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It’s been a bad few days for University of Maryland sports. The men’s baseball team got knocked out of the Big Ten tournament in a shutout, the women’s lacrosse team suffered their only loss of the season in the NCAA championship game, and the men’s lacrosse team blew a late lead and lost their own NCAA Championship game in overtime. (That both lacrosse losses came to former conference rival North Carolina is just salt in the wound.)
But there’s been one major bright spot: Sophomore point guard Melo Trimble withdrew his name from the NBA Draft and will return to the College Park hoops squad next season. It’s a smart move for Trimble—his stock dropped precipitously in his second year on the team, after a freshman debut season that had him marked for the top of the first round of the draft, so a return offers him the chance to improve his game and regain his stature. Which will, in turn, improve his draft status and his ultimate financial bottom line.
Trimble’s decision also confirmed for me, as if I wasn’t already sure, that I have become a completely stereotypical old sports fan. Because somewhere in the back of my head, I had been terrified that the early departures of Trimble and center Diamond Stone (and, to a lesser extent, forward Robert Carter Jr.) would recreate the disappointing tedium of the 1995–96 season. Basically, I’m hoping that Trimble returning somehow makes up for Joe Smith’s departure 21 years earlier.
The situations aren’t even close to identical, not from an on-court perspective. Trimble isn’t nearly the player Smith was in his prime: Smith, when he decided to forgo his last two seasons in College Park, was a first team All-American and the reigning college basketball player of the year, and he was leaving college to be the first overall pick in the draft. And Smith left with the other four starters returning, while Trimble will now be the only starter coming back, which is a fairly drastic difference.
But my perspective didn’t come from on-court. I was watching as a fan, and what I remember most is the feeling of hopelessness that Smith’s departure engendered. Maryland basketball was just coming out of a funk, both emotional and athletic, following the 1986 death of Len Bias and subsequent NCAA sanctions. Smith had helped restore the program to prominence, and the fear was that his leaving might undo everything he had accomplished.
The actual result wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. Without Smith, the 1995-96 squad had a bunch of supporting players and no star, and they played like it. They made the NCAA tournament despite a generally unremarkable fifth-place conference finish, and got eliminated in the first round by a Santa Clara team led by Steve Nash.
I was taking a seminar on “Conflict, Cooperation, and Strategy” with game theory genius Thomas Schelling at the time, and wrote a lengthy (terrible) paper on what critical mass of university students would need to participate in a protest to help sway Smith’s decision. I’ve always thought, in hindsight, that that paper was exceptionally naïve: Smith was gone from the moment the season ended, and I figured the same was true of Stone and Trimble and Carter this year.
But it’s become clear, in the years since, that Smith has some regrets about his departure. He wrote a letter to his younger self for The Players’ Tribune that’s positive on its face, but full of melancholy. It’s basically a warning to a young basketball player to be ready to never hit the heights he expected to, and a not-entirely-convincing argument that a 16-year career as a journeyman was a triumph.
More bluntly, Smith told the Baltimore Sun in late 2015 that his advice to young guys like Trimble and Stone would be “There’s no rush. It’s a man’s world once you leave,” and mentioned that he occasionally thought that if he had stayed another year the team might’ve had a shot at a national title.
That’s the hindsight of an old guy, though, who already knows where he wound up. Trimble is still young, and it’s easy for him to believe that he can outperform expectations. The fact that he was able to see the situation clearly enough to realize how much he stands to gain by returning is an argument that, even if he’s not the same on-the-court force as Smith, Trimble is more ready for the NBA as he returns to college than Smith ever was as a pro.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl.