Terrapin Fever

Posted: Apr 05, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Once the University of Maryland basketball team won the national championship in Atlanta Monday night, congratulatory telephone calls poured in at home and the office. I received cards and letters, red-and-white balloons and a bottle of champagne. In truth, I didn't record a basket, rebound or assist for the victorious Terrapins. Nor did I advise Coach Gary Williams or help him recruit his championship team. I am just a fan, but a truly obsessive one. Of course, I was at the Georgia Dome Monday night along with thousands of other Terrapin followers. I am unique, however, in one respect that testifies to the extent of my dementia. This was Maryland's 36th game of the year, and I attended every one. I'm not even a Maryland alumnus (although my wife and son are). I remain a faithful University of Illinois graduate, about to make my annual visit to the Champaign campus to meet this year's winner of the Robert D. Novak nonfiction writing scholarship. So, how did I become a Terrapin loony? It's just because I love to watch basketball and especially college basketball -- starting in 1943 at age 12 when my father took me to watch the Illinois Whiz Kids with Andy Phillip demolish Northwestern and Otto Graham at the old Chicago Stadium. I was living in Washington's Maryland suburbs when the University of Maryland hired a hot young coach, Lefty Driesell, beginning with the 1969-70 season. Driesell inherited mediocre talent, but I was present when a last-second Maryland shot upset nationally ranked Duke. I was hooked. I bought season tickets and began a 32-year journey to the national championship. It was a hazardous journey, punctuated by disappointments and near misses despite such wonderful players as Tom McMillen, Len Elmore, John Lucas, Albert King, Buck Williams, Len Bias, Joe Smith and Steve Francis. They played spectacular basketball, but there was no final triumph -- until Monday night. This championship team probably lacks the individual talent of the 1974 or 1980 teams, but that only enhances the appeal for college basketball mavens. This is the first NCAA men's championship basketball team without a member of the Parade Magazine high school all-American team. These are hard-working over-achievers who played as a team, and it was their unselfishness that made them so attractive. NCAA rules no longer permit the intimacy between boosters and players that once allowed me to hire players to work in my office, to invite them to Thanksgiving dinner at my home and to chat with them in the locker room after games. Even at arm's length, however, I got a close-up view of the '02 Terrapins. They formed an intriguing band of brothers. They are surely much more mature than their non-basketball-playing contemporaries. The veterans on this senior-dominated team long ago became accustomed to interviews and nationwide exposure. Young men who had come to the university raw from Baltimore's inner city, Washington's Anacostia section and small-town Louisiana are polished spokesmen. It is a credit to them, and to their guidance from and inspired leadership by Coach Williams. And a special word has to be said for Juan Dixon, the heart and soul of the championship team. The son of parents who died because of drug-induced AIDS carried this team on his back, willing it to victory. On Monday night, when Indiana took the lead (for 13 seconds) against Maryland, I knew that Dixon would lead his teammates to victory. He scored the next two baskets, and the game was over. I also knew that this would be a golden season, and so I made plans to do something I had never done before: to attend every Terrapin game, at home and away. That took the generous cooperation of Gary Williams permitting me to ride the team plane back from places like Norman, Okla., and Tallahassee, Fla., so that I would have a full day of work the next day. CNN cooperated by putting me on regular programs remote from places like Charlotte, N.C., and Syracuse, N.Y. The 36th and final game turned out to be the most difficult. When CNN several weeks ago scheduled April 1 for the re-launch of Crossfire (of which I am co-host), I noted that this was the night of the championship game, which I certainly would attend if Maryland were in it. CNN agreed, but the producers were rooting for Kansas so that they wouldn't have to produce me remote from Atlanta. But Maryland won, and I was there. It was a golden moment for a hopeless basketball junkie.