When Maryland junior point guard Duane Simpkins was 12, his Washington, D.C., Boys Club team played a game at the Capital Centre. He doesn't remember much about the action on the court, but he does remember sidling up, wide-eyed and nervous, to Terrapin star Len Bias. "I mean, Len Bias," says Simpkins, still looking wide-eyed. "I just wanted to shake his hand. He was the thing."
When Simpkins's Maryland teammate Exree Hipp was 10, he and his friends used to push a long bench against the fence of a Congress Heights basketball court in southeast Washington and scramble up on it for a better look at Bias playing on the other side. "Man, the way Lenny used to dunk," says Hipp, a junior forward. "Everybody wanted to be Len Bias. Everybody wanted to go to Maryland."
And then came June 19, 1986, the day that Bias died from cocaine intoxication, only 40 hours after the Boston Celtics had made him the second pick in the NBA draft. Simpkins, Hipp and another current Terrapin starter, sophomore forward Keith Booth, all had the same reaction as they watched the television news stories about the tragedy: They cried their eyes out. "It felt like something was crushing me," says Booth, who was 11 at the time. Suddenly, no one wanted to be Len Bias. And no one wanted to go to Maryland.
It is against a backdrop of those memories that the Feb. 7 postgame scene at Maryland's Cole Field House must be juxtaposed. The delirious on-court celebration that followed the Terps' 86-73 win over North Carolina—Maryland's first victory over a No. 1 team in nine seasons, the last being a Bias-led triumph over the Tar Heels—seemed like nothing less than an exorcism. Few basketball programs have fallen as far and as fast and as ignominiously as Maryland's, and it follows that few have recovered so gracefully. The seventh-ranked Terps followed the Carolina victory with an 80-65 defeat of Florida State at Cole last Saturday and at week's end stood 19-4 and were tied with the Tar Heels atop the ACC standings at 9-2. That's rare air for Maryland, which has not had a winning league record since 1984-85 and was 2-14 in the league just two seasons ago, when Hipp, Simpkins and starting guard Johnny Rhodes were freshmen.
"The people who truly appreciate this win," said Terrapin coach Gary Williams after the game against the Tar Heels, "are the ones who were around during the dark times." Indeed, the victory continues a Maryland renaissance that started with a surprise trip to the Sweet 16 last season. Could it end at the Final Four in Seattle this year? Probably not. The Terps seem a little young (no seniors get much playing time) and a little small (the 6'5" Booth is their power forward) to go all the way. But they are a talented bunch, a balanced mixture of fire and ice that has galvanized the College Park campus and gone a long way to erase the memories of the dark era touched off by Bias's death.
The Terrapins have many sources of fuel—the persuasive and sometimes profane lungs of Williams and the lightning-quick extremities of Rhodes, the alltime Maryland steals leader, among them—but this is a team that gets by most of all on gallons and gallons of Joe. Sophomore center Joe Smith, the first Terp superstar since Bias, was not at his most impressive, believe it or not, on Dec. 10, when he scored 30 in an 85-74 loss to Massachusetts, or on Feb. 1, when he devastated Virginia with a 29-point, 21-rebound effort in a 71-62 win. No, to truly appreciate Smith one must see him when he's relatively bottled up, as he was by a collapsing North Carolina defense. A player of preternatural maturity, Smith never got rattled, never threw up a shot in frustration, never forced anything. He merely kicked the ball outside to the red-hot Simpkins and Rhodes and went to work on the boards, getting 16 rebounds, twice as many as the Tar Heels' formidable sophomore center, Rasheed Wallace.
The 6'10" Smith averages only 11.4 shots per game (he made 5 of 10 against Carolina, 7 of 14 against Florida State), a low total for someone in the select company of stars—Michigan State's Shawn Respert, North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse and Arizona's Damon Stoudamire are the others—deserving of player of the year consideration. Asked last week why he doesn't force more shots, Smith seemed genuinely confused by the question. "Why would I?" he said. Why indeed? The man's name is a metaphor for his personality.
Maryland's resurgence has turned a lot of attention toward Smith, and as one might expect of someone who thinks of himself as an average Joe, his celebrity is a mixed blessing. Much of the attention comes from agents who figure that Smith will leave Maryland after this season and be worth, oh, about $100 million to some NBA team. They mill around after games and try to make eye contact with Smith; they call his mother, Letha, at her home in Norfolk, Va.; they call Jack Baker, his old coach at Maury High in Norfolk; they call his dorm room. ("The agents all have the same I'm-not-like-the-other-guy pitch," says Williams, "and they're all exactly like the other guy.") Smith's defense against the agents is as formidable as his D on the court. He doesn't spend much time in idle conversation with them. He told his mother to change her number, which she did, and he never, ever picks up his own phone. "I let my answering machine do all the work," he says. His recorded message is rare evidence of his self-esteem: "This is the Beast from Norfolk," it says in his smooth gospel-singer baritone.
"I spend most of my time in my room," he says, "but I wouldn't call myself a prisoner. The one thing that bothers me is talking about whether I'm going to leave Maryland early. I don't know myself." One senses he's telling the truth. Despite his near hermit's existence, he's having a good time in college, and his low-key manner makes him popular with his teammates. "We get on him all the time, the way we do everyone else," says Rhodes. "But we all know he's the man."
The man who has overseen the brick-and-mortar part of Maryland's rebuilding job is Williams, whose hiring in June 1989 marked the beginning of the Terrapins' return to respectability. Lord knows he had a lot of work to do. Bias's death and the investigations that came with it brought about the forced resignation of Lefty Driesell, who had lost control of the program he ran for 17 years, and led to the hiring of Bob Wade, a career high school coach who was in way over his head. Maryland became a school for scandal, and, under the dark umbrella of an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting and institutional violations, Wade was forced to resign after the 1988-89 season. Enter Williams, a onetime wonder-boy coach with a tightly wound demeanor on the sidelines but a squeaky-clean reputation. "It was the only job I would've left Ohio State for," says Williams, who played point guard for the Terps in the mid-'60s. "Then again, I didn't exactly know what I was getting into."
Maryland was being investigated when Williams accepted the job, but the intelligence he received was that the penalties were going to be light. But when the hammer fell late in his first season, it was anything but a glancing blow: three years' probation, no postseason play for two years and no live television for one season. The Maryland athletic department is still about $7 million in debt largely because of revenue lost due to the sanctions.
Williams went to work mending fences, particularly with the faculty, which had lost confidence in the basketball program. And he devised a recruiting strategy that centered on high school underclassmen, who would come in after the worst of the sanctions expired. Fortunately for him, he found a few good ones with testudinate instincts. Hipp, Rhodes and Simpkins, scholastic stars in the Baltimore-Washington area, made an unofficial pact to go to Maryland and make some basketball history. Rhodes, who was a year ahead of the others, had to take a detour when weak college-entrance exam scores forced him to spend a postgrad year at Maine Central Institute. But true to his word, he joined his pals at College Park in the fall of 1992.
While Rhodes's decision was pragmatic—"I wanted to play with those guys, and I got tired of seeing all the local talent go everywhere else," he says—Hipp and Simpkins definitely felt the tug of Bias's legacy and the old Maryland magic. Hipp, in fact, says he "goes all the way back with Maryland," and before nature added six inches to his skinny frame in one year, he dreamed of playing free safety at College Park. (One suspects that the proximity of his mother's home cooking had much to do with his choice, too: He makes the 15-minute drive home to southeast Washington almost every day to devour pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes whipped up by his mother, Albertha.)
Things didn't go smoothly at first. The Terps went 12-16 and won only two games in the ACC in the first Hipp-Rhodes-Simpkins season. No one was happy, least of all the sporadically used Simpkins. But Williams's dogged recruiting continued to pay off. When Booth, an All-America from Dunbar High, signed on, he became the first Baltimore star in over a decade to come to Maryland. There was much bad feeling about College Park in the halls of Dunbar—another highly touted alum, Ernest Graham, had not lived up to his potential under Driesell in the early 1980s, and Wade had made his reputation at Dunbar before Maryland hired him and then cut him loose.
"I heard it all," says Booth. " 'Maryland messed up Ernest Graham.' 'Maryland screwed Bob Wade.' I got letters, phone calls, people hollering at me on the street when I was getting on a bus. People at work would tell my mother, 'Don't let your boy go to Maryland.' It didn't make any difference to me. At some point you've got to forget the past. My philosophy is that everything good begins with the coach, and I wanted to come play for Gary Williams. Plus I wanted to help make something positive out of what happened to Len Bias, to continue his legacy on the basketball court." Booth still has a video cassette of Bias highlights that he slips into his VCR every now and then.
The Terps got really lucky when they signed the man Rhodes calls "that great big gift from God." Absolutely no one knew how good a college player Smith was going to be, including Dean Smith, who could have had him at North Carolina. Joe grew up worshiping the Tar Heels. "I even bugged my mom until she bought me one of those $70 Carolina jackets," he says. But Williams came after him first and hardest, and Smith made that effort pay off in his first college game, when he had 26 points and nine rebounds in a nationally televised 84-83 overtime win against Georgetown. Since then, he has been one extraordinary Joe. It's just as well he didn't go to North Carolina. The NCAA might have had to pass a special rule banning a frontcourt of Smith, Stackhouse and Wallace.
Both Smith and Booth were regulars as freshmen and, along with Hipp, Rhodes and Simpkins, they now provide the Terps with a starting five that has a lot of experience playing together. If Smith decides to ignore the NBA and stay at Maryland another year, just think how good the Terrapins will be. "We know, we know," says Rhodes. "We remind Joe of that from time to time."
There are still questions about this year's Terps, however. Hipp is sometimes a little, shall we say, bold in his shot selection; perhaps that's to be expected from someone whose first name means Little Brave. (His father is a full-blooded Cherokee.) Booth, a muscular inside player, sometimes forgets he's not a point guard and forces far too many passes (he leads Maryland with 71 turnovers). "I think Joe picked up some toughness from me," says Booth. "What I need to pick up from him is how to be tough and smart." Simpkins is a volatile floor leader whose emotions sometimes get away from him. After he played poorly in the loss to UMass, he was nearly inconsolable in the locker room. The next day he was late for practice, and he later hinted to The Washington Post that he had considered quitting.
Anyway, there were few Maryland weaknesses evident against Carolina or in the dangerous follow-up game against the Seminoles. The Terps are back, and so are raucous sold-out crowds at Cole (dubbed Garyland by the student section) that include fans like pundit Robert Novak and Terrapin legends Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, a former U.S. congressman. "Once in a while I say to myself, 'Is this really happening?' " says Hipp.
It doesn't surprise Booth. "It sounds crazy," he says, "but I had a vision of all this. Coach Williams calling the shots, all of us playing together, the fans, the excitement. A little more work, and we can make that vision complete. Then people will only associate Maryland with the good things."