Things happen fast in My Local Locality. First this, which seems like yesterday rather than like two weeks ago, and then last night I started to wish death of a different sort for this guy, who is the only plausible explanation for Lord Voldemort and a fucking gaggle of Deatheaters swarming My Local Hockey Team in such blitzkrieg fashion. But today broke the barriers of my emotional control. Today, I weep for reals.
Long ago and far away, I was in love with a German film star1. No, wait. Long ago and far away, I was in love with a college basketball team. Sometime along about 1997, I actually sold my soul to dark powers for a single wish, that one day, during my lifetime, the University of Maryland mens' basketball team would win the NCAA title. I had finished my undergraduate degree at Maryland after 20 years of alternating struggle and lassitude and struggle, and my then-wife Gamara rewarded me with season basketball tickets in legendary Cole Field House, the scene of this watershed college basketball moment and my college graduation and a whole bunch of other stuff.2
They were great days for Terps basketball; the team had recovered from the horror of Len Bias' death and the ensuing nightmare of cheating and probation, and there were exciting and fun players--Joe Smith, Keith Booth, Laron Profit, Obinna Ekezie, Steve Francis, and Terrence Morris, to name just a few--along with a bunch of guys who were just plain old scholarship basketball players. The late 90s were marked by consecutive NCAA tournament appearances (the streak went to 11), many of which ended in flames, prematurely. A personal favorite of mine is the year Laron Profit and Terrell Stokes blew curfew at the ACC tournament in Greensboro, probably chasing cheerleaders, and their subsequent punishment of 10 minutes' benching cost the team an early exit to some hosers like UC Santa Barbara or the College of Charleston. But Gary Williams did the right things, and the team progressed and endured as one of the elite teams in the NCAA.
It was some of the most fucking fun I've ever had, and it got better in 1998, when a young man named Juan Dixon entered Maryland on a basketball scholarship. Juan had a hard-luck story; both of his parents died of AIDS, and he was raised by his grandparents. He was quite a find, and a Baltimore kid, a Terp recruiting dream (it is a shame and a poverty that, historically, limited numbers of Baltimore kids have ended up playing at Maryland). He was skinny--Jeebus, he was a fucking rail--and he took a lot of work to love during his freshman year. He was joined in the backcourt the next year by The Alien Steve Blake, the pure point guard we'd always wanted, the second coming of John Lucas, except really, really gawky. Painfully gawky. Yeah, you can more'n likely break that code.
The 2000-2001 season felt like the time. I believe that was when I first realized that I would, if it were biologically possible, have Juan Dixon's babies.3 The team lost to Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals in Atlanta (Gamara and I attended), and then made it to the Final Four, where they lost...to Duke. This was also the season that made January 27 a dark day on every calendar to follow; leading a game at home by 10 points with 55 seconds left, Maryland choked to send the game into overtime, eventually losing the game. You don't need me to tell you who the opponent was. I think it's the only time in my life I ever thought I'd be trampled to death.
It all came together for the team the next season; they secured a number one seed in the NCAA tournament and cruised through, winning their only NCAA Championship and sealing the permanent loss of my soul. Juan Dixon was the tournament's most valuable player. They were...beautiful, losing only three games all season. I shiver when I remember the passion, the energy, the drive, the Terp-love. It was nirvana. It was bliss. It was Festival. I will never feel that way again.4
The program went into decline thereafter, partially victimized by success--Gary was never the same recruiter after his success with that team, particularly Saint Juan--and partially victimized by attitude and circumstance and those damned kids today. I'm talking about you, John Gilchrist. And you, Chris McCray, you stupid motherfucker (so stupid that he couldn't maintain a passing average in Maryland's Criminal Justice program, which basically consists of four years of directing traffic and writing parking tickets--which fall like rain on the Maryland campus, like at so many other campuses; some tickets were so cheap that it was worth it to me to pay for a ticket once every week or two to avoid a half-mile cross-campus walk to class).
And the man has his detractors, among them the unfathomably evil Debbie Yow (you find her) and, when he's in a pissy mood, BFF. To be sure (and to be fair), I've had days where I was no longer in thrall.
But that year...that moment...I know where I was and who I was with, I remember the Final with unbelievable clarity (I have done a fair amount of damage to my memory capacity over the years), and I guard and treasure the memory of those two hours or so with a ferocity that will never flame out. And I'd still have Juan Dixon's babies, and I still feel a warm fuzzy when I see The Alien Steve Blake on the television, even in his remarkably stupid Los Angeles Lakers uniform, and I'll always have that picture of Senior Night (see footnote 3, below). But it was all possible because of one guy, and for that deed, he'll always have me as a fan.
Thanks, Gary. Thanks for all of it, even for the shit. I'll never have a ride like that again.
Oh, and y'all know who you are. Check in down below and do the right thing.
1 Hi honey.
2 The last of which came in late February 2002, on Senior Night against Virginia, a moment memorialized in a panoramic photograph later framed and given to me as a gift by my then-future in-laws (Ilse's parents). When one looks closely at the front row of the end zone, behind the band, the location of my seats, one can pretty easily make out me...and Gamara. Oops.
3 That hasn't changed.
4 You might believe this is a bit tragic. You believe wrong.