Lonny Baxter doesn’t remember much about the final minutes of the 2002 win against Indiana in Atlanta. You know, the one where Maryland secured the national championship trophy.
“I just remember Juan [Dixon] throwing the ball in the air and then us rolling around on the floor,” he said. “I remember how hard we worked to get there, starting from the last game of the season before.”
That would be a loss to Duke in the 2001 Final Four, but let’s circle back around to that. That floor Big Lonny rolled around on, a big chunk of it is hanging on a hallway wall in Xfinity Center. As for Juan’s heave to the rafters, hey, we all saw that over and over in highlights we’ll never forget. If you’re mad about Maryland, Johnny Holliday’s “The kids have done it!” is one of your all-time favorite moments.
This weekend in College Park, 11 of “the kids” from that “Forever Team,” as Scott Van Pelt called it, reconvened along with Gary Williams and most of his staff. They dined together Saturday night and they shared stories and memories with fans in the Xfinity Pavilion before Sunday’s late afternoon tilt with Ohio State on the big floor, a 75-60 upset of No. 22 Ohio State that, well, seemed like old times.
To a man, the 2002 Terrapins looked like they could still suit up and play 20 years later, though none admitted to that prospect, some even wincing at the idea. They’ve got families and jobs and mortgages and receding hairlines.
And they all hold themselves with an air of confidence and success that I guess comes with an NCAA championship ring and being part of one of the greatest teams most of us have ever seen up close. They genuinely enjoy each other’s company, just like they did 20 years ago, rushing out of practice, hopping in cars, and racing to the Sir Walter Raleigh Inn for dinner.
“They were very competitive,” Williams said, shaking his head. “They used to race to see who could get there first. I’m glad I didn’t know about that back then.”
Williams seemed to know everything else. He expertly pushed the right buttons, particularly that season and the one before. Sometimes it was simple, imprinting the practice shorts with a slogan the team tried to live up to. Baxter remembered the shorts that season had something about finishing the deal in 2001-02 that the team had begun the previous year before Duke derailed them.
The team wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Atlanta Final Four 2002” on them in the preseason and the shorts simply said “Win.” Williams put such messages on the practice shorts every year. Brian Cavanaugh, the 2002 team manager, remembered the “Win” on the shorts that year and that next year, it was “Defend,” and that it had also been “Work” one year on his watch.
All I could think about was if someone had really big “Defend” shorts and they folded over in the back, your backside would read “De end.”
I know. That’s asinine, but no one else but Cavanaugh had that kind of recall. Likely, no one else saw the back of the shorts as much folding them out of the dryer. Cavanaugh cleaned up after graduation, too, working high-level jobs in the White House in Homeland Security and rubbing elbows with the best and brightest. He said working with that 2001-02 team, working for Williams, gave him the confidence to sit with top ranking national officials, problem solve and speak truth to power.
“It’s amazing when you see what everyone is doing and how much success they’ve had in their careers and with their families,” said Drew Nicholas, a glue guard off the bench on that title team and then a star in his own right after Dixon graduated and Nicholas got to take more shots. “And it all starts with that guy over there.”
Nicholas was nodding toward Williams. Williams and assistants Jimmy Patsos and Matt Kovarik talked about what it took to win at the highest level. Several members of the team mentioned Tahj Holden, who willingly gave up his starting forward assignment to get burgeoning Chris Wilcox on the floor more. Holden wanted those minutes, too, but he mostly wanted what was best for the team. It was a theme among an incredibly talented and competitive bunch.
Wilcox was brilliant down the stretch that year, parlaying his play into the eighth overall selection in the NBA Draft to the Los Angeles Clippers. In Atlanta, there was some question on the trip back to College Park about what Wilcox would do.
“We pull into the back of Cole [Field House] and there were two big, new Escalades waiting there and Chris gets off the bus and gets in one and drives off,” Nicholas said. “I was like, ‘Well, I guess Chris isn’t coming back.”
Everyone laughed at the recollection. Laughs came easily with this group, then and now. Wilcox remembered Williams showing him video of Kansas’ Drew Gooden saying that Gooden and teammate Nick Collison were the two best big men in the country. “I told Lonny, I said, ‘Lonny, we’re gonna bust their ass.'”
Laughs and applause.
Behind Wilcox’s 18 points, nine rebounds and four blocks (a couple of early ones on Gooden), Maryland did just that. It didn’t start that way when Maryland trailed 13-2 in the national semifinal. Williams was not happy when the team came to the bench for a timeout. Dixon calmed him with his growing leadership in that huddle (and with 19 first-half points on his way to 33).
If Maryland’s 97-88 win wasn’t the best game of the tournament, then it was the East Region title win against Connecticut. Blake had one field goal — with 25 seconds left that sealed the deal, on a play designed for Dixon or Baxter. But Blake said in the huddle just before that he would take the shot because the defense would drop back off him. They did and he did.
Sunday, current Maryland players who have maybe heard such stories, rose up for a big, late-season win that seemed preordained.
“They came in the locker room, and Coach Williams said a couple of words and he gave us motivation,” Fatts Russell said. “When he talks, everybody listens. Seeing all the guys walk in there, Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, all of them. It was like we were out there just trying not to disappoint them. It was a legendary night.”
“I got chills listening to Coach Williams,” Eric Ayala said.
I remember getting those chills from Williams sometimes, too. I absolutely cherish the memories of just a few of us writers sitting around the table talking to Gary in the press gatherings the day before games. When the TV stations weren’t interested in a particular game it was often just the hardcore beat writers and Gary.
I always understood the privilege of sitting down with a Hall of Fame coach and getting to just talk basketball. You weren’t doing your job on this beat, though, if Gary hadn’t at some point cussed you out. I got mine one summer in his office in a one-on-one, Gary chewing me up one side and down the other. And then I had my best interview ever with him.
And I think I can speak for him on this matter and I know it’s true from my side, there were never any lingering hard feelings. Gary understood we had a job to do but as Maryland fans so fondly remember, he didn’t let anyone diss — perceived or otherwise — his alma mater or his program.
The other thing I remember most about that team I was fortunate to cover early in my career — other than the individual greatness of Dixon, Baxter and Blake — was the amazing depth. Williams could send in waves of big, strong, talented big men and Nicholas was like duct tape in the backcourt. He could fix anything off the bench.
Byron Mouton had come in as a high-scoring wing from Tulane. He would tone down his shots and become a defensive stopper and energy guy, always in the middle of good thing happening for the Terps.
Nicholas would make second-team All-ACC the following year, and Ryan “Sleepy” Randle would be third team. They started one game between them in 2001-02.
In truth, Randle was the one guy who maybe didn’t look like he could still play this weekend, and that harkened back to what he said about how coaches told him he might only play two to five minutes behind Baxter, Holden and Wilcox when he arrived that season.
“I told them I’d play hard in those two to five minutes,” he said.
Randle would lead the team in rebounding and finish second in scoring the next year.
Holden was a matchup nightmare with an inside-out game ahead of its time. Calvin McCall was a 1999 basketball walk-on who had started nine games at football quarterback that fall and was ACC Rookie of the Year runner-up to NC State wide receiver Koren Robinson. He brought that competitive drive to basketball practice every day for four years.
“The practices were harder than the games,” Mouton said. “After practicing against these guys every day, the games were easy.”
Andre Collins would score the last basket in Cole Field House and Mike Grinnon nailed down a special place in school basketball history with some game-sealing free throws against Duke in the 2004 ACC championship game. Yeah, Duke — the team that came from 22 points down to knock the Terrapins out in the 2001 national semifinals and set everything in motion for Maryland.
“We very much dislike Duke,” understated Blake, who had a famous steal from Jay Williams just before halftime in a big win in College Park that championship season. “We had a group of guys that were fighters and that started with Coach.”
And Williams hasn’t stopped fighting for his alma mater. Several times Sunday he reminded Maryland fans that this was “one of the top programs in the country the last 50 years,” and that it could happen again.
There was living proof in town this weekend.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics