Maryland 2002 national championship resonates 10 years later
By Barry Svrluga,
Ten years is enough time for playing careers to start and end, for apparently ageless coaches to conclude what could have seemed infinite careers, for college kids to get married and have kids of their own. Still, can it really be a decade?
“You never really had the chance to dwell on 2002,” Gary Williams said earlier this month, “because there was always next season.”
The dwelling can come now, a decade later. Friday marks the 10th anniversary of Maryland’s victory over Kansas in the Final Four, with Williams on the sideline and Juan Dixon at the three-point arc, with Steve Blake deftly handling the ball and Lonny Baxter anchored on the block. Two days later, the Terrapins beat Indiana to deliver their school’s only men’s basketball national championship.
None of the coaches from that team remain on the Maryland bench. Only two players — Blake and Chris Wilcox — remain in the NBA. Those Terrapins have scattered all around, from the Beltway to Florida and beyond, including all sorts of places abroad. They have had personal and professional successes, personal and professional failures.
The bookcases that line the walls of Williams’s living room are adorned with pictures of family, of the one grandson whom he held in his arms after he cut down the nets and the two grandchildren who weren’t yet born, a personal timeline. On the floor of the foyer, leaning unceremoniously against a wall, rests a piece of the court that is now named after him.
Ten years later, the memories of the Terps’ focused, never-wavering march toward the title remain vivid. It’s either a lifetime ago, or a blink.
“I can still picture us in the locker room,” said Drew Nicholas, back then a junior guard, now a veteran of several European professional leagues. “I mean, I’ve been overseas for nine years, had a pretty full career. That seems like a long time. But those memories are clear. Real clear.”
“When you start talking about it, it could be just yesterday,” said Blake, the reliable backup point guard with the Los Angeles Lakers. “It all depends on the moment. I feel old, sometimes.”
Blake is the father of three. Last month, he turned 32.
‘We wanted something more’
Some of the stories from back then are well known among Terrapins fans, told and retold over the past decade. The story of the 2001-02 season, though, really has to begin with the final game of the 2001 tournament, a wasted 22-point lead over Duke in the national semifinals, as heart-wrenching a loss as a program could endure.
“You lose one game like that your whole career, probably,” Williams said. “But we lost. And we come back to campus, and everybody feels sorry for you. Maryland had never been to the Final Four before, so I was very worried that was going to be enough for that group of guys.”
Williams and his staff planned to give the Terrapins two weeks completely off before they returned to begin offseason conditioning. But before that first week was over, his team was back in the weight room, on its own.
“That’s when I knew that that wasn’t enough, to get to the Final Four,” Williams said. “We wanted something more than that.”
That summer, in pickup games at Cole Field House, the Terps wore workout shirts that said “Atlanta 2002 National Champions.”
“I still have mine,” said Michael Grinnon, an incoming freshman on that team. “That set the expectations that year, that anything other than a national championship was a failure.”
Freshman-dominated Kentucky is favored to win the national championship this weekend. Only one of the current Final Four teams has a senior as its leading scorer. Hence, the seasoned Terrapins of a decade ago can seem like a throwback. Dixon, a senior, was already a two-time all-ACC selection. Blake had played 71 games at point guard as a freshman and sophomore. Baxter was an established, reliable force underneath.
But beyond that, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle “could start for anyone in the country,” Williams said, and Wilcox’s development as a sophomore enabled Williams to bring Holden and Randle — 6 feet 10 and 6-9, respectively — off the bench.
Nicholas, an exceptional shooter, became the back-court reserve. Byron Mouton was a tenacious, versatile defender. And don’t overlook the deeper part of the bench. With Grinnon as a good shooter, and Calvin McCall, a former football player, as a take-no-guff competitor, “some of the best games I saw all year were when we’d go for like a 15-minute scrimmage at practice,” Williams said.
“We didn’t have any guys that were kind of off on their own, doing their own things,” Nicholas said. “Everybody was really committed to the program. Trust me, I know: That doesn’t always happen. But that was one of our big things: There wasn’t any jealousy on anybody’s part.”
Said Blake: “It seemed like we played together longer than we did.”
So the Terps romped through the old, rugged ACC, going 15-1 in league play. And though they lost to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament semifinals, they were the top seed in the East Region of the NCAA tournament, opening at what was then MCI Center, in downtown Washington.
“It was kind of like we were on a mission,” Holden said.
The tales from there become the montages in a highlight video. They overcame first-round jitters against 16th-seeded Siena, then thumped No. 8 Wisconsin in the second round. Think of the gantlet that lay ahead: fourth-seeded Kentucky, with Tayshaun Prince; No. 2 seed Connecticut, with Caron Butler; Kansas, the Midwest Region’s top seed featuring Drew Gooden; and fifth-seeded Indiana, the only time the Terps didn’t face the highest possible seed they could. Fabled and accomplished programs, all.
So many stories, after a decade, emerge. In the waning moments of the region final against Connecticut, with the Terrapins up two, Williams drew up a typical play in a timeout in which Baxter was on the low block, Dixon and Nicholas in the corners, and Wilcox was to set a high screen for Blake. Blake, who hadn’t made a shot all night, was to read the defense and make the proper pass.
But when the first horn sounded, urging the teams back to the court, Blake grabbed Williams by the arm. “Coach,” he said. “That guy’s going to go under the screen.” The implication: Blake would be open to shoot.
“I wanted to grab him,” Williams said. There was no time.
“I remember telling him I was going to make it,” Blake said.
The Terps got the ball inbounds, the Huskies reacted as Blake predicted, and he took it, “a knuckleball,” Williams said. It went in.
The next weekend, in the national semifinals against Kansas, the Terps fell behind 13-2 early on. Williams called timeout.
“I’m going to kill Wilcox,” Williams said, “because he’s not doing anything.”
But as they came to the huddle, Williams was pre-empted. Dixon already had Wilcox by the jersey. Throughout the timeout, Dixon’s screaming didn’t stop. Suddenly, Williams became the calming presence.
“Okay,” Williams said. “We’ve got to play. Just play.”
By halftime, Maryland was up seven.
“That was Dixon,” Williams said.
That was Maryland.
‘Anything can happen in one game’
Wilcox, now a member of the Boston Celtics, was scheduled to have heart surgery Thursday in Cleveland to fix an enlarged aorta — a season-ending but not career-threatening issue, Williams said. Earlier this year, Nicholas, who won two Euroleague championships with the Greek club Panathinaikos, parted ways with his team in Italy’s top league and returned to Florida to collect his thoughts. Holden worked his way into a college assistant’s job at Monmouth, but the staff was fired after 2011, and he now works at a financial firm in Jersey City.
Six years ago, Baxter was charged with firing a gun within blocks of the White House and, despite having reached a plea agreement with prosecutors, spent time in jail when a judge threw out the agreement. “He had to get away from the people he was hanging out with,” Williams said. Dixon’s NBA career ended in 2009, and he spent some of the past two years fighting the stain on his reputation that came from a positive test — and subsequent suspension — for an anabolic steroid while he was playing overseas. The 165-pound Dixon vehemently denied the charges, and he has since resumed his pro career.
At some point, the championship is in the past — another day, another month, another year, a decade behind — and real life takes over.
“We all have our lives now,” Mouton said. His is running a nonprofit AAU program in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, “trying to teach kids and parents a lot of the stuff I learned at Maryland, fundamentals and teamwork.”
Holden’s experience is the same as he coaches a team of fourth graders. “There are no shortcuts,” he tells them. “I take that into everything I do in my life.”
Grinnon, now a manager for a financial firm, likewise draws on his old experience.
“Starting from Coach Williams down, the way he ran his business, ran his coaching — if you’re on time, you’re late; responsibility; raising the expectations from good to great; you got to be an expert at what you do — all those things I incorporate every day of my life in the business world,” he said.
Those things would be true, 10 years later, even if Blake hadn’t sealed that game against Connecticut, even if the Terps never came back against Kansas, even if there was no national championship.
“One game doesn’t determine how good of a coach you are, because anything can happen in one game,” Williams said. “But people look at it that way. The outside looks at it that way.”
Ten years later, the outside looks in at that Maryland team from a decade ago and sees all the pieces — physical and mental — to win a title. Does it seem like 10 years ago, when they pulled it off?
More from PostSports Photos: Where are the 2002 Terps now? Relive the 2002 championship game NCAA Tournament history Video: Gary Williams’s greatest hits Williams takes to the court one last time