You have to a be romantic to find much good in the smoking heap of the University of Maryland's athletic fortunes right now, but every day Keith Gatlin rallies "the fellas" in a darkened Cole Field House, where a few sentimentalists still play basketball.
Maryland's uncertain expectations for next year rest on a handful of sophomores and juniors, four incoming freshmen and one lonesome senior who sighs a lot, Gatlin. The Terrapins don't know if two key players, senior Terry Long and sophomore David Gregg, will be able to return in light of their indictment Friday on charges of cocaine possession and obstruction of justice. The charges came out of a Prince George's County grand jury investigation into the death June 19 of last season's star, Len Bias.
Even before the indictments, signs began appearing that Coach Lefty Driesell was putting distance between Long and Gregg and the rest of the team. For example, neither participated in the daily pickup games at Cole Field House last week, said two sources close to the team.
Neither Long nor Gregg was available for comment. Attorney Alan Goldstein, asked if they still hoped to return to the team, said "absolutely."
"We really haven't talked to them about it," one player said. "If Len were here, he'd say what happened. He'd say it was a mistake and it's over."
Driesell was unavailable for comment.
The futures of Long and Gregg also depend on their academic performances. Both need to pass two courses in the second semester of summer school to remain eligible. Long also is awaiting a decision by a faculty review committee for reinstatement to the university this fall.
A high-ranking university official said after the indictments were handed down that Athletic Director Dick Dull was likely to recommend that Long and Gregg be suspended from the team but remain on scholarship pending the outcome of criminal charges. Chancellor John B. Slaughter said he would meet with Dull Monday "to decide what action we'll take."
Goldstein said the grand jury investigation has had a telling effect on his clients.
"Imagine yourself in their position," he said. "When I was in college I had trouble just being in love and staying eligible at the same time. I imagine the kind of life they've been leading in the public eye would take its toll."
Losing Long and Gregg could make what started out as a rebuilding year into a seemingly hopeless one. In addition, sophomore center Tony Massenberg has been suspended from the team for one year for cheating on a final exam.
That leaves the Terrapins with only one sure player in the front court, junior Derrick Lewis. In the back court, there is Gatlin and sophomore John Johnson, Bias' former roommate who was the sixth man as a freshman and should become a starter at shooting guard. Beyond them is an array of underclassmen including sophomores Phil Nevin, Greg Nared and David Dickerson.
The Terrapins will rely on four incoming freshmen -- Steve Hood, a 6-foot-6 swing man from DeMatha; Mark Karver, a 6-7 forward from Bethesda-Chevy Chase; Teyon McCoy, a 6-1 guard from Indiana, and Andre Reyes, a 6-11 center from South Carolina. All have been participating in pickup games with the rest of the team.
Hood and McCoy have the best chances of contributing right away. Reyes has been highly touted, but he lacks strength, and it is uncertain whether he can become a factor.
"I still feel good about my decision," Hood said. "Next year we'll be pretty young, but in time we can be pretty good. All the things that have happened may give us incentive to play well. We'll do it for Len."
The Terrapins, who finished last season 17-12, already have dedicated next season to Bias, who yesterday was named the Atlantic Coast Conference's athlete of the year. But university officials are concerned about the emotional state of the team. One sophomore player has visited Bias' grave every day, said an athletic department official.
"The thing they've always had going for them is that even when they've lost they've been able to pull themselves out," Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You don't know if these other events will errode that."
The Terrapins' confidence won't be helped by the fact that they are sure to endure more than the usual amount of abuse from fans, particularly in the notorious arenas of Duke and Georgia Tech.
"Can you imagine Duke?" Gatlin said. "But maybe people will take us lightly. They'll say Maryland is on drugs or whatever, and we'll sneak up on them."
It would not be smart to discount the ability of Driesell, who is widely thought to do some of his best work when he has little hope. But Driesell faces a difficult time with State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall questioning his meeting with players immediately after Bias' death.
Even brilliant coaching may not make up for the effect it all has had on Maryland's recruiting, especially for a coach who has built his reputation as a good recruiter on two things: the integrity of his program and close monitoring of his players.
"But schools and people are resilient, so it's difficult to say what the effect will be," American University basketball coach Ed Tapscott said. "I can't imagine that it will help. Will there be a brief period in which they suffer? Probably. After that, who knows?"
Slaughter would like to think Maryland already has turned the corner. "We're going to recruit kids who understand the importance of a solid academic program," he said. "We'll do whatever things that are necessary to see to it that they have a full opportunity to succeed academically.
"As we've said before, we've got an opportunity to strengthen, and we're going to take full advantage of that opportunity."
Task forces on academics and drugs are at work now, and Maryland already has plans to revamp its drug testing procedures. Among area coaches, there is a sentiment that it could have occurred at any number of schools, including their own.
"I think most people who really know the situation also know that it could have happened to any one of us," said Virginia basketball coach Terry Holland, a former Driesell player and assistant. That idea was reinforced when three players on last season's Virginia football team were charged last week with conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
"Any program can have problems," Dull said. "It's the way those institutions deal with those problems once they find them. I think that's what's critical, and I think that's what people are going to judge our program by."