Robert Novak, the syndicated political columnist and commentator, once flew from Tokyo to Las Vegas to watch the Maryland basketball team take on the Runnin' Rebels.
The Terps lost the game, but that hasn't daunted the CNN analyst from continuing on what now has become a 31-year emotional roller-coaster ride with a sometimes snakebitten team. Maryland had played in the most NCAA tournament games without making the Final Four until the 10-deep squad from College Park finally struck gold Saturday in Anaheim, Calif.
The West Regional final victory over Stanford not only erased many demons of defeat for Novak, but it also left most longtime Terps fans sobbing in the stands. It was impossible for a casual follower of the team to understand the kind of joy these 50-, 60- and 70-something men and women were experiencing.
Novak realized then why he had traveled so far and taped so many shows in places like a Boise, Idaho, parking lot two weeks ago. Oh, in case anybody is wondering, Novak will be able to tape his show from the plush CNN/SI offices in Minneapolis on Saturday before Maryland meets Duke in the national semifinals.
"I can't get my work done," Novak said Tuesday from his Washington office. "I read every word about the team in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. This is really a very good team, and I think Gary [Williams] outcoached [Mike] Montgomery and Stanford to get to the Final Four."
Novak's running mate at most Terps games, no matter where they are played, is Jack Heise, who has served Maryland athletics in every capacity of leadership for 40-plus years. Heise is truly a company man.
Unlike Novak, who admitted to "sitting out a year" when Lefty Driesell was "fired," Heise supports the university and the athletic department no matter which course they travel.
"It's a labor of love," Heise said. "I always promised my kids I'd take them to the Final Four if Maryland made it, so now I'm taking 10 children and grandchildren to Minneapolis. I'll be filing for bankruptcy when I get back."
Heise owns a law office in Bethesda and even found time last fall to attend several Maryland football practices, even though the team was suffering through another losing season. That should tell anyone enough about Heise's devotion to the Terps.
But it's the basketball team that Heise truly lives and dies "a slow death" with.
"I've been disappointed when we had [Len] Elmore and [Tom] McMillen and later when [we had] Joe Smith," Heise said. "But this team is special. Gary has proved that you need to go 10 deep in today's game with all the fouls and the fast pace of the game. I think the win at Wake Forest turned the season around. We have played with confidence and intensity since then, and Mike [Mardesich] and Terence [Morris] have provided leadership."
Among those fans who cried after the victory over Stanford was College Park's Tink Bayline, who moved from Salisbury two years ago to be nearer his beloved Terps.
"I cried with joy," said Bayline, who sometimes presents a tough image. "It was a dream come true. The Duke loss at home this year was one of the most devastating in my 33 years of following Maryland basketball."
Soon-to-be Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has been a loyal Maryland basketball fan since 1970 and was ecstatic over the team's brilliant play in Anaheim.
"I'm super happy for Gary," said Bisciotti, who likened the Maryland run to the Ravens' drive to the Super Bowl. "He took a program that was down, and now he has a team in the Final Four. He has received unjustified criticism for a coach who had taken four teams to the Sweet 16 before this year. Every team in the country wants to go to the Final Four, but it's not easy to get there.
"I don't understand why Gary gets so much heat."
Fred Baker and his wife, Doris, drive from Mount Airy, which is on the Frederick County-Carroll County line, to every home game and some road games. They are regulars at the ACC tournament and many NCAA tournament games, and they will be in Minneapolis for the Final Four.
Fred Baker was so upset after the Terps' home loss to Florida State this season that he threatened to give away his ACC tournament tickets. But that all has changed now.
"I've never been as proud of the team as I was after the Stanford victory," he said. "They ran their offense perfectly and played under control. You have to give Gary credit for that."
Said Doris Baker: "The best thing about it [the win over Stanford] was that it wasn't a squeaker. It was so much fun seeing them cut down the net. Everybody showed up to play for Maryland."
Bethesda's John Rymer, a longtime Maryland backer, said: "We have the monkey off our back. Maryland played with so much intensity and was under control. It sure made all those disappointments of the '70s and '80s fade away for a while."
NOTE: The Maryland athletic ticket office announced that all tickets that were available through the university for the Final Four have been sold. Maryland sold all 4,500 tickets that the school was allotted in two days after taking orders beginning Monday morning.