A sellout crowd of 14,500 people in Cole Field House witnessed a truly special moment yesterday. They saw a remarkable athlete, whose roller coaster Maryland basketball career has had as many crushing moments as magic ones, make his Cole finale a grand one.
Playing his last home game just six days after hearing boos here for the first time in his life, Albert King put on a display of basketball the left strangers gasping and friends weeping. He scored 28 points, making 13 of 16 shots from the field to lead 20th-ranked Maryland to a 94-80 demolition of fifth-ranked Wake Forest.
The victory leaves the Terrapins 7-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and 17-7 overall and drops Wake to 8-4, 20-4. It sets up a fight during the final week of the regular season between the two teams for third place.
It was a game in which Greg Manning and Ernest Graham, also playing their final games here, were outstanding, each scoring 16 points. Junior Buck Williams also was superb, with 18 points and nine rebounds.
It was a game in which the Terps blew open a close game midway in the second half by shooting 78 percent for the last 20 minutes -- 70 percent for the game -- and a game in which Wake guard Frank Johnson was miserable, shooting six of 18 from the field, leaving the scoring to Jim Johnstone (24 points) and Guy Morgan (16).
But all of that was merely the sideshow. This was Albert King's day because he had decided that it had to be so.
One week ago, he burned inside when he and his teammates were booed during their embarrassing 76-63 loss to North Carolina. The following day, he blasted the fans, the first time in four years here that King has critized anyone other than himself.
Then, came a phone call from home.
"My parents knew what had happened Sunday and they were worried tht I might be down, that I might be feeling ashamed of myself," King said. "They told me to never ever feel that way."
And so yesterday, with his parents watching from seats next to the Maryland bench, King reached deep within himself, determined to exit on his own terms, determined, really, to have the final word.
During the first half, there was little hint of what was to come. King was good, scoring 10 points, but Graham was better, getting 14 to lead his team to a 37-35 halftime lead.
The Terps were playing well, fast breaking and playing more aggressively on defense. With 17:22 left, King dunked viciously off a Manning pass for a 45-40 lead. Eight minutes into the half, with the Terps leading by six, he took a brief rest. When Wake called time with 10:48 left and the Terps leading, 56-49, King returned.
A Morgan free throw made it 56-50 with 10 minutes left. Then, during the next four minutes, King put on a matchless display of virtuoso basketball, the kind one sees perhaps once a season.
Coach Lefty Driesell set it up by ordering his team to hold the ball in order to force Wake out of its zone defense. When the Deacons went man to man, King was posted high, 18 feet out, against Alvis Rogers.
Immediately, he hit an 18-footer from the top of the key. 58-50. Johnstone committed his fourth foul at the other end and King scored again from the same spot. 60-50.
Now, it was apparent to his teammates that King was turned on. "When he gets going like that, no one in the world can stop him," Manning said.
Rogers tried fronting, elbowing and pushing. Still, King wanted the ball. In fact, he demanded it. He got it and, with Rogers in his face, hit again from the same spot. It was 62-52.
Rogers wanted to answer, but before he could get off the ground to shoot, King stripped him of the ball and fed Manning for a layup. Then he rebounded Johnson's miss a moment later.
Williams hit a free throw, Manning two more. Then King again. A spinning 10-foot bank shot, a pull-up 15-footer and another bomb from the top of the key. In four minutes he had hit six of six, had two assists, a steal and a rebound. It was 73-54, Maryland, with six minutes left and the skeptics of Sunday were screaming "ALBERT!"
At sidecourt, Thomas King, eyes glistening, pounded the table in front of him each time his son waved his magic wand.
"This was a special day for me for a lot of reasons," the son said later. "I knew it was my last game here, but that really won't hit me until tomorrow or later. I'll probably feel it when I come in here to practice and it's silent and I realize I won't be hearing those cheers here again.
"But the most important thing to me today was my parents being here. I haven't seen them since last summer and I really wanted to play well for them. I wanted them to remember this day as something special."
Just to prove he is a master showman, King saved the best for last, throwing a perfect, running behind-the-back pass to Manning with 10 seconds left, for an encore. King, who can throw passes behind the back in his sleep, had done so only once before in a Maryland game, two years ago, against Nevada-Las Vegas.
"Just your basic pass, I throw it in practice all the time," he said. Then he laughed, a deep laugh of happiness.