Indulge me today in a bit of nostaligia. Tonight it’s Kentucky vs. Kansas for the 2012 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship. Ten years ago, it was Maryland vs. Indiana—Terps vs. Hoosiers—and my Terps won the game.
Did I say a bit of nostalgia? No, this is big-time nostalgia.
I saw my first Terps game at 13. At 16, I was enrolled at Maryland, attending Terps games in that venerable basketball hangar, Cole Field House. The crowds were so sparse back then that you could shout your complaints down from the stands and be heard on the bench. There, by the way, you’d find the coach, an old-style guy in a buzz-cut named Bud Millikan, whose brand of ball was fundamental and pure and as dry as a rice cake. His point guard was an intense kid from New Jersey named Gary Williams.
Basketballwise, Maryland was nowheresville. If the Atlantic Coast Conference—mostly schools from North Carolina, a couple from South Carolina, one or two others—could be said to have a Siberia, then we Terps fans inhabited the last outpost in the Gulag Archipelago. We caught a whiff of great teams when they came to town—that very year, for example, the all-black Texas Western team beat the all-white Kentucky team for the NCAA Championship right here at Cole—but they were the other guys. We were pounded regularly by ACC teams coached by the likes of Dean Smith, Vic Bubas, and Frank McGuire. That point guard from New Jersey—that Williams kid—he got a healthy dose of being on the outside looking in. So did we. Our only reward—and perhaps his, for all I know—lay in nourishing a sweet resentment toward the schools that beat us.
Yet we stayed faithful. Through the much-chronicled arrival at Maryland of the enthralling Tobacco Road shaman, Lefty Driesell; his bold, hubris-driven, doomed declaration that Maryland would become “the UCLA of the East;” the raucus nights of sold-out crowds; the dizzying wins (most famously, the overtime win over Frank McGuire’s villainous South Carolina Gamecocks in 1971, when the score was 4-3 at halftime) and crushing disappointments (among which the 103-100 overtime loss in 1974 to eventual national champion NC State still lives, twitching, in my memory); the blossoming of a delicious, defining loathing for the haughty Duke Blue Devils; the death by cocaine of our brightest star, Len Bias, within a day of being drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986; the ugly ousting of Lefty; the hiring of an over-his-head replacement whose NCAA rule violations led to penalties the next incoming coach was left to endure. And who was that incoming coach? He was a Maryland alum who gave up a plum coaching job at Ohio State to return to Cole . . . that Williams kid.
That was 1989. Dark days and then better days. And Gary Williams, always there, in the moment, David vs. Goliath, sweating through his suit, throwing himself from a crouch to a leap on the sidelines, turning—when a player did something wrong on the court—to scream at the players on the bench. He was a brilliant teacher, a great game coach. To love him was to love something spiny—say, a sea urchin—but a thing with purity to it. No smoothie, this one. An outsider, a battler, a will-to-win guy.
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And twelve years later his team was in the Final Four. And a year after that, essentially the same group of kids (where are they now?) went 32-4 and cut down the nets in Atlanta. NCAA Champions. Along the way they beat Kentucky, UConn, Kansas, and Indiana—quite a line-up of perennial powers–the kind we’d never dreamed of beating back in the days, 35 years earlier, when I watched the coach play point at Cole.
Because of Gary Williams’s success, the university built a new basketball arena, the Comcast Center. Maryland under Gary never did make it back to the upper echelons—some bad luck with highly-touted recruits, a fall-off in Gary’s recruiting—but in the lobby of the Comcast Center you’ll find this big crystal trophy, and it ain’t going anywhere.
Gary retired last year, and this year they named the court after him. There’s a new coach now named Mark Turgeon. He’s been successful everywhere he’s been, and he’s got a nice recruiting class coming in next fall. What’s more, in his first year at Maryland he was seen to throw himself from a crouch to a leap on the sidelines. I take this as a good omen.