COLLEGE PARK - Tahj Holden knows he is not the most gifted player on the floor. Nor is he obsessed with using basketball to create a wealthy lifestyle.
At 22, he is on pace to earn a cherished bachelor's degree at the end of this summer, is active in student government and prefers to go about his business as quietly as a 6-foot-10, 270-pound high-profile athlete can.
As a power forward with the Terps, Holden is forever part of history as a backup on the 2002 national championship team. He has been an integral piece of Maryland's only two trips to the NCAA Final Four. This season, he has shined as recently as Sunday, scoring a career-high 20 points and grabbing a game-high nine rebounds in the Terps' come-from-behind 68-65 victory at North Carolina State.
Holden may go on to reap the financial gain the game has to offer, be it in the NBA or in Europe, where he said he would be glad to live and learn while earning a six-figure salary right out of college. But he said he does not need the spotlight and will be just fine if his basketball career ends when he leaves College Park.
"It's serious when you're out there on the court. You're trying to win games. But that's what it is - a game," Holden said before today's regular-season finale at Virginia. "It's supposed to be fun. That's why I originally got into it. I didn't grow up watching basketball. I find the classroom almost as interesting at times.
"There are plenty of other things more serious than basketball. I could be in Afghanistan right now. That's serious," he added. "I like comfort, but I don't need a million-dollar house or 10 cars or a pool the size of a rec center. It's silly how, to some people, it is all about the money. It means a lot to me to have an opportunity to go to college for free."
As for those who wonder why this huge man doesn't score more, rebound more, or run people over more, Holden understands their puzzlement.
But the soft-spoken native of Red Bank, N.J., who blends thoughtfulness with wisecracks as smoothly as he can knock down a clutch three-pointer, doubts that his critics appreciate who he is.
People like Maryland coach Gary Williams and Paula Nadler, a senior academic adviser in the College of Arts and Humanities, see a depth in Holden.
Williams counts him among the more atypical players he has coached in his 25 years. He sees a big man with the eyes of a guard, a player whose value can't be measured on a stats sheet. Nadler, who taught Holden in a leadership class last fall, sees an athlete determined to get a well-rounded education.
"It's like having another point guard on the court. Tahj sees things and thinks them through," Williams said. "His knowledge of the game - where the ball should go, what the tempo should be, who belongs where on the floor - sets him apart. People make a mistake when they downplay the contribution he has made."
Nadler recalls asking her students what their goals were: "Tahj said his was to be one of the first men in a long time to graduate from the basketball program with a degree in four years. That was different."
The last Terp to do so was career reserve Matt Hahn of Columbia, who graduated in 2000.
Outspoken in class
In Nadler's course, during a discussion about America's power structure, students were asked to write down on a poster board the various groups whose voices are heard or ignored as decisions are made. Students listed Muslims, senior citizens, the disabled, African-Americans, Latinos, homosexuals.
"The first thing Tahj points out is, `How come there's nothing here for white America? Shouldn't they be included?' " Nadler said. "He wanted to go deeper. A lot of students who are that visible try to be invisible. Tahj puts himself out there."
No bookworm, Holden prefers math over English and maintains a grade-point average in the 2.3 range. The communications major, who loves a good debate, sees himself possibly going into broadcasting.
Holden relishes serving on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council. He has been vice president of the Atlantic Coast Conference chapter during the two years he has represented Maryland as its elected SAAC president.
The NCAA formed the group to give a voice to student-athletes on matters ranging from proposed NCAA legislation to local concerns such as improving campus transportation. Maryland's chapter, which meets once a month, includes two players representing each of the school's 25 sports. Twice a year, Holden travels to ACC headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., for league meetings.
One topic on the front burner is whether football and basketball players should be compensated. Holden, the only football or basketball player on the league's 18-member committee, did not weigh in predictably.
Influenced by women