Terps score points in political game

JOHN EISENBERG

January 20, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

Now, let's not get carried away and suggest that the Terps play all their games at the Arena. There were those empty seats in the corners of the upper deck, which wouldn't have been empty at Cole Field House. Oh, and that vague burning smell that hung in the air for a while early in the first half.

Ah, but it was still a fine night, wasn't it? Almost a perfect night, in fact. The burning smell disappeared. The scoreboard worked. Yes, for the entire game. The house lights didn't go black. The near-sellout crowd stirred up quite a racket, and not about the high ticket prices. Evers Burns, the kid from Woodlawn, had a huge game. And the Terps, well, they ran 12th-ranked Oklahoma right out of the place, the 89-78 win helping heal the wound of their depressing start to the ACC season.

Of course, on this night a win had to share billing at the top of the Terps' agenda. Gary Williams scheduled the team's first game here in five years to demonstrate that he cared about the Terps' relationship with the city -- in particular their relationship with a couple of residents of the city named Keith Booth and Norman Nolan.

Yes, this game was all about politics, clearly designed as a peace offering to the city's basketball constituency, in particularly Dunbar's, which has not looked favorably upon the Terps for years and happens now to have a team with Booth and Nolan, recruits Williams covets.

If you're not aware -- just one more time with this stuff, OK? -- the whole business started more than a decade ago when, rightly or wrongly, the Dunbar people worked themselves into a froth thinking their Ernie Graham had somehow been wronged at Maryland because he failed to make it as a pro. He also failed to come close to graduating. Lefty Driesell was never to land another relevant Baltimore recruit, and there were plenty.

You figured the bad feelings had to die when Bob Wade was hired to replace Lefty, but Wade's tumultuous three years, and the acrimony surrounding his departure, reopened the old sore.

In any case, it never made sense for a state university to be estranged from the biggest city in the state, particularly when the city is such a well of recruits. Of course, you will notice that Williams became concerned about the problem in Booth's senior year. (Nolan being a junior, you can be sure there will be another game here next season.)

It's questionable whether one politically correct game can land a recruit, but showing a little affection can't hurt, and then to turn the game into such a triumph, with the crowd chanting "A-C-C" at the end, made it almost a perfect night indeed.

"I didn't want to come up here and play poorly," Williams said. "I wanted it to be a great night, not just for the team, but for the people who sometimes think that the Maryland basketball team doesn't reach out to the whole state."

He was talking shortly after the game, right around when Billy Tubbs and the Sooners were bolting for the bus, and in the glow of victory Williams came as close as he could to revealing his motives for coming to town.

"This is a great basketball city, a great high school basketball city, and we would obviously like to be a part of that," he said.

Which means?

"I can't comment otherwise," he said, smiling.

In the locker room, also smiling, stood Burns, his 22-point, seven-rebound night serving as vivid evidence of the attraction of a rare chance to play at home.

"I wish we played every game here," he said. "It was just a tremendous experience for me. Everywhere I looked I saw someone I knew, maybe a face I hadn't seen since third grade. It had a huge impact on me tonight. As for whether it can impact high school kids watching, well, they got a chance to see the high-pressure, up-tempo kind of game we can play."

Now, it's always wise to be skeptical of the rumors that pass through the murky recruiting pipelines, but the word these days is that Maryland had Booth locked up long before last night, but then Kentucky's Rick Pitino lost his top recruit at shooting guard, a California kid named Charlie O'Bannon who chose to stay closer to home. Pitino suddenly developed a serious interest in Booth. The kid took his visit to Kentucky earlier this month, and reportedly, and predictably, fell in love.

So the fight is on, and it's not going to be an easy one for the Terps, competing with one of the game's great programs. Come to think of it, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea if the Terps scheduled the rest of their games at the Arena this season. What's a little burning smell when there are recruits to be signed?

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