Terps' Cole rebounded to be cherished hoops home

March 05, 2002|By Michael Olesker

AS THEY wrote finis to the history of college basketball at Cole Field House the other night, they did everything but play the theme from Field of Dreams. It felt like the closing of Memorial Stadium all over again. And it felt like another farewell to youth.

I think I spent half of mine in that building: as a student at the University of Maryland (covering so many basketball games for The Diamondback school newspaper, and taking a few final exams in the place, too -- now, that was pressure); and then as a sports reporter for the old News American.

Those weren't just old players and coaches they brought out Sunday at the end of Cole Field House's 47-year run -- they were the ghosts of another time, and another world.

They brought out H.A. "Bud" Millikan, who was the first one to coach at Cole and, to tell the truth, didn't like it there. Never mind all the sentimental farewell sighs of the moment -- it took a while for Cole to find its place in people's hearts.

Millikan would sit in his office at Cole, bemoaning the sheer size of the joint. "It's like playing on a neutral court," he'd complain. The seats were too far back from the court. There was no home-crowd intimacy. The biggest cheering of the night -- no joke! -- was often for two maintenance guys who'd push mops up and down the court at halftime, with the crowd cheering them on as though they had bets on who'd finish first.

And there were jeers when things went bad. Millikan had a big, gangly kid named Rick Wise, too skinny and sensitive for big-time ball. "Coach, they were booing me out there," a distraught Wise said after a Maryland loss.

"No, son, they were booing me," Millikan told him.

"Coach," Wise said, "I think there was enough booing for both of us."

The first thing Lefty Driesell did when they hired him was add another few thousands seats, all of them directly surrounding the court, thus adding untold decibels to the home crowd's cheering.

And the first thing the school band would do, every time Lefty approached courtside those first few years, was strike up "Hail to the Chief." What a difference between those comic-operatic early entrances and Lefty's grim, poignant farewell after Len Bias' death: a quick little gathering on the floor at Cole, a couple of questions, and Lefty exiting between his wife and one of his kids, head hung low, all of them with their arms draped disconsolately around each other.

By sheer luck, I was at the courtside press table only a few yards away from the epicenter of Lefty's first great triumph, when unranked Maryland held the ball against then-No. 2 South Carolina at Cole and, at the buzzer in overtime, a frizzy-haired kid named Jim O'Brien sank the winning jumper, 31-30, from long distance.

"I did it, I did it," O'Brien screamed to the heavens as the ball dropped in and the crowd, stunned and disbelieving, poured out of the stands. "I did it, I did it," he kept saying, as the crowd hoisted him aloft. You want a picture of sheer bliss, this was your moment.

But lost in Sunday night's glow was a quieter triumph. Cole Field House was the place where a kid named Billy Jones, out of Towson High, broke the color line in Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. It was the winter of 1965-1966.

Think about that: It was 20 years since Jackie Robinson had integrated major league baseball, and more than a decade since the Supreme Court had integrated public schools. But no ACC school had yet suited up an African-American until Jones -- and, shortly thereafter, a fellow from Seat Pleasant named Junius "Pete" Johnson -- first trotted onto the floor at Cole Field House.

What they discovered was none of the animus Jackie Robinson encountered. The country (outside the ACC, with all of its southern schools) had moved on. The kids playing college ball in that era had spent the previous decade growing up in integrated classrooms. White kids playing ball with black kids was mainly a traumatic moment for their parents, not the kids.

The year after Jones' arrival, Cole Field House was the site of the NCAA Final Four -- and the triumph of Texas Western, the first college team to win the national championship with five black starters. They defeated the all-white Kentucky team of Adolph Rupp, who was the intransigent George Wallace of college basketball.

By the way, Billy Jones' backcourt teammate was a kid named Gary Williams. He was the playmaker on Bud Millikan's teams, an intense kid who couldn't shoot worth a damn but seems to have learned the game pretty well under Millikan.

The two of them, Millikan and Williams, stood near the end of that long line Sunday night, one era handing off the basketball to the next, the passing of a legacy.

It wasn't the bricks and mortar of Cole Field House that ultimately made the big barn so endearing. It was all the joy and heartache carried through the years, from Bud Millikan trying to console a kid being booed by a heartless adolescent crowd, to Lefty Driesell creating an atmosphere of electricity; from Jim O'Brien's hallelujah to himself, to Billy Jones' quiet dignity; from an intense kid named Gary Williams to an intense coach by the same name, nearly four decades later, leaving Cole for the last time and trying to lead a new generation to its first national championship.

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