City finally home-court edge for UM

December 20, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Once they were despised; now they are embraced.

Once they were rulers in exile; now they are princes of the city.

The Maryland Terrapins made their annual visit to the Baltimore Arena last night, marching onto the court as conquering heroes.

The deafening response from the sellout crowd was what you would expect for a state school playing in the state's largest city.

But not long ago, the joyous, raucous scene that greeted Maryland's arrival would not have seemed possible.

The Terps didn't play at the Arena from 1987 to '92. Even more significant, they went more than a decade without getting a top player out of the city.

Old grudges die hard, but if any animosity toward Maryland still exists in the city's basketball community, it's about as meaningful as the Berlin Wall.

Ernest Graham was cheering his alma mater last night -- the same Ernest Graham whose stormy career at Maryland helped create the rift with East Baltimore.

And the same Ernest Graham who is now back in College Park working toward his degree as part of the school's returning student-athletes program.

What's next, Gary Williams naming Bob Wade an assistant?

Let's not get carried away.

The bottom line is, Williams' resurrection of Maryland's image in Baltimore ranks near the top of his many achievements at College Park.

It took the better part of a decade, but Williams reconstructed the school's pipeline to the city, recruiting Keith Booth, Rodney Elliott and Juan Dixon.

He also returned the team to the Arena, with last night's 81-58 win over Princeton marking the seventh straight year the Terps have played in Baltimore.

"It was a no-brainer coming in -- whatever it took, you had to include Baltimore in your program," Williams said. "I always thought that was a weakness of the program that we weren't more in tune."

Of course, Williams tuned Baltimore in at 9: 30 last night, but it's the thought that counts. We wouldn't expect him to say no to ESPN -- Exposure Status Prestige National.

If anything, though, the game belonged on city cable -- it had the feel of a family reunion. Elliott was in the house. So was Booth's mother, Norma Salmon.

Only the best for Steve Francis' first and probably last game in the city.

"I don't look at it as a payback game," Williams said, citing North Carolina and Arkansas as other state schools that play off-campus in their home states. "I look at it as part of our program."

The program, of course, was a mess when Williams replaced Wade in 1989. And its tattered reputation in Baltimore was one of the many issues that the new coach needed to confront.

"We can't be the state university without having a strong presence in Baltimore," Williams said. "How to do it, that was the problem.

"I always felt you couldn't say, 'We're going to recruit in Baltimore. Those kids will do well down here.' You had to prove it. I had to prove I can coach. Then you have to prove that your guys did OK.

"Not that we're perfect with graduation rates, but you'd have to give them the chance to graduate. We had to prove we were going to follow up on some of the things we said."

Williams has.

Booth graduated and became a first-round pick of the Chicago Bulls. Elliott developed from a raw talent into a formidable collegian, and plans to complete his degree this summer.

"If there is a wall at this point, it doesn't seem obvious to me," said Southern High coach Meredith Smith, whose son, Atman, was a walk-on at Maryland in 1997 and '98.

"Gary Williams has run a very successful program since he's been there. The kids there have been successful in general, the kids in Baltimore in particular."

Booth, of course, was the pivotal figure in all this, ignoring lingering community resentment toward Maryland to realize his dream of attending the late Len Bias' school.

Booth's coach at Dunbar, Pete Pompey, said Graham's failure to graduate and Wade's firing led to an "unannounced feeling" of anger in East Baltimore, but one that has passed.

"Some things in the past had been a little negative, and people reacted to those things," said Pompey, now athletic director at Edmondson. "These people [at Maryland] had nothing to do with that. I think kids look at it totally different now."

So do the coaches.

"We're accepted," Williams said. "There's never a time where you feel like you've got it made. You've got to keep proving yourself.

"If one of our players from Baltimore doesn't do well academically, it could be a problem. But that's part of coaching. You always have to prove yourself.

"We don't expect the coaches to say, 'Hey, you guys are doing well, here's my player.' But what you want in your home state is to at least have a shot at a player you'd like to recruit. We're at the point where we have a shot."

They're at the point where their annual game in Baltimore is an event.

H

They're princes of the city, as if they never were gone.

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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