The scene in "The Right Stuff" that we're focusing on occurs just after Gus Grissom makes his suborbital flight, becoming the second U.S. astronaut in space. As you remember, Alan Shepard was first, and had been welcomed home with pomp and ceremony, including a regal White House dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Kennedy. But Grissom, who successfully flew the same route -- even though his splashdown was a tad dicey -- gets none of the same celebration. Instead of a trip to Washington, the Grissoms get a motel room in Florida; instead of a dinner at the White House, they get a refrigerator full of cold cuts and beer; instead of a full orchestra, they get a high school band. Crestfallen, Grissom's wife asks in a pathetic whimper, "No Jackie?"
Flawed landing and all, Grissom was a hero; he had the right stuff.
But his timing was bad.
So he wasn't the winner Shepard was before him, or John Glenn after him.
Some people, no matter how much vacation time they've saved up and how much lotion they've bought, just aren't meant to walk in the sun.
On Wednesday night, as a lusty home crowd looked down, Maryland failed in its second straight try to give its coach his 500th career collegiate victory. First Duke, Driesell's alma mater, now North Carolina with Coach Dean Smith, Driesell's nemesis, have denied Driesell his just deserts.
On Sunday at Clemson, Driesell will try to avoid the hat trick.
Should the Terrapins lose, then next Tuesday at Georgia Tech, Driesell will go for it a fourth time.
At worst, the clouds should break next Thursday, when Maryland plays at home against Towson State. But if Driesell were to beat Towson State for No. 500, it would be an ignominious occasion, evoking the notion of a millstone rather than a milestone. Driesell, who has already had to suffer more harsh caricature than is reasonable for a coach with a lifetime winning percentage of .710, would get yet another dose. His detractors would dismiss him as a bozo who could turn 500 victories into a moral defeat, and even his supporters would have to concede -- if they kept the champagne chilled any longer, it would have frozen.
The man is star crossed.
And over the years, by dint of physical mannerisms that seem to borrow from Rodney Dangerfield and Joe Cocker, by a personal style marked by his excesses, his outrages, and, yes, his charisma, Driesell has become such a lightning-rod personality in this area that people have come to think of him as the Maryland basketball program. Half the people out there say that Maryland wins because of him; the others say Maryland wins in spite of him. It is as if the players have nothing to do with it. Lefty, only Lefty.
So, when on Wednesday night, with 7:23 to play, with Maryland leading North Carolina by one, with the ball, with the momentum, with the place in an uproar, Driesell called a timeout, people looked at that single act, that tiny dot on the mural of his career, as the most important move he'd ever made.
If Maryland had, as Driesell wanted, come back onto the floor, taken a good shot, made it, and gone on to victory, he would have been hailed a hero.
If Maryland had, contrary to Driesell's instructions, come back out, taken a bad shot, made it, and gone on to victory, Driesell would have been hailed a hero.
Maryland came out, took an open shot, missed it, and went on to lose.
So everyone says: Lefty blew it. Dean outcoached him again.
Let's be fair. It's easy to deal with turning points, so even if they don't happen, people invent them. It may well have been a bad timeout; at the least, it was an interesting timeout. But Driesell's in a no-win with Smith. El Deano owns him, 30-8 lifetime. Their reputations are so rigidly cast by now that even if Driesell were to win six in a row over Smith, most people would simply chalk it up to the law of averages.
It would have been nice, it would have been poetic in its way had Driesell gotten his 500th victory at home against Carolina and Smith.
But there is karma to consider.
And Shepard. And Grissom.
Driesell has 499 victories. A wide load. Only 16 coaches have won more in the history of college basketball. Only six of those coaches are active, and of them only Smith has a higher lifetime winning percentage.
Yet with all that on his side, after the game, Driesell was asked this: "Do you consider it a major career disappointment not to get 500 against Carolina?"
Driesell was so angry his whole head turned the color of blood. Glaring at the man, he said, "Naw, man, what in the hell are you talking about? You gotta be nuts."
More than a few coaches, including some who have been to the White House, would have bolted then and there. But Driesell stayed, and within a couple of minutes, launched into a wild monologue about No. 500 that ought to wind up on a T-shirt: "Hey, I told you what, I don't care about 500. So please don't bring it up. Would you do me a favor, all right? I don't care about 500, man. I feel like a DAWG right now, like I ain't never won a game, so I ain't worried about FAHV-hundred, I'm just worried about beatin' Clemson. Mr. Dull ain't gonna give me no RAISE for winnin' 500. They ain't gonna give me no HOUSE. No car. If they were, then I'd wanna win 500. But I don't think I'm gonna get anything extra -- do you? Hey, I ain't heard no RUMORS about it. So if they tell me that, then I'll really get after it. Otherwise, it's just another ball game."
Driesell paused for breath, and someone called out, "You need incentive?"
Driesell smiled, cracking the thick ice of anger he'd been skating on, and said, "Yeah, I need some incentive. Go start some RUMORS."
On his way out, Driesell was asked if the gym had seemed particularly warm tonight. "Extremely hot," he said. "It was hot against Georgia Tech, too. Maybe that's why we're losin'."
Lefty got an idea: "Next time we'll open the damned windows."