allow Imus to go on unchecked.

"These are valedictorians, future doctors, and, yes, even Girl Scouts . . . the best the nation has to offer," the coach declared. "They are God's representatives in every sense of the word."

On the other side of the podium sat Stringer's 10 student-athletes, clad in red and black Rutgers gear, eight of them black, two of them white, all tall, fit, poised, proud.

Their maturity made you forget there wasn't a senior among them. In fact, the inexperienced Scarlet Knights started the season so poorly that the legendary Stringer lambasted them as "my worst defensive team ever."

They spent hours watching film. They ran suicide drills well into the night. Stringer humbled them by collecting their cell phones and kicking them out of their state-of-the-art locker room, telling them their lackluster play wasn't worthy of it.

The Scarlet Knights went on to win 22 out of the next 25 games, giving Stringer her first shot at the title in 25 years of coaching. All the while the team maintained a grade point average of 3.0 or better.

Only to return home and have to face their friends, and forced to walk around campus after being reduced to nappy-headed ho's.

"What hurts most is that Mr. Imus does not know one of us," said sophomore guard Heather Zurich, one of the white players. "He doesn't know that Pip (freshman guard Epiphanny Price) will make an unbelievable lawyer one day. He doesn't know that Matee (Avajon, their sophomore guard) is the funniest person on the team, or that Kia (Vaughn, the 6-foot-4 sophomore center) is the big sister you never had. . . . We are a family, and it hurt."

Make no mistake, Imus needs to go. His invective aimed toward African Americans, which had raised ire many times before, should have gotten him fired. If not for activists such as Al Sharpton, who provide sorely needed checks and balances, Imus would be continuing on his jolly way, entertaining his millions of listeners with his hate talk - and the Rutgers students would still be doing the right thing without a voice.

The team plans to meet with Imus soon. Whatever the outcome, in a roundabout way, the Rutgers women have finally received the recognition they deserve.

I'm guessing this controversy nets Stringer a huge batch of recruits. I know if I was a mom with a blue-chip daughter, I would want Stringer to guide her basketball career, as fiercely loyal, protective and loving as she appeared toward her team.

Yesterday, she took a stand for women, African Americans, for young student-athletes trying to do right, and for a moment she lifted the dark cloud that had been hanging over her team.

"I would ask that you don't recognize us in a light as dimly lit as this," said junior guard Essence Carson, the team captain, spokesperson, and a straight-A double major in music and psychology.

She shouldn't worry. The grace and class demonstrated by the Scarlet Knights yesterday were more memorable than any buzzer beater.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/annette.