Tampa, Fla. -- For a fleeting moment, Darryl Strawberry was just like the rest of them - a proud parent standing to applaud his son on senior day, beaming as the Comcast Center crowd collectively rose in appreciation of D.J. Strawberry's efforts, not only during Maryland's amazing run, but also during his entire career.
It really has been that simple all along, Darryl Strawberry said, a typical father-son relationship that was deemed interesting only because of who the father once was, and who the son has come to be.
The two have always been intertwined, inseparable even when Darryl Strawberry was not at his eldest son's college basketball games, let alone in the same state. So, in order to let his son grow up in College Park without the shadow of a father whose professional baseball career was tainted by a well-publicized struggle with cocaine, Darryl Strawberry kept his distance.
"I needed to let him go through it himself," he said. "I'm always there in spirit and support him; I just didn't want to bring my notoriety around. Everybody knows who I am, and what I've done - good and bad.
"I wanted to leave that for him to learn and let him grow into what it's really like to have a uniform on with your name on it, and let people find out who you are, not your dad being in the center of your career. I think it's paid off well."
So does Maryland's emotional, defensive and offensive leader.
As D.J. Strawberry begins his final postseason as a Terp at approximately 2:30 p.m. today against Miami in the opening round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, he does so playing the best basketball of his career. Strawberry leads Maryland with a team-high 15.2 points per game and is also the team leader in field goals, field goals attempted, free throws, free throws attempted and steals.
As a sophomore, Strawberry missed the final 18 games of the regular season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament, what he called "the lowest point" of his basketball career. As a junior, he forged through a season in which he had to play out of position for the sake of the team, only to wind up in the National Invitation Tournament - again. He also has overcome the shadow of his father in nearly every arena he has played in, and in the process, made a name for himself.
"It was hard at times, but you just have to get through it," he said. "It's a part of life. Everybody in their life makes mistakes. You can't hold it against them because they made mistakes. I can't say I'm perfect, I look at it like that. That's part of my family; that's my dad, and I love him."
Nearly every time Strawberry stepped to a free-throw line during his career, the redundant singsong of "Daaa-rrryyl, Daaa-rrryyl" reverberated, but it never stung. Nor did it faze him.
When Maryland played at Georgia Tech last season - an already emotional game because it was the first without former leading scorer Chris McCray - the Yellow Jackets' student section took the taunting one step too far for Maryland coach Gary Williams. They started to yell, "Co-caine," repeatedly while Strawberry was at the line, and Williams pointed his finger and went back at them.
"It's the old story, those tough things make you a better person if you can handle them, and I think D.J. has handled it in a tremendous, classy way," Williams said. "You get the feeling as a coach sometimes you want to protect your player. D.J. has been great in the way he's handled whatever things have been said about him. I give him a lot of credit. I'm really proud of him because I don't think many people would have handled it as well as D.J. did."
What bothered D.J. Strawberry most about that Georgia Tech game, though, was the absence of his good friend, McCray, who was ruled academically ineligible.
"That was more hurtful than anything," Strawberry said. "That really hurt me and the way I played on the court. I wasn't myself. I had to go back and look at myself and figure out how I was going to come back this year and how much energy and emotion I was going to bring to the game and how I was going to give it all, everything I've got, every day."
Strawberry has learned from his father's mistakes, but Darryl Strawberry said his son learned the most from Williams.
"That's why I didn't come around a lot," Darryl Strawberry said. "I wanted somebody to discipline him. I saw him grow, and the discipline Gary has brought in his life.
"If he'd bench him, I'd say, `Good.' If you're being a knucklehead and you're not doing your job, that's what you need. I have a lot of respect for Gary."
Like father, like son.
D.J. credits his coach for extracting the most out of his game.
"He expects a lot out of me, especially this year more than any year," Strawberry said. "It's been one of the toughest years of my career for him getting on me. Even sometimes I think I'm playing well, and he's on me still.