As the postgame noise swirled around the crowded University of Maryland locker room, Adrian Branch sat on the floor in front of his locker, legs stretched across the carpet. He had ice on his knees and the look of an elder watching children at play.
A glad-handing alumnus working his way through the crowd didn't notice Branch and almost tripped over him. The alumnus stopped, looked down and saw Branch. Pointing to the ice bags, he said, "What's the matter, Adrian, you getting old or something?"
Branch looked up with the smile of someone who has seen it all. "Old is right," he said. "Four years at Maryland has aged me."
In the fall of 1981, when Adrian Branch made the short trip from his parents' home in Largo to the Maryland campus in College Park, he told his girlfriend his plans. "Four years from now," Branch remembers telling her, "They're going to write my name across the Washington skyline: 'Adrian Branch was here.' I was going over there and light the place up. No doubt about it."
Branch laughs softly when he tells the story. Even though only three years have passed since those days as a freshman, they seem so far removed that they might as well have been in another lifetime. When Branch talks about that cocky 6-foot-8 freshman, he almost seems to be describing another person.
"My first game against North Carolina, I got the ball off the tap and went to the basket," he said. "I got fouled and I turned around and pointed my finger at James Worthy, Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins and said, 'You're a bunch of faggots!' Worthy, Jordan and Perkins. Can you believe that? They won by 16."
He has gone from light-'em-up freshman to elder statesman senior. In between, he has infuriated and delighted his coach; he has, by his own admission, wasted his talent at times, and he has lived through a nightmare. He has been called a drug user, he has been convicted of possession of $10 worth of marijuana and he has seen his oldest brother, distraught because of Adrian's arrest, almost die in their mother's arms because of a drug overdose.
"People have asked me how sweet it was to come back last year after my troubles and win the ACC tournament," he said. "What they don't understand, what they'll never understand, is that my greatest joy was seeing my brother get out of bed and play Ping-Pong with me. That got me through all that. He looked at me and said, 'A, I'm gonna make it back and so are you.' Compared to that, anything that happens in basketball seems empty to me."
Today, Tommy Branch is healthy, and Adrian Branch is averaging 18.9 points per game for a Maryland team that is 15-5. More important than his points, Branch finally is doing the things he knows he must do to have a pro career. His defense and his passing have improved. His turnovers are way down. His offensive efficiency rating, as kept by Maryland's coaching staff, has doubled. Last season, he averaged a plus 8 through 19 games. This year, he was plus 16.
He wants to play in the National Basketball Association next season. If Branch continues to play well, he probably will be a late first-round draft choice.
"My dream is so close now I can almost reach out and touch it," Branch said. "I've worked hard in the last year to get to where I am. I just hope it all works out for me. It's like my pop kept telling me last year, 'It's the end that matters.' My ending hasn't happened yet. When it does, though, I hope it matches my dreams."
One year ago, Adrian Branch didn't dare dream. He was haunted by a memory that wouldn't go away, the memory of two weeks when he thought his life had plunged into an abyss so deep he might never escape. In one brief moment, he thought he had wiped out all the work from a boyhood that had been filled with glory and happiness and success.
He is the third son in, as his father puts it, "a jock family." Charles and Carolyn Branch have four sons: Charles Jr. (Tommy), Philip, Adrian and Alan. Tommy is 24, Phil 23, Adrian 21 and Alan 20. Charles Sr., a tall, handsome man, played football and basketball at Spingarn High School. Now a GS-14, he is a cartographer, drawing maps for government pilots. Carolyn Branch is a nurse.
Adrian and his brothers grew up in Seat Pleasant. "When he was little, he did everything but walk on the ceiling," Carolyn Branch said. "I remember thinking I might not survive this one. He was always so busy, always trying to do things. But no matter what he did or said, people always liked him. He just had a way about him."
Most of the time. Adrian remembers playing basketball with his big brothers from the age of 9 and being a hot dog then. "I would come upcourt and fancy-dribble and people would yell, 'Do it, A.' Then, at the end of a close game, my brothers would tell me to get the ball to them, and I would shoot anyway and miss. Then, they'd get mad and chase me home.
"But I kept shooting anyway. I loved the spotlight all the time."
Like his father (who is 6 feet 5) and his brothers, Adrian always was tall. He played football, baseball and soccer in addition to basketball. When he reached high school, he followed in Tommy and Phil's footsteps, going to DeMatha to play for Morgan Wootten.
Like Tommy, he was all-Met by the time he was a junior. He was a celebrity, another of the famous Branch brothers, and perhaps the best. He had huge hands, a huge smile and an ego to match. In a DeMatha game program in which the players listed their favorite actor and actress, Branch put down Pam Grier as his favorite actress. His favorite actor? Adrian Branch.
The big names recruited him. North Carolina. North Carolina State. Michigan. Maryland. He remembers Lefty Driesell's visit vividly. "He came in with this big radiant personality and said all the things an 18-year-old wants to hear," Branch said. "I was thinking I'd have rings on every finger before I was through. He told my mother if she wanted to film me at games, he'd make the Maryland film crew move to give her room. He was a trip."
He liked Driesell and he liked the idea of playing close to home. But it wasn't Driesell who sold Branch on Maryland. It was Ernest Graham. Some, in less complimentary moments, have described Branch as a left-handed version of Graham. On the Albert King-Buck Williams teams, Graham was the streak shooter who could shoot Maryland in or out of a game. He was the team's unpredictable force, most likely to make you laugh, most likely to make you cry.
Branch loved him. "When I made my official visit, Ernie (then a senior) took me down to 14th Street, down to the strip, over to Howard and UDC, to every party you could imagine," Branch said. "He knew every babe in town, it seemed. I remember getting home at 5:30 in the morning and saying, 'Maryland is the place for me.' "
And so it was that he arrived at Maryland in 1981. King, Williams, Graham and Greg Manning, all starters and stars, had departed the previous spring. The door was wide open. Branch stepped right in. "Freshman year was a gas," he said. "I must have tried every shot imaginable that year. The first week of practice, I was passing a lot because I was nervous, and Lefty came over to me and said, 'Son, I need you to score for me.' I said, 'Yessir, you got it.' It was all perfect."
His most memorable day came against top-ranked Virginia when he scored 29 points in a stunning 47-46 overtime upset. One-on-one, he was unstoppable, and Driesell was practically ready to bronze him on the spot for the Hall of Fame.
"Ain't nobody can guard Adrian one-on-one," Driesell said, again and again.
Sophomore year, his points-per-game rose from 15.2 to 18.7, thanks in large measure to the Atlantic Coast Conference's 19-foot three-point line. Branch admits now he was on cruise control, so caught up in everyone's belief that he was a big star that he didn't work to try to get better.
Then came junior year. Len Bias and Ben Coleman emerged as stars. Coleman had to have the ball inside to be effective. Bias was too good not to get the ball outside. Someone had to give up some shots.
"I thought I could turn my scoring off and on," Branch said. "Lenny hadn't learned to pass the ball yet, and Ben was too selfish to ever give it up, so that left me. Coach kept telling me he wanted me to play more of an all-round game, and I was trying. But it was hard. I couldn't adjust to the idea of being a complementary player. It's just not me."
Branch's real problems started during the last week of January -- one year ago. Branch had played poorly in both of Maryland's games that week, a victory at Old Dominion and a Saturday afternoon loss at Notre Dame. He had scored five points against ODU and four against Notre Dame. He was averaging only 12 points a game and shooting well below 50 percent from the field.
"Things were so bad I couldn't even look at the stat sheet any more," he said. "I just wanted the season to be over. It seemed like everything was going wrong."
This was Saturday, Jan. 28. There was lots more to come.
The team flew home from Notre Dame and Branch and his friends began making plans to go to a party. Steve Rivers, a reserve guard, and a female friend wanted Branch to give them a ride to the party and stop on the way to pick up something.
"I knew what they wanted to pick up," he said. "I mean, I'm not stupid or anything. But it was like if you say, 'A, take me to McDonald's for a hamburger.'
"If you're my friend, I take you even if I don't want a hamburger. It's no big deal. I don't smoke marijuana, I swear I don't. The only time I've ever even touched it is when people pass it around at a party or something. That's it. But when they asked for the ride, it was just not a big deal. You go do it and you come right back.
"It was all so simple."
Only it wasn't. Shortly after the marijuana had been picked up, Branch glanced in his rear view mirror and saw flashing lights. The threesome had wandered into an area that was part of a drug crackdown effort by Prince George's County police and the buy had been witnessed by police officers.
Branch remembers his reaction upon seeing a police car behind him. "When I saw the lights in my mirror, all I could think was, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe this?' Here I was, having a terrible season, I had just played a terrible game and now I'm going to go to jail for drug possession. I just kept saying to Steve all night long, 'Can you believe this?' "
They had to believe when the police found underneath the car's passenger seat the $10 worth of marijuana that had been purchased. "When they took us to jail, the police kept saying stuff like, 'Well, we've got ourselves some celebrities here tonight.' And, 'What's Lefty going to say to you guys tomorrow?'
"When we got to the jail, they put us in this cage with seven other guys. There were all these kids down there, and they just kept staring at us the whole time we were there. It was the most humiliating thing that ever happened to me in my life. I mean, there I was in jail. This was definitely not part of my plan or part of the script. It couldn't be happening to me. Only it was."
Branch and Rivers were released on their own recognizance at 3 a.m., almost five hours after they were arrested. They went back to the dorm, got a few restless hours sleep and then sat through film study the next morning with the rest of the team, praying that no one would find out what had happened.
But Branch's mother called that night. She had received a phone call from a reporter who wanted a comment on Adrian's arrest for drug possession. "It's nothing, Ma, it's nothing," Adrian Branch said he told his mother. "We were where we were supposed to be. You know how reporters are, always looking for a big story."
Five minutes later, the phone rang again. Branch's roommate answered. It was The New York Times calling for a comment on Branch's arrest. "I went across the hall and found Steve and told him, 'The sky is about to fall in. It's hit the fan.' "
Branch returned to his room, called his mother and told her the truth. Carolyn Branch remembers not quite knowing how to feel. She was still hobbling from knee surgery the previous month, her oldest son was fighting a drug problem and now her third son was telling her he was about to become big news because he had been arrested.
"Adrian apologized to me," Carolyn Branch said. "I told him he didn't owe me an apology, that he was the one that was going to be embarrassed and that no matter what he did, right or wrong, he was still my son. But there was nothing to apologize for."
Shortly after he finished talking to his mother, Branch got a call from Driesell. He remembers the conversation exactly.
"You get arrested for possession of drugs?"
"Yes, Coach, I did."
"It's all true?"
"Yes, Coach, it is."
"Well, you're off the team, you know that, and I want to see you in my office at 9 a.m. sharp. If you're late, you're doubly off the team."
Branch and Rivers arrived at 9 a.m. They were greeted by Driesell, Athletic Director Dick Dull and Chancellor John B. Slaughter. "That meeting was worse than getting arrested," Branch said. "Seeing those grown men with such faceless expressions. It really scared me. I knew whatever they decided to do could affect the rest of my life. I knew, looking in their faces, that this was extremely serious. I still couldn't believe this was happening to me but I kept hearing my name everywhere I went."
Driesell asked Branch if he used drugs. Branch said he didn't. Driesell demanded, "Why, then, did you just get arrested for possession? How am I supposed to believe you?"
"I'll take a test," Branch said.
He did, that afternoon. His system was clean. But Slaughter and Dull, remembering criticism the school had received the year before when Herman Veal continued to play after a student judicial board had found him guilty of harassing a female student, weren't going to wait for adjudication this time. They suspended Branch and Rivers, pending the outcome of the case.
"I thought for sure my season was over," Branch said. "Right then, though, it didn't seem to matter that much. Lefty told me he didn't want me around the team, that I was a bad influence. That hurt because I was the one who had given up the ball all year, I was the one who had tried to do what he had asked to become a more complete player and now he was saying I was a bad influence."
That was Monday. Tuesday, Branch was awakened by his mother. Carolyn Branch had gone to her oldest son's bedroom that morning and been unable to rouse him. Finally, he had mumbled something about taking too much medicine. Tommy Branch had been given medicine by his doctors to help him kick a drug habit. According to his mother, Tommy was so shocked and hurt by his younger brother's arrest and suspension that he took an overdose.
Carolyn and Adrian Branch got him to Prince George's Hospital. In the emergency room, Carolyn Branch asked a doctor what his worst fear was after he had examined Tommy. "Death," the doctor answered.
The next 10 days are a blur in the minds of the Branches. They prayed a lot, and Charles Branch kept reminding Adrian over and over, "It's the end that counts." Adrian remembers the words, but isn't sure he believed them then.
On Feb. 10, he and Rivers were tried in Prince George's County District Court. The basement courtroom was jammed with reporters, and Branch was sure he was going to go to jail. "Six months, I figured," he said. "I saw all the cameras outside, all the reporters inside. I heard what the people were saying. I knew I was going to jail. There was no doubt."
He and Rivers were found guilty of misdemeanor possession of $10 worth of marijuana. They each were fined $200 and sentenced to 30 hours of community service and six months of probation. Branch was stunned and hurt by the verdict.
"I had to leave through a back door," he said. "I couldn't face anyone. I was too upset. I went home and got in my car and drove around for a while. I felt spiteful. I had been thrown out of my dorm (by Driesell) and I had been given a label I didn't think I deserved. Legally, I was guilty because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, morally, I was not guilty.
"Finally, I decided to drive to the hospital and see my brother. I remember walking in there thinking people really didn't know what 'drug user' meant. Here I was given this label and here was my poor brother just trying to survive.
"We talked for a while, and I could see he was doing a lot better. He got out of bed and we went to play a game of Ping-Pong. He kept telling me he was pulling for me and he knew I was going to make it back and that he was going to make it back, too. For the first time, I cried. I cried because of what had happened, but also because seeing him up and fighting like that was my greatest joy.
"I went from my lowest moment to my happiest in less than an hour. Tommy was always my hero. If he told me I could make it back, I knew I could. I had to keep fighting."
Tommy Branch remembers Adrian's visit. "People who knew about my problem were making out like he had the same problem," he said. "That wasn't fair to Adrian. I wanted to help him in some way that day so I just told him, 'There's still hope for both of us. A lot of hope.'
"He always told me I was his hero, and I never really believed him or thought it was that important. That day, it was important to me. And to him."
Tommy Branch has been clean for a year now. He smiles easily and talks about his hopes for the future. So does his little brother.
While still at the hospital, Branch got a phone call from the chancellor's office. Could he come right over? Branch drove to campus. Slaughter said the school was willing to reinstate him to the team. Did he want to come back?
"I was still in another world while Dr. Slaughter was talking," Branch said. "I couldn't even think of an answer for about two minutes. Finally, I just whispered, 'That wouldn't be bad.' I thought he was going to say, 'Psyche' (fooled you), but he didn't."
After the meeting, Driesell and Branch talked. Driesell wanted him to be a leader again, to set a good example by working hard in practice. Branch was still angry at his coach. "I said to him, 'Coach, I have to know one thing: Do you think I use drugs?' He said he did at first but, after I passed the urinalysis and he checked with some people, he believed I didn't.
"I was still mad at him but when I came back, he treated me like an adult. I expected to run 6 a.m. miles the rest of the year or run the steps after practice because I had embarrassed the school. But he didn't do any of that. He just said quietly to me that I might want to stay after practice to work on fundamentals because I'd been away two weeks in midseason. I appreciated that. It built our relationship back up again."
Driesell doesn't like to talk about the affair. He will not discuss details and will say only this: "If Adrian hadn't passed the urinalysis, he would not have been allowed back on the team. He passed. The rest speaks for itself."
In terms of college, the end is near for Branch. At his father's urging, he worked hard all summer -- "I had to make up for a lot of time I wasted" -- to build himself up and get into the best shape of his life. He was a rail-thin 174 pounds as a freshman. Now, he is a slender 190 pounds. Along with Bias, he is the leader of this team, which has done better than most people expected, largely because of their play.
He will finish this semester two credits shy of his degree in General Studies but says he plans to go to summer school to finish before going to an NBA camp. He has seen too many contemporaries leave college with pro aspirations and return home, as he puts it, "to bag groceries."
People have noticed Branch's improvement. He finally has learned to play under control, rarely taking the bad shots he was famous for as a freshman. Some question whether he can be serious enough about anything, even basketball, to survive in the NBA. Others worry about his slender physique. Branch knows all about the question marks. He worries, too. But he is determined to work toward his goal.
"The NBA has always been my dream," he said last week, spooning vanilla ice cream off a plate. "I know I'm close to it and I think about it a lot. I worked hard this summer and now I feel like the hard work is paying off.
"I know when I leave Maryland, people will always remember that I got arrested for marijuana possession, but I hope when they look at the whole package, they'll think positive thoughts about me, whatever they may be.
"Sometimes I ask myself, 'How do you come through this with a smile on your face?' It can be done. I've learned, I've grown, I've changed. You have to change. If you don't grow up in college, when will you grow up?
"When I'm out there playing, I still always think the guy checking me is in trouble, that I'm gonna light him up. If he comes outside, I'll kill him with my dribble. If he lays off, I'll kill him with my jumper."
Branch's brown eyes were dancing now as he saw himself playing the game. "Ever since I used to miss those shots as a kid and get my brothers mad at me, I always wanted to be the guy trying the big shot, even if I missed it, I wanted to be the one to try it. I always wanted to think of myself as one of those guys who dares to be great.
"I've missed some, I've made some, but there's still more to come. It's still the end that counts."