COLLEGE PARK - Maryland assistant coach Dave Dickerson got the call
on Nov. 7, shortly before accompanying the Terrapins to New York, where the team would open its men's basketball season a day later at Madison Square Garden. Dickerson's father, Dave Sr., who had battled two forms of terminal cancer since early last spring, had died.
Byron Mouton, Maryland's senior forward and maybe its most well-liked player, had just left the MCI Center floor on Dec. 3, after the Terps had beaten Connecticut to win the BB&T Classic. The joyous evening took a terrible turn. Mouton suddenly was gone and headed home to Louisiana by the time his teammates had heard that Mouton's older brother, Kevin, had been shot and killed in Houston.
About 36 hours before coaching Maryland to one of the biggest victories of his 24-year career - an 87-73 trouncing of top-ranked Duke on Feb. 17 that cemented Maryland as a national title contender - Terps head coach Gary Williams was awakened in the middle of the night by a telephone's ring. His father, William, 85, who had been ill for several weeks, had died of heart failure.
"Every year, there are off-the-court things that happen that you don't plan on. You always try to isolate whatever is going on around you when you coach, but it's never anything like this," Williams said, referring to the timing of his father's death. "I think the character of the team shows through in those situations, possibly as much as it does after wins and losses."
This magical season, which continues tomorrow night with the top-seeded Terps (28-4) facing fourth-seeded Kentucky (22-9) in the East Regional semifinals in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., has been all about character. And it has gone beyond lengthy winning streaks, the first Atlantic Coast Conference title in 22 years, the perfect final season at Cole Field House, the amazing exploits of senior guard Juan Dixon.
This has been a year in which a team has felt real life intruding on fun and games. This has been a year in which a group of closely knit people has responded to loss, not just losses.
"A team takes on a certain part of your life. It pulls you up when you're down, especially when you're close. It's a different bond than the one I have with my wife," said Dickerson, who also played at Maryland from 1986 to '89. "Being a part of a team sometimes takes away the exterior stuff. Being around a team sometimes takes everything else away."
For Dickerson, the pain and anxiety began eating at him seven months before losing his father at 77. Dickerson learned just before the Terps departed for Minneapolis to play in last year's Final Four that his father had been diagnosed with stomach and liver cancer.
During the off-season, which included a host of recruiting chores and work at Williams' basketball camps, Dickerson made the most of his down time by traveling often to visit his ailing father in his hometown of Olar, S.C.
Dickerson greeted the start of the preseason with much anticipation. What a relief it would be to immerse himself in the day-to-day work of coaching in practice. He last saw his father about a week before he died. Dickerson recalled it as a good day. They last talked two days before Dave Jr. got the call.
"It was something that weighed on my mind all spring, summer and the early part of the fall," said Dickerson, who went home for the funeral the day after Maryland returned from its New York trip on Nov. 9. "It hurt the most when I found out he was going to die. It was actually a relief when he died. He was just starting to go through the stretch where he was suffering.
"I really didn't have time to grieve. But when you are prepared for it, it doesn't hurt as much. It wasn't as bad as if he had died [suddenly] in a car accident. Something like Byron Mouton went through, I don't know how I would have handled that."
Mouton recalled the shock upon hearing from several family members that Kevin, 32, had been killed. They had withheld the information from him for nearly two days, until the Terps had finished their tournament business.
"You're thinking about everything that happened in the game you just played, then boom! I just wanted to go back home and be with the people who have been part of my life since I was young," he said. "To die at a young age like [Kevin] did is hard. You think about it, you start crying. At first, I didn't want to come back."
Mouton would spent five days in his hometown of Rayne, La., then leave after Kevin's funeral to rejoin his next-closest circle of loved ones in College Park in time to play well in a victory over Detroit on Dec. 9. Another phase of his therapy had begun.
Dickerson flew to Louisiana to support Mouton. They returned to school together. And the rest of the Terps opened their arms to their grieving teammate.