Larry Gibson, the center for the University of Maryland basketball team has a new nickname: "A Student."
But Gibson is not an "A" student.
He and three teammates, John Bilney, JoPo Hunter and Billy Bryant, are on academic probation for failing to meet grade requirements last semester. They must make "C" averages this semester to remain eligible.
Their pictures were lined up across the front page of The Washington Star several weeks ago and their academic plight reported in the sports sections of both The Post and Star.
A friend of Bilney's when he first saw the pictures on the front page of the Star, was horrified, believing the players had been killed in some kind of accident.
"I was ashamed," said Gibson, who was most disturbed by the prominence given the story by the Star.
"I felt like a criminal."
On the eve of tonight's season-opening game against Bucknell at Cole Field House, the four players admit they have placed other considerations - mainly basketball - ahead of academics. However, while the four men understand the value of college education, they'll all want to play pro basketball.
To a man, they say basketball is their sustenance, their dream. Rarely do they think of not making it in the pros. "You have to count on it." said Hunter, "to get you throuhg the bad days."
Gibson is just now able to manage a meager chuckle over his new nickname, the brainstorm of some football players who live in his dormitory. Other remarks haven't been as kind, or welcomed.
Gibson walked into the first class the day the story appeared, and as he stepped through the doorway, there was a noticeable crackling and thud of papers as the students tried to hide sports sections, almost in unison.
"People looked at me hard, made sneaky comments." said Gibson. "Everybody was talking about it, all the time. I took walks by myself, and did a lot of reading - anything to keep from thinking about it. It took me two weeks to get over it."
Bilney is weary of strangers expressing surprise when they see him carrying books. A teacher wrote on one of the themes, "Obviously you are smart. Keep up the good work and show those writers where to stick it."
Bilney is confused over the way people are reacting to him.
"My interest here, the reason I was brought here, was to help out the athletic program," said Bilney. "Then, to be put on the spot for my grades, in the eyes of everyone . . . It was unfair to me that people would turn on me.
"My brother read about it in Chicago. I have friends who read it in California. I don't think it's ever going to end.
"You know how much they hate us at Duke. We went there and they wore those skin caps (to chide balding Maryland coach Lefty Driesell). I'm afraid we're going to go there and they'll all be wearing dunce caps.
"When I saw the paper, I felt like I had let down people, my parents especially. My father has business clients around here, and I don't want people to say to him, "I read about your son.' It would hurt them."
After Bryant finished explaining his situations to his family in the District, who called one at a time all day long, he went home and had a start over again.
There are kids in my neighborhood who watch me on TV and really look up to me." said Bryant. "They wanted to know if I wasn't going to play any more, and why not."
For Hunter, it was just on more distraction.
"I'm not ashamed that I'm on probation. But I don't want everybody to know about it," said Hunter. "It just puts an extra burden on me."
Gibson says the only difference between basketball players and other Maryland students "is that we have to stay here over Christmas, and we have to travel all over, and do what we do on the court in front of everybody."
"I'd have to say basketball is the most important thing in my life. I don't feel guilty about that at all" said Bilney. "I'd like basketball to be my life. I take care of academics because it's required, and because on the day that basketball ends for me, I will have something else.
"I think anybody in college basketball comes to school with a dream to play pros. I've worked hard and gone this far, and I'm not going to give up now.
"I don't think you can make both things (athletics and studies) your top priority. I'd love to see the people with 3.0s (B averages) put in as much time at something else as we do and still have that 3.0. It's a rare quality person who can do it.
"There aren't times when I've come back from practice and I'm tired, and I start reading a book, and the next thing I know, it's 3 in the morning, and the light's on, and the book is in my hands. "I've dozed off."
College basketball is as much a mental strain on the players as physical. Last year, Bilney and Bryant were freshmen, and both were injured. They spent countless hours wondering when and how their injuries would deal.
"Things really started to go bad when I sprained my ankle badly in January," said Bilney. "I had a cast on and was out a month, just when I was starting to improve and possibly get a chance to start. I wanted that, so bad.
"I was in bed for a week. Then for a month I had to go to classes on crutches. It was killing me.
"I don't think I gave up on my studies. I just started ignoring them, which is my fault. I also was confused about breaking up with my girl friend. We had gone together for five years, and I remember after the Virginia game we argued for hours.
"I look back and see that it was immature to brood about my injury and my girl. But at the time, I was losing the only girl I've ever loved, and with the injury - I thought I could never go on. Now I can say, it worked out fine. That was stupid. But at the time, it hurt very much.
Bryant broke his hand. And like the baseball pitcher who dreams his arm has died. Bryant was subject to the kind of irrational fear many athletes experience when something is wrong with their bodies.
"I had never broken anything before," he said. "I was afraid."
"I wasn't playing. I was trying to do everything I could, to play again and go to class. But I was just down."
Bryant's problem was not unnoticed.
"The coaches used to come up to my room in the morning and get me up for class," said Bryant. "Everyone was really concerned. It was me. It was all my fault.
"Regular students have trouble adjusting to studies their freshman year. I know that. What makes it hard is trying to do both, when you're traveling and playing every day."
It is also difficult when classes are of little interest.
"Lots of times, I was just tired," said Hunter. "I probably didn't do the work because I wasn't interested, or didn't feel like it. Billy and I are from the city (Washington) and friends would come see us."
Gibson's problem was putting off making up an incomplete. He admits he doesn't find schoolwork easy.
"It's kind of hard to keep your grades up, but somehow, you have do it," said Gibson. "I really don't enjoy school, but I guess you have to make yourself enjoy it. I want to graduate, because you have to have something to fall back on. That's my goal, to get a degree."