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The first time I ever called Lefty Driesell as the new Maryland basketball beat writer for the Baltimore Sun, he hung up on me. Twice.
“I’m on vacation, sonnnnnn,” Driesell told me the first time in his famous Southern drawl.
I called him back at his beach house in Delaware.
“Sonnnnnn, I told you I’m on vacation,” he said again, this time a bit louder and a lot more annoyed.
It was the summer of 1985 and there was a report in a Virginia newspaper that Driesell, a few months before the start of his 17th season in College Park, was reportedly “50-50” about taking the job at Old Dominion University, not far from his boyhood home in Norfolk.
It was also the first of many interviews I had with all the Maryland coaches—two of whom are now in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame—I covered during my 35-year career at the Sun, which included nearly two decades on and off following the Terps and recently came to an end.
Since Driesell was gone a little over a year later, months after the tragic cocaine death of Len Bias, a majority of them were with Gary Williams, given that I spent over a decade in three separate stints chronicling the beginning and end of a 22-year career at his alma mater.
More than a few were with Bob Wade during his three seasons and with Mark Turgeon the past nine.
It was all part of my memorable, and eventful, career covering the Terps, who went from overcoming Bias’ death two days after the 1986 NBA draft to going on a near-death penalty probation under Williams for Wade’s three-year reign of error to cutting down the nets in Atlanta in 2002.
On Sunday, I watched at home as Maryland beat Michigan at Xfinity Center to win a share of its first Big Ten regular season title. Admittedly, it felt a bit strange. But after taking a buyout from the Sun last month, I certainly had plenty of time to prepare for it.
I’m not sure how many games I covered, starting at Cole Field House, with numerous trips to Tobacco Road for the ACC and, more recently, to the finger and feet-numbing journeys the past six years to the tundra of the Midwest for the Big Ten.
But here are the five that I remember the most:
(A note: There were several memorable games that I didn’t cover. I was in Tampa getting ready for the Ravens in 2001 playing the New York Giants in the Super Bowl the following day when the Terps blew a 10-point lead to Duke in the final minute of regulation and lost in overtime. I also wasn’t in Greensboro when Maryland beat the Blue Devils to win the 2004 ACC tournament or in Spokane, Washington, when the Terps lost to Michigan State in the 2010 NCAA tournament on Korie Lucious’ killer 3-pointer.)
Maryland 64, Indiana 52April 1, 2002
In terms of aesthetics, this was far from the best Maryland game I witnessed over the years. Gritty, not pretty, is the way I think I described it in the Sun. Yet that didn’t matter, considering the historical significance of what remains the only national title game in the history of the men’s program. It put Williams into the Hall of Fame and lifted Juan Dixon even ahead of Bias as Maryland’s most beloved player.
The plays from that game at the Georgia Dome have faded—with the exception of Dixon’s dagger 3-pointer that put the Terps ahead for good—but what happened afterwards remains more vivid nearly two decades later. Williams twirling the net after taking the final snips as he stood on the ladder, then holding his grandson in his arms is perhaps the most enduring on-court memory from that night.
Personally, it was having my sons, Russell and Jordan, then ages 12 and seven, watching with my wife, Judy, from the upper deck and then, after stopping the next day for the night in Greensboro, North Carolina, taking a quick detour on the Duke campus to take a picture of the rabid young Terp fans in their Maryland gear. I apologize again for one of them giving the Blue Devils the finger as I snapped the shot.
Maryland 77, No. 1 North Carolina 72 (OT)Feb. 20, 1986
This could be the most iconic regular season win for the Terps in their history, considering where the game was played and who led Maryland to victory. In a season that saw Driesell’s team shockingly lose its first six ACC games despite having one of the nation’s top players in Bias, few expected the Terps to hand the top-ranked Tar Heels their first loss in the then-recently opened Dean Dome.
It’s not just what happened on the court that night—Bias scoring 35 points and blocking Kenny Smith’s drive, then capping it off with a reverse dunk—but also a brief conversation I had with Driesell after getting to the post-game interview room a few minutes after the press conference had ended. Driesel, not forgetting that I had written his team might be in jeopardy of not even making the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) because of their mediocre 11-10 start, was waiting for me.
“Where were you?” Driesell asked as I rushed into the interview room.
“I had transmission trouble,” I said, referring to the less-than-reliable filing process in the pre-internet age.
“You drive a car in here?” Driesell said. “Do you think we’ll make the NIT now?”
Maryland 95, No. 8 Massachusetts, 87Mar. 19, 1994
It had been a long road back for Williams and the Terps to March Madness. Saddled with the sanctions that he inherited months after arriving from Ohio State in 1989, Williams got emotional when Maryland earned its first NCAA tournament bid in six years. As much as a first-round win over No. 24 Saint Louis in Wichita wasn’t a shocker—I couldn’t resist—beating the Minutemen was.
It certainly was to me. As promising as things appeared for a program led by two freshmen, Joe Smith and Keith Booth, as well as well a strong group of sophomores, the young team had struggled late, losing of three of its last four regular season games as well as the ACC tournament opener to Virginia six days after beating the Cavaliers for their only win in that stretch.
Smith certainly lived up to the nickname his teammates bestowed on the once unknown center, a player assistant coach Art Perry discovered while recruiting a future Tar Heel named Ed Geth. The skinny freshman was “The Beast” in helping the Terps beat a UMass team coached by John Calipari and led by Marcus Camby.
At some point in the season, I had written that the Terps were probably a year away and if they made the Sweet 16 I would eat my words—literally. As the clock ticked down in Kansas, sophomore forward Exree Hipp momentarily broke away from celebrating with his teammates to walk toward me sitting at the press table. Hipp was smiling and pointing to my notepad.
I complied, stuffing a sheet of paper in my mouth. Thank God I didn’t have a copy of the Sun with me.
Maryland 63, Michigan State 60Mar. 4, 2017
It’s hard to reflect on my time as the Maryland beat writer without mentioning Melo Trimble. Though his departure after his junior year might have diluted his legacy—certainly it cost him several spots on the school’s all-time scoring list—the 6-3 point guard’s penchant for hitting big shots will certainly be recalled by fans for years to come.
It’s no small coincidence that the Terps beat the Spartans three times during Trimble’s college career, then took until this season to beat Tom Izzo’s team again. Trimble helped Maryland sweep Michigan State in the regular season in 2014-2015, the first for the Terps in the Big Ten. Then, after three straight losses, two in the Big Ten tournament, Trimble did it again.
Throughout his time in College Park, Trimble had several games when he couldn’t hit a shot until it mattered. Coming at the end of a junior year when a lower back injury compromised his talents, Trimble’s walk-off 3-pointer in the waning seconds on a 6-for-15 afternoon proved to be his drop-the-mic moment, as it came in what turned out to be his final home game.
Maryland 77, Indiana 76Jan. 26, 2020
Flying to Indianapolis was different this season for me than any previous road trip of my career. I knew it would be my final road game covering the Terps for the Sun, having asked for the buyout I would receive a couple of weeks later. I quietly began telling friends, colleagues and even Darryl Morsell’s parents, who often took the same flights to games as I did, that this would likely be it.
Assembly Hall also held special memories for me. After writing about the wonderful tradition of the Big Ten’s managers games, I had got to play in my only one three years before, even hitting a baseline shot that helped the Terps’ managers to a 10-point lead in a game they lost in overtime. More importantly, it was where I had watched my older son graduate from college in the spring of 2010, walking on that same floor to accept his diploma.
A few days before this year’s game in Bloomington, Maryland had won its first road game of the season by coming back from a 14-point halftime deficit at Northwestern. This time, the Terps had watched what had been a 14-point lead midway through the first half and a nine-point lead at halftime disappear.
Again, what happened during Maryland’s late comeback that culminated with sophomore forward Jalen Smith scoring the go-ahead basket on a layup with 14.5 seconds left to finish 7-0 game-ending run, then swatting away a potential follow shot after the Hoosiers missed from close-in, seemed overshadowed by what happened afterwards.
There was the normally placid Smith slapping the court, getting into a verbal confrontation with a few middle-aged Indiana fans sitting courtside and then being pulled off the floor by an angry Turgeon. There was the shocking news of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the death of eight others, including his daughter, Giana, in a California helicopter crash hours earlier to fully comprehend.
And there was one last airplane ride back to BWI.
A little more than two weeks later, my 35-year run at the Sun was over.
It was quite a ride.
Don Markus also covered golf majors, including the 1986 Masters, three Wimbledons, more than a dozen Final Fours, and several national college football championships. For the past 15 years, he has been an adjunct professor at American University, where he teaches sportswriting.