Locally, '01 is two good to be true

March 27, 2001|By John Eisenberg

THESE ARE SPECIAL times around here. Sports fans have waited vainly for years, even decades, for a return on their emotional investments, and now, suddenly, it's all coming down at once.

First, the Ravens dominated the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV in January, bringing Baltimore its first taste of pro football glory since Cal Ripken was in elementary school. Now, less than two months later, the Maryland Terrapins have reached the Final Four for the first time.

One was enough. Two in less than two months is outrageous, an unthinkable abundance of riches.

You almost wonder if someone has laced the drinking water with a special elixir, or if a decision has been made at a really, really high level to just buck up and answer years of prayers at once.

A Super Bowl and a Final Four within two months. Come on, life can't be that good.

But it's true in the wake of the Terps' dismantling of Stanford in the West Regional final in Anaheim, Calif., last weekend. Maryland is headed to Minneapolis with a chance to win a national title, and anyone who still believes that's too much to ask isn't paying attention. We're on a roll around here, riding a hot, positive karma potent enough to set off security alarms at an airport.

The Vince Lombardi Trophy is riding around town like a movie star without sunglasses. Stanford's top-seeded Cardinal gets flattened like road kill. Shoot, even the Orioles have spent all spring near the top of the Grapefruit League standings.

OK, let's not get carried away. There'll be calls for a conspiracy investigation if the Orioles make the same kind of noise after losing their best pitcher and best hitter from a team that finished below .500 in 2000.

There's your impossible dream right there.

After I pointed out to a fatalist acquaintance that everything any sports fan around here ever wanted seemed to be booking up at once, he said: "Yeah, October should still be clear."

Not that anyone has a right to complain after a January, February and March unlike any other in years.

The Ravens' victory represented Baltimore's first world title since the Orioles' World Series victory in 1983, and it came out of nowhere, with the team in just its fifth year in town and first in the playoffs. As much as the city had lived through the darkness of the Colts' departure and a dozen years without a team, there was no sense of desperation, of finally climbing a peak that had seemed insurmountable. The Ravens went from the bottom straight to the top, jumping over numerous rungs on the developmental ladder.

Maryland's trip to the Final Four is diametrically different. Yes, the story line itself is stunningly similar to the Ravens' - the high-low-high arc of the season, the nightmare overcome, the seminal triumph in California against a team from the Bay area - but in a larger sense, it couldn't be more different.

Where the Ravens had no history, no past, the Terps are defined by their star-crossed history and be-Blue-Deviled past.

Maryland has fielded a men's basketball team for almost a century without winning a national title, playing for one or even playing for the chance to play for one. The Terps haven't skipped over any rungs on the developmental ladder, and that's an understatement. They have lingered for agonizing decades as an "almost," a "wannabe" and finally, and most frustratingly, a "should-be."

Let's put it bluntly: They were probably the most successful program in the country never to reach a Final Four. With their history laced with All-Americans, 20-win seasons and unforgettable games, there's no doubt they should have gotten there before now. That's not meant as a criticism. It's just the odds. If you play that well for that long at that level, you figure things would break right for you at least once somewhere along the line.

But that wasn't Maryland's lot in the college basketball world. The Terps were the kings of bad luck, bad timing and bad news. In the '70s, they fielded several teams that could have rebounded from ACC tournament losses and reached the Final Four, but the NCAA tournament was limited to one team per conference in those days. In fact, many believe the NCAA's decision to expand the field was based on Maryland's absence in 1974. The Terps lost the ACC final in double overtime to a North Carolina State team that went on to win the NCAA title.

But by the time the NCAA field expanded, the Terps were consistently just good enough not to get to the Final Four or even close. They were the team Moses Malone selected and ultimately turned down, the team Len Bias starred for and ultimately brought down, the team stripped of a foreseeable future in the wake of a probation sentence in the late '80s.

They're a team that has tantalized and frustrated fans for decades, unlike the sheer-bolt-of-lightning Ravens.

Now, they have made it to the Final Four, delivering the triumph that had eluded them, the trek up the mountain they couldn't climb.

It almost seems easy now, coming less than two months after the Ravens' triumph, with the twin successes seeming to belong to the same continuum. We will see if the karma holds for another weekend.

But either way, if you're a longstanding, card-carrying local sports fan, you should be feeling lucky today. A dizzy rush of prosperity has occurred on your watch, and who knows when it might happen again?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.