Ex-Ballboy's Having a Ball

By Mike Wise
Friday, March 20, 2009

KANSAS CITY, Mo.

Gary Williams's former equipment manager, sitting almost 10 rows up at Sprint Center, rose and put his hands together for his favorite Maryland player of all time, the left-handed sophomore who bolted toward the goal, the kid laying the ball in with grace and elan to seal the game.

"Yay-hey, young fella!" John Bowie hollered toward his son, Adrian, the main intangible of the Terrapins' first-round NCAA tournament victory over Cal on Thursday.

Go ahead, go ga-ga over Greivis Vasquez's gumption or Dave Neal's uncanny ability to keep manufacturing gold out of his senior season. Keep making this about Gary's career, which less than two months ago seemed more on the bubble than his team.

They're all deserving stories.

But this is a better one.

It's about the Bowies, John and Adrian, the only two people for much of the last two decades to bear first-hand witness to as much Maryland magic -- and absolute wrenching heartbreak -- as Gary Williams.

It's about the man who laundered Walt Williams's tube socks, Steve Francis's jersey and quietly placed Juan Dixon's and Steve Blake's sneakers beside their cubicle in the College Park locker room, who decided when his son was 4 years old that it was time to make him a Maryland ballboy.

Because that's what John Bowie was for Lefty Driesell, a ballboy when Lenny Elmore, Tom McMillen and John Lucas starred at Maryland, before John Bowie put up numbers as a point guard at DuVal High School and then Bowie State "about 40 years and 100 pounds ago," he said.

It's about his boy mimicking Stevie Franchise and the rest of his athletic heroes, until Adrian became good enough to run the floor with Vasquez and Kevin Durant at Montrose Christian, until he became good enough to stop wiping up wet spots between timeouts and start finding his spots on the floor in Williams's flex offense.

Finally, it's about that kid maturing and playing in America's greatest sporting event in front of his old man.

John was seated one row behind his wife, Marsha, and Adrian's brother, Darrin, watching his progeny play the most important 36 minutes of his Terrapin career.

"I'm on campus 24-7, so it's just a joy to be around him every day," John said of Adrian.

"I always wanted him to play for Gary Williams. Gary Williams is Maryland basketball. I've seen the passion he had for the game and the kids up close. That's one of the reasons I wanted Adrian to play here."

John pre-dated Williams; he began as an equipment manager for the team in 1987. He was transferred to the same job with Maryland's Olympic-type sports and men's lacrosse after the 2001 season as the team moved into Comcast Center.

Before then, father and son were there for many of the big ones at Cole Field House, including that disheartening loss to Duke in 2001, when Maryland all but had the game won.

"Everybody thought it was over," said Adrian, who sat on the baseline under the basket, waiting for his moment to spring into action with a mop or towel. "I remember Shane Battier and Jay Williams and all the excitement that day. I remember wiping up the court during timeouts. And the comeback. I remember that, too. That one hurt."

Williams smiled at the memory of the Bowies working in tandem for the program, candidly admitting he didn't know, prior to recruiting Adrian, that his eventual starting off-guard was mopping the floor for him in the 1990s.

"I knew John and all the work he did for us, but just to show how much I know what's going on, I didn't even know Adrian was one of our ballboys," Williams said after he won his ninth straight first-round game in the NCAA tournament. "I knew John would take his kids to shoot in the gym after we were done practicing or playing, but I didn't make the connection until we started recruiting him."

In a taut game needing an X-factor in the final 10 minutes, Bowie turned out to be that player. He scored 12 points to go with seven assists and three rebounds. He blew past whoever deigned to guard him, his third step more blindingly quick than anything Cal could muster, even the brilliance of the Golden Bears' little stop-and-pop guard, Jerome Randle. What Bowie did after his main gaffe of the evening -- missing consecutive free throws -- encapsulated Maryland's effort and ingenuity better than anything.

After a wild scramble for the second missed free throw ensued, Bowie came up with the ball and, falling down right of the key, somehow flicked the ball to Vasquez underneath the rim, which resulted in two made free throws.

Proving he indeed watched endless hours of Francis, Dixon and Blake, he goes to the rim as fearlessly as any of them at barely 6 feet 2 and, according to the game program, 190 pounds (soaking wet, maybe).

And of course he wants to guard Tyreke Evans, Memphis's incomparable point guard, in Saturday's second-round showdown with the uber-talented Tigers, who follow North Carolina and Wake Forest as the most recent giant in Maryland's midst.

"I hope I get the chance," Adrian said.

Because if John and Marsha Bowie's youngest son has learned anything growing up a Terrapin in the Gary Williams era -- from a star-struck ballboy to an indispensable role player in the first round -- it's that you can't shirk your responsibility and still win.

Oh, and Coach Williams can get upset sometimes.

Asked if there is any advantage having had the opportunity to be yelled at by the program's patriarch since he was 4, the equipment manager's son nodded, yes, there was.

"I'm used to it," said Adrian Bowie, smiling in Maryland's victorious locker room. "By now it's like my father screaming at me."

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