COLLEGE PARK - The NCAA men's basketball defending national champions opened a new year and a new era in style last night as a roaring, near-capacity crowd at the brand new Comcast Center officially welcomed the Maryland Terrapins.
Most of the arena's 17,950 seats were full by the time a most unique Midnight Madness event, complete with a laser show and spotlights, heralded the arrival of a new season.
Freshman forward Nik Caner-Medley was the first player on the floor, and he greeted the throngs of cheering spectators with a two-handed dunk. Senior point guard Steve Blake finished the introductions with a dunk, leaving head coach Gary Williams to take the floor, fist pumping, as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Before the 2002-03 team was introduced, last year's returning players, including former star and current Washington Wizard Juan Dixon, were presented with honorary jerseys.
The Terps were scheduled to begin practice today at 10 a.m. Basketball was back.
The introduction of the team capped an evening during which thousands of fans got a chance to break in the Terrapins' sparkling new home. The building caused more than a few jaws to drop.
Fans strolled along the roomy concourse, noting the air conditioning and the 37 rest rooms and 11 concession stands - quite a departure from cramped, steamy Cole Field House, where only four restrooms and four concession stands existed.
Then there was the scoreboard, suspended over midcourt with its four huge video screens, on which spectators took in a full replay of Maryland's 64-52 victory over Indiana in the national championship game.
One more time, Dixon tossed the ball in the air as time ran out on the Hoosiers. One more time, the crowd roared.
"You don't know what basketball is about until you've seen a game at Cole, but I guess I'm getting the best of two worlds now," said Charlene Carino, a sophomore at Maryland. "This is so much bigger, and everything is so much more high-tech. It's amazing. It's a lot further than Cole was from my dorm, but it will be worth it."
Stan Merson, a bank manager from Laurel who said he graduated from Maryland in 1979, has been a season-ticket holder for about 15 years. As much as he adored the old place, it was time to move on to a new venue.
"This is gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous. I'm in awe. Think how uncomfortable it would be in Cole tonight, as humid as it is outside," Merson said.
"The seats are wider and the sea of red is amazing. Every time I come back to this campus, it gets prettier, and this is another big part of making it even prettier."
Williams was on stage all night, in a sense. Before taking the court with the team after midnight, Williams spent several hours signing copies of his new book, Sweet Redemption."
Next to Williams was the Terps' play-by-play man, Johnny Holliday, signing copies of his book, From Rock to Jock.
And not far from the two of them was senior forward Tahj Holden, who was unintentionally causing a stir near the building's main entrance. Holden was signing autographs in the shadow of the Sears trophy, which is displayed in a glass case to greet fans as they enter.
After about 15 minutes, a small mob of students had formed around Holden, compelling security personnel to ask him to move.
"I told [a security guard] I'm semi-Moses: I can't part the sea, but I can part the crowd," Holden said. "It was tough to go to class today, knowing we were going to open up a new season in a new building.
"It's so big. I still can't get over how modern everything is. It still feels like Cole, even though the sky boxes kind of give it away."
"With success comes new things," Blake said. "We're as good as you can get, and now we have a building that's as good as it gets."
Brandon Feraren, a senior at Maryland who said he has not missed many home games during his time in College Park, looked down on the shiny new court from atop the west wall, where a steep bank of stands will accommodate most of the 4,000 seats that have been set aside for students. Opponents will be shooting into that end of the arena in the second half.
For Feraren, it was quite a view of a new era about to be launched.
"This is my first time in here. It's so big, it kind of feels like an NBA game," he said. "I'm kind of sentimental about Cole, because that's where I've spent the past four years watching basketball. But I'm open to change. This looks like a pretty good change."