COLLEGE PARK -- We owe Cedric Lewis an apology. We do. We called him names. We laughed at his botched free throws and mangled offense. Some of us booed when he was substituted into games. All of us spouted the affront with which he has lived his sporting life: "He sure isn't as good as his brother."
It doesn't happen anymore. None of it. No name-calling. No derisive laughing. No booing. Even gone are those relentless comparisons with his older brother, Derrick, for whom Cedric suddenly bears a striking on-court resemblance. "There are a lot of people eating their words right now," said Cedric's father, Bobby. "The young man has proved he can play this game."
The easy out is to say it is a miracle, that skill and subtlety suddenly have descended on him in his senior season at Maryland, where he is averaging 12 points, nine rebounds and 5.5 blocks. But it isn't really so. Gary Williams, the Terps' coach, often rebuked Cedric last year for not tapping his potential. Williams saw reason to hope then, when few did.
"Anyone who blocks shots as well as Cedric has great timing," Williams said, "and anyone with that kind of timing can score. I used to get mad at him for not being more assertive on offense. More than anything, I think, I've worked with him to get him where he believed he could do these things. Because he could."
It wasn't an easy sell. Cedric's father offered him a set of goals before the season. Ten points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and three assists a game. "He just went, 'Wow,' " Bobby Lewis said. It wasn't that Cedric thought he was incapable. It was just that he'd scored only 200 points in his career, and, well, was as uncertain as anyone about what would happen.
What happened was he got a chance to play for the first time, to start with the understanding that he wouldn't get pulled if he made a few mistakes. There simply weren't any alternatives at center. Tony Massenburg and Jerrod Mustaf were in the NBA. His brother was playing in France. The position was his. That confidence was all he needed.
"What is happening is a combination of opportunity and improvement," Cedric said, "but the main thing is opportunity. Before, when I wasn't playing much, I'd come into games cold and it was hard to get into the flow. Now, I can run up and down the floor, settle down and relax with the ball. And not be afraid of making mistakes. My confidence level is way up."
He didn't work any harder in the off-season, or suddenly tap a potent vein; it is not, in other words, a miracle. Sometimes we forget that college athletes are so young, given to the unexplainable leaps and sulks and many whims of biology common to the age. Cedric's game simply grew into his body this year. It happens to some when they are 16, others at 26, others not at all. It is just evolution at work.
"I always had these moves to the basket, I'd just never tried them in games," he said. "That actually has worked to my advantage this year. People haven't seen me play. It's kind of hard to stop me the first time or two you see me."
He has been getting his revenge all season on the doubting fans, opponents and reporters, to the point now that it is a surprise if he doesn't at least score 15 points, grab 10 rebounds and block a half-dozen shots. He has been particularly effective against other top centers, including Duke's Christian Laettner and Clemson's Dale Davis.
"The part that has really surprised me," Williams said, "is his leadership. We get down to the last couple minutes of a game, and he wants the ball. Some don't. Cedric goes after the shots. He makes the important plays."
What makes it all so pleasant is that Cedric is an agreeable 21-year-old, the son of two school teachers, a serious student, and he never did hold a grudge, at least not a killer grudge. He didn't enjoy the derision he heard in the stands all those years, but he learned to accept it.
"Sometimes it does hurt," he said, "but you just ignore it. Still, people did discount me as an offensive player before the season. I can't lie. It feels very good to have come in and showed them I could do better."
The greatest irony, potentially, is that he always has been Derrick's little brother, in age as well as athletically -- "Derrick just wore Cedric out on the playground for years," Bobby Lewis said -- and yet Derrick wasn't quite tall enough to make the NBA after four strong years at Maryland, and now Cedric is a senior, two inches taller at 6 feet 9 and suddenly displaying the kind of game that might merit at least nibble from the pros.
No promises, of course, and it is all pretty unlikely. About as unlikely as predicting in October that Cedric would have a terrific senior season. "He will get his chance at the postseason [scouting] camps," said NBA superscout Marty Blake.
If it doesn't happen, Cedric probably will put his degree in family services to use and start teaching school. Regardless, he will leave College Park with the knowledge that he did leave a mark as an athlete, that he will be missed, that he was not the awkward bench-warmer of legend. We all owe him an apology. We really do.