James Padgett returns home his final college games


(Associated Press)

James Padgett remembers the orange lights. The orange lights that shine so bright, they black out the crowd. Madison Square Garden is a stage, Padgett says.

Attending Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, a state championship berth meant driving across one of the Big Apple’s many bridges and into the city, where downtown’s shining lights and blacked-out crowds beckoned. On March 21, 2009, Padgett’s 17 points and 14 rebounds led Lincoln to the PSAL AA championship over Kennedy, the Railsplitters’ fourth straight state title.

Four years later, Padgett’s college career, one marked by relentless positivity and quiet enthusiasm, will end on basketball’s most legendary court, a spectacle that seems to run counter to his personality. He’s a big brother to many teammates, the strong, silent protector always quick to unearth hidden lessons after a loss or assure reporters that everything will be okay.

Last Tuesday, as Maryland grinded to a 58-57 win at Alabama, Padgett played two minutes. Charles Mitchell was whistled for a flagrant one foul for inadvertently clipping a defender on a spin move, so Padgett provided a brief respite. Except he never appeared in the original box score. It was an honest mistake later corrected, but it underscores a larger truth. Over the past few weeks, as the Terrapins work towards a National Invitation Tournament title, beginning with Tuesday’s semifinal matchup with Iowa, Padgett has been left out.

As Coach Mark Turgeon trimmed his rotation and a string of undersize opponents approached, Padgett became expendable. This is at once curious and sensible. With a reliable stable of high-percentage hooks and an uncanny ability to draw contact around the rim, Padgett is Maryland’s most efficient low-post scorer. By far. But if Turgeon had to trim some fat from his front court, especially with Shaq Cleare receiving at least a few more minutes, Padgett became the odd man out.

That makes this week even more special for Padgett’s teammates, and maybe even for the senior himself. Win or lose, he’ll finish his Maryland career at Madison Square Garden, in the backyard of his Brooklyn home. The end, at least individually, hasn’t gone quite as expected. But New York offers an opportunity to bid Padgett farewell on a high note.

“Then the fact that he can go home, he’s done so much for the program and for us,” point guard Pe’Shon Howard said. “Whenever we need anything, we’ll call on James. So it’s like a perfect situation to give back to him. It’s a great situation to end on a high note for our seniors.”

Padgett has received two DNP-CDs since the ACC tournament began. In four other postseason games, he’s played six, three, four and two minutes.

“You look at him on the bench, he’s always clapping, standing up, supporting guys,” Howard said. “He’s just really positive for us. He’s always been there for us. James is a great guy. You never think he’s from Brooklyn, whatever their reputation is, just because he’s such a great person. We’ve always expected it. People on the outside might not know, but it’s nothing new to us.”

What Howard means is this: You look at Maryland’s point guard and instantly know he’s from Hollywood. The persona and starred tattoos on his wrist give it away. Padgett’s stoicism is harder to place. If the lack of playing time has displeased or offended him, he hasn’t shown it publicly in interviews. Instead it’s a constant flow of optimism. Every side is the bright side with James Padgett.

“He’s handled it well,” Nick Faust said. “James is always staying positive, doing whatever he can to make the team better. Still practices hard, does things like that.”

When asked about finishing his career at Madison Square Garden, Padgett went big-picture. “We just focus on getting better every day, going out and trying to play our hardest,” he said, turning an individual question into a team answer, in typical Padgett fashion. “A lot of people haven’t gotten to play there.”

Alex Prewitt covers the Washington Capitals. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt or email him at alex.prewitt@washpost.com.
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