Not to go overboard, but something nice is happening at Cole Field House. As good as the University of Maryland basketball team was a year ago, it is better now. "We're looking forward to going to the NCAA tournament and winning it," guard Greg Manning says. This little speech is born of confidence, not bravado, for Maryland truly is a wonderful team now. Not to go overboard, but Charles Pittman is the reason.
Albert King in full bloom gives Left Driesell the stud who can win big games alone. At center, Buck Williams is a picture of elegant strength. Ernest Graham, the forward, and Reggie Jackson, the point guard, are positive forces now, having learned from experience and Driesell's direction their limitations. Manning is forever sensational, a cool-handed killer.
These are old guys, all of them at Cole for at least two seasons, and they move surely through the practice rituals of college basketball at the highest level. Adding in reserve point guard Dutch Morley, these Terps count 15 seasons of wisdom.
In another time, long past, these six fellows could have delivered to Maryland the national championship Driesell has pursued so singlemindedly for a decade. They are that good. But today, college basketball's best teams are those with players who can come off the bench in special situations and raise the quality of the team. Not just a bench warmer getting some minutes. Not just a relief man for a tired starter.
The great teams have someone like Charles Pittman.
He is new at Cole, a big, strong forward and center, a boyhood rival of Buck Williams back home in Rocky Mount, N.C. Also 6 feet 8 and 215 pounds, Pittman is a virtual twin of Williams, who laughs and says, "Everybody looks alike back in Rocky Mount. Everybody except Phil Ford. He quit growing at 6 feet."
Pittman is a transfer from Merced (Calif.) Junior College where his team went 34-1 and 25-7 and he was named the state's junior college player of the year. Such credentials are all right, but the best thing about Pittman is the way he plays. He is solid. He is disciplined. He has soft, strong hands. He can jump. He blocks shots. He rebounds and he plays defense. Occasionally, he shoots. Not to go overboard (again), but to look at Charles Pittman is to be reminded of Wes Unseld.
Three scenes from Maryland's 95-65 victory over American University the other night. . .
American's center, Juan Jones, on a drive, thinks to put up a little shot from seven feet. Pittman, waiting for his moment, deflects the shot. As the ball bounces against the glass and skids off the rim, here comes Pittman leaping again to snatch the rebound in one large, windmilling motion. The effort puts him out of balance. No problem. Falling, he passes the ball to start the break.
American bounces a pass toward Jones in the middle. The next sound you hear is WHAP! From behind Jones, Pittman has reached through the center's arms and with one strong flick of his wrist has batted the ball away to a Maryland playmate. Another fast break under way.
Here comes Boo Bowers, "the American Express," the opponent's best player, a 26.9 scorer last year. Here he comes driving at Pittman, who, disciplined, awaits his moment. Bowers goes up, is flying now. Pittman waits because Bowers hasn't committed himself to a shot yet. Bowers double-pumps now. And so Pittman goes up. He blocks the shot at eye level. He blocks it toward a Maryland fellow. Fast-break basket again.
"Charles changes our team," Buck Williams said. "With four fouls last year, I had to play very cautious (because Maryland had no backup center of ACC quality). This year, I can go all out all the time because Charles is there when we need him to replace me. Charles is an unselfish player. He can take this team, which was a good team last season, and make it a great team."
Greg Manning: "Charles is a Buck Williams-type player. He does all the things a team needs to win. He's so strong and physical, he gets rebounds, he sets good picks. He comes off the bench and we don't lose anything. He's just new with us, but he already looks like he's been here three years."
Lefty Driesell: "Charles doesn't realize yet how good he is. He's still a little bashful, offensively and defensively. He's got great hands, he jumps, he's a good shot-blocker. He's a solid player."
The only boy in the family with eight sisters, Pittman grew up in the rural village of Battlesboro, about five miles outside Rocky Mount. Asthma as a child left him a year behind in school. A sandlot baseball player, he didn't play basketball until the ninth grade and then was so clumsy, at 6-4 and 150, the coach seldom used him.
Bobby Dunn, the varsity coach at Northern Nash High, turned Pittman into a player the next year. Starting as a sophomore, Pittman helped Northern Nash get to the final eight teams in the state tournament. After his junior year -- he had turned 18 and so was ineligible for more high school basketball -- Pittman married his girlfriend Verma, became a father, and went to work in the local drapery factory.
For a year, he played in industrial leagues in Rocky Mount, sometimes dropping by Sunset Park, where he and Buck Williams often had collided.
Under a California program that allows a student to earn his high school diploma even as he earns junior college credits, Pittman then went to Merced for two years.
"I didn't have any college offers coming out of high school," Pittman said.
Buck Williams' high school coach, Reggie Henderson, a friend of Bobby Dunn, told Driesell about Pittman at Merced. Driesell sent all three of his assistants to California to see him. Pittman narrowed down the list of recruiters to two, Maryland and Iowa, before he decided to come play with his old buddy Williams in a place close enough to Rocky Mount that his parents and sisters could see him once in a while.
They ignored him coming out of high school, but after his years at Merced how many colleges then wanted this formerly skinny, clumsy kid who never touched a basketball until he was 15 years old?
A big smile from Pittman: "I had 110 offers."