Championship Memories Keep Us Forever Young

If you’re a lifelong fan of a team, then, at least once, you absolutely positively want to win the biggest prize in your sport.

How long can you hang your hat on that one championship? 

Forever, if need be.

Some masochists and puritan Red Sox fans might feel otherwise. But normal people, like Maryland Terrapins basketball fans, grasp the concept of closure. That’s why Terps fans are in heaven this week. They finally have that championship glow.

After your team reaches its highest goal, you feel that intense tingle of satisfaction for days and sporadically for weeks. You had nothing to do with it. But it’s yours. Who says nothing in life is free? Finally, on sweet unpredictable occasions, you find yourself grinning that private victory smile right up until the next season.

Years later, it still pops up. You see a middle-aged scout, like Kevin Grevey, in the stands at the Final Four. And you suddenly think of him throwing in southpaw jump shots from the left wing for the Bullets in the NBA Finals. You glimpse gray-haired Scott McGregor at an Oriole game and there he is, young again in your mind, shutting out the Phillies to win the World Series.

The sight, or the mention, of Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and CoachGary Williams will now bring those same clean, permanent recollections of joy — and of ourselves at another part of our life — to the mind’s eyes of Maryland fans for the rest of their lives. Heck, the mention of Drew Nicholas or Ryan Randle might be enough.

Because I’ve lived in this area all my life, the phone has been ringing steadily this week with old friends who are Maryland fans. Telling, and retelling, the saga of your team’s quest is part of the proper digestion process. You’ve got to nail it down just right.

For Wizards fans, the year was 1978, when their team was still the Bullets. For Oriole fans, it was 1983, after the last-day-of-the-season heartbreak of 1982. For Georgetown basketball fans, the year that’s circled in memory is 1984. But please, don’t mention that shot in the final by Michael Jordan in 1982 or a miracle team named Villanova in 1985.

Further back, before my memory begins, Maryland football fans still have Jim Tatum’s title team in ‘51. Because the Senators will be back pretty soon (knock on wood), we can even throw in the ‘24 World Series, though it doesn’t feel tangible now that the late Shirley Povich can no longer tell us about Bucky Harris.

Of course, Capitals fans are still waiting, that ultimate cheer stuck in their throats since 1974. Their visit to the Stanley Cup finals in ‘98 was an excellent adventure. But it’s just not the same if you can’t put the championship trophy in the lobby, to celebrate your title.

When Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes brought the NBA title to town 24 years ago, Washington hadn’t had a world title in any pro sport since the Redskins won their second NFL title of the Sammy Baughh era in 1942 — a 36-year wait.

Talk about a town that was ready to party. From Capital Centre to the District Building, every Bullet rode in the back of his own convertible, waving to fans who strung the streets for over 10 miles. There would be hundreds of fans at an intersection in the middle of nowhere, waiting to cheer for one minute as Abe Pollin passed.

If feelings about Maryland’s win on Monday seem unusually strong, perhaps it’s because we’ve been in a mini-draught for titles since the Redskins won their third Super Bowl 11 years ago and D.C. United sunk two years ago after winning three MLS titles.

Jordan, Jaromir Jagr and Steve Spurrier have come here recently. However, Gary Williams — who played at Maryland, coached at American University for four years and has been back at Maryland for a dozen more seasons — is the first to get us back to the top. After his 20 years of good work here in local sports, plus 34 seasons of coaching, maybe he deserves it the most.

If Williams has had a long wait, so have countless Maryland fans, many of whom have invested their time and emotion over decades. “I saw some of the same faces tonight that I saw in the stands when I was a player,” Williams said long after his team’s 64-52 victory over Indiana. “We’ve had a core of fans who stuck with us through all the hard times. I’m especially happy for them.”

From 1923 to 1953, Maryland was in the Southern Conference, then joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953. The NCAA tournament crowned its first national champion in 1939. That’s a lot of basketball over a lot of years — 2,002 Maryland games in all. And that’s a lot of frustration, especially because Maryland’s been serious about having a great team since the day Lefty Driesell arrived in 1969, a third of a century ago.

So far, Maryland’s run to a title has been similar to most of our other local experiences. A team or franchise finally gets a splendid core of players with the proper mix of talents, complementary styles and personal chemistry. Often, that team’s time at the top lasts only a few years. And getting that one crowning moment is difficult.

The Georgetown Hoyas of the early ‘80s were built around Patrick Ewing. After he left, there was the Reggie (Williams) and the Miracles’ run in 1987, which ended in the regional finals, and Allen Iverson’s two-year tenure, which included plenty of excitement but nothing beyond the regional finals. The Bullets got back to the NBA Finals in ‘79, but lost. Injuries and age soured their mix. The Orioles held together a serious contender from ‘79, when they lost the Series, until ‘83, when they finally won it. After that, the sense of crusade faded.

Maryland, so far, is in that same boat. Built around seniors Dixon and Baxter, they could have a similarly brief run of glory days. But it isn’t always that way. Good times can stay good. Washingtonians know that, too, thanks to Joe Gibbs.

His Redskins teams weren’t a dynasty in the sense of the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, UCLA Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, but they were the next best thing. From ‘81 to ‘92, Gibbs took the Redskins to four Super Bowls (’82, ‘83, ‘87 and ‘91) and only lost in ‘83. He won rings with a variety of quarterbacks (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, Mark Rypien), running backs (John Riggins, George Rogers, Earnest Byner), field goal kickers (Mark Moseley, Ali Haji-Sheikh, Chip Lohmiller) and all-NFL defensive stars (Tony Peters, Barry Wilburn and Wilber Marshall.) 

That’s when you say the franchise is a dynasty and the coach, usually, is the primary reason. That’s where Maryland and Williamswant to go now. In the ACC, it’s tough to build a perennial powerhouse — but not impossible, especially once you reach the top.

If Chris Wilcox stays in school next year, joining guards Steve Blake and Drew Nicholas, and front-court forces Tahj Holden and Randle, that’s an entire starting lineup composed of NCAA champion veterans. That’s rare.

If Maryland, boosted by its title, also has a stellar recruiting year, then this could be the start of something big. Especially if Williamscontinues his recent pattern: As he gets older, he actually gets better. Still intense on court, he’s more comfortable off it, closer to his players, trusting of senior leaders. “The best part of coaching,”Williams says, “is that you’re allowed to improve.”

That’s for the future. Right now, the present is plenty good enough. In its 50th ACC season, in its 2,002nd game, Maryland finally cut down the last net of the basketball season. No matter what comes, the Terrapins and their fans always will have 2002.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist.
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