Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell stunned his resurgent basketball team yesterday by suspending all-America forward Len Bias and guards Jeff Baxter and John Johnson, among the Terrapins' most valuable players. The three were sent home from Raleigh, N.C., for breaking curfew, Driesell announced, calling the suspension "indefinite."
In Clemson, S.C., for today's game, Driesell would not say when the players might be back. "That's up to them," he said. "They'll come to me if they want to get back on the team."
In College Park, Athletic Director Dick Dull, who strongly supported Driesell's move, said the suspensions probably will last for today's game at Clemson and Monday's home game against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
Bias, the 10th-leading scorer in the nation and the Atlantic Coast Conference leader with an average of 23.1 points; Baxter, a senior starting guard, and Johnson, the freshman guard who has been first off the bench, were sent home at 7 a.m. yesterday following the Terrapins' upset victory Thursday night at North Carolina State. While the three flew home, the rest of the team bused to Clemson.
All three were instrumental in the Terrapins' 67-66 victory over the Wolfpack Thursday night, and Maryland (13-10, 3-6) stood a good chance of winning its third straight conference game over Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum (1:30 p.m.).
The three players were suspended for leaving the team's hotel, the Crabtree Ramada Inn in Raleigh, following the victory over N.C. State. The team returned to the hotel about 12:30 a.m. yesterday, and the three left shortly afterward to return to the N.C. State campus to visit friends, who sources said include members of the Wolfpack basketball team who are from the Washington area.
The players' absence was noticed by Driesell, who was walking along a corridor after bed check when he heard a phone continuously ringing in one of the players' rooms. Upon checking the room, he discovered he was missing at least that player. When the three returned to the hotel, driven by friends, Driesell and his assistant coaches were waiting up for them.
"It wasn't dawn when they returned ," Dull said, "but it was pretty late."
Sources said the players returned between 3 and 4 a.m.
Driesell said there was no indication that the players had broken any team rules other than the curfew rule.
"There was no evidence of wrongdoing, drinking or anything else," Driesell said. "They broke a team rule. They had visited their friends on campus and were driven back to the hotel by them. I do not want my players roaming around at that time of night and I'm sure their parents concur with this."
Dull said, "There's no need to read between the lines or try to inject something into the suspensions . . . There was no involvement with alcohol, no involvement with drugs, no involvement with women.
"The thing that's important to me is that curfews need to be satisfied, especially on the road in a strange city."
Driesell said that he met with the team captains prior to the season to agree on curfews. As seniors, Bias and Baxter had helped outline team rules.
Maryland has a 10 p.m. curfew the night before a game, 11 p.m. two nights before a game and midnight during the week when there is no game. There is usually no curfew following a weekend game at College Park. Thursday night's situation was unusual because of the 9 p.m. tipoff, but curfew normally would have been midnight, according to Dull. Since the team didn't arrive at the hotel until 12:30 a.m., it was understood the players were expected to stay there, Dull said.
"I don't feel for anyone who violates team rules," Driesell said. "Those are the team rules and you live by them. They made them up."
Bias could not be reached for comment, but Baxter said, "We just broke the curfew. We should not have done it. That's all. We were just in the excitement of the moment of victory ."
Johnson issued a "no comment" on the incident. Asked when he would meet with Driesell about the suspension, Johnson said, "I don't know."
Driesell last disciplined a player two seasons ago, when Adrian Branch and Steve Rivers were suspended after being charged with marijuana possession.
The current suspensions could not have come at a worse time for Driesell's team. The Terrapins have been beset by problems ranging from lineup changes to scoring problems all season and had lost eight of 10 games at one point before finally seeming to regroup in the past week.
They defeated Clemson at Cole Field House last Saturday, 78-69, and followed that with a victory over N.C. State. With five conference games remaining, including the rematch with Clemson, they need to win most of them if they are to remain in contention for an NCAA tournament bid.
That did not escape the notice of boosters. A source in the Maryland athletic department said the school was beseiged with calls from supporters and season-ticket holders yesterday, saying Driesell had hurt the team's chances of making the NCAA tournament by suspending Bias.
Driesell said he had no second thoughts about his decision, despite Maryland's recent successes.
"That has absolutely nothing to do with it," he said. "If we were playing for the national championship, it would be the same way."
Dull acknowledged the effect the trio's absence will have -- "Yes, it's going to compromise our competitiveness tomorrow" -- but he added, "I applaud Coach Driesell for standing on his principles."
The schedule is tough, with or without the three. Following the Clemson game, Maryland will return home to meet Maryland-Eastern Shore in its last nonconference game, then travel to No. 1 North Carolina in Chapel Hill and is host to No. 5 Georgia Tech in succession.
The loss of Bias alone is a big blow. He is expected to be one of the first seven players chosen in the National Basketball Association draft and has been the team leader. He had 21 points against North Carolina State, including seven of the Terrapins' last eight points of the game, and his two free throws with 1:26 remaining clinched the victory.
Baxter had been a sporadic starter before settling in permanently at shooting guard the previous four games. He has been instrumental in the Terrapins' resurgence, with a career-high 21 points against Clemson. He had five points and five assists against the Wolfpack.
Johnson, a 6-4 freshman, comes off the bench as an able backup to Baxter and Keith Gatlin.
Driesell held a meeting of coaches before practice yesterday to discuss his options, with his starting forward and guard absent. Tom (Speedy) Jones may start at second guard in place of Baxter, with freshman center Tony Massenburg at forward in Bias' position.
Driesell has made several lineup changes this season, but this is the first time he has had to replace Bias. He and Lewis are the only players who have held their positions for all 23 games.
Another option, Driesell said, would be to start David Dickerson or Greg Nared at second guard, with the 6-6 Jones moving to small forward. While both Dickerson and Nared have shown promise, they have seen limited playing time all season.