Tragedy to triumph

Terps prove champs can still thrive in reformed culture

April 07, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

ALMOST SIXTEEN YEARS AGO — On the way to their first national championship, the fearsome Maryland Terrapins overcame every obstacle including history. The basketball gods gave this year's team a chance to redeem Maryland's lost athletic respect, not to speak of its humanity.

Almost sixteen years ago -- when members of this year's team were no older than five -- Maryland's star Leonard Kevin Bias died of "cocaine intoxication" in Washington Hall on the College Park campus. Hours before he'd been drafted by the mighty Celtics of the National Basketball Association. That shocking sequence of human events defined and haunted the University of Maryland and its basketball team for a decade at least.

Perhaps it took tragedy to change the unrelenting culture of sports. Determined, university and government officials started putting the university on a different course. Manic coaches lost their power to dominate the campus landscape. In the years since Bias' death, academic progress outpaced basketball's. Many disciplines at College Park now rank among the nation's best. A magnificent new performing arts center opened recently.

Basketball seemed to mature a bit as well. Bias was surely one of the best players in Maryland history, but the teams he played on underachieved. Maryland never got very far in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

Not so the current squad led by another player of brilliance, Juan Dixon of Baltimore. Dixon's teams have distinguished themselves not just in athletic prowess but in ways that move fans and writers to rhapsodies: a team of true grit, a team of character, a team with a leader whose determination willed barriers to fall.

No PR genius could have imagined a better up-from-tribulation script than Maryland's and Dixon's. His parents were addicted to drugs and died of AIDS. Clearly, though, they left him strength and love. He and his brother, a Baltimore policeman, never fail to honor their parents, to thank and to revere them.

In the new Maryland atmosphere, Dixon stands a mere six hours short of earning his degree this year. In his final semester, Len Bias withdrew from or failed all his courses. The university wasn't sure where he stood, a commentary in itself.

In those dark days, John B. Slaughter, Maryland's chancellor (the title has since changed to president) liked to quote H.G. Wells on excellence: "A race between education and catastrophe."

After Bias' death, reporters and university task forces uncovered a swamp of academic neglect at College Park. A subsequent criminal trial suggested considerable drug use on the team -- already suspected by coaches. Bias was benched by coach Lefty Driesell after a curfew infraction raised suspicions, but boosters demanded and quickly got the player's reinstatement. After a lengthy investigation of the basketball program, Driesell was forced out: the scapegoat according to his many fans, the heart of the problem to his detractors.

Tragedy and embarrassment led to other reforms, grudgingly adopted. Because the rest of the basketball world saw no reason to follow a chastened Maryland's lead, Terrapin coaches competed for talent under new admission standards that in the world of basketball were counted as a substantial handicap. At one point, coach Gary Williams welcomed powerful political help to get some good players with low grades admitted. He failed.

Or to put it another way, the school administration prevailed. In charge then was President William E. "Brit" Kirwan, who told boosters and politicians that Maryland couldn't afford to traverse the same terrain that brought them so lamentably low in 1986.

Kirwan returns to Maryland now in the year of the school's emergence as a power in football and basketball -- and it's notable that he returns as the chancellor of the state university system to the delight of virtually every constituency at College Park. Reformers are not always admired.

He sat in the stands in Atlanta last week as College Park brought home its championship. He surely knew the school still graduates only 19 percent of its basketball players. Those two circumstances -- a championship and a less than stellar graduation rate -- might seem to some the immutable essence of basketball's story.

Division I basketball remains a jealous master. As students, players face an impossible challenge: The rigors of a season such as one Maryland just completed hardly produces scholar-athletes. Athletes, yes. Scholars? Please.

Yet, the university's current president, C.D. "Dan" Mote, insists Maryland's standing is far better than it seems. "Certainly when you see 19 percent it's alarming. It's not something one can accept. But you have to investigate it further," he said. His figures present a picture worth considering.

Between 1989 and 1996, 40 students entered Maryland's basketball program. Of that total, 25 or 63 percent graduated from college.

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