Twenty years ago on the Sligo Creek asphalt in Silver Spring, basketball raged as much as banter: Georgetown or Maryland, Big John or Lefty, Big East or ACC, Patrick or anybody. In 1984, Maryland won the ACC tournament; Georgetown won the national championship.
Before teenagers wore jerseys as emblems of allegiance, pickup games, as D.C. native Kevin Nickelberry remembered, offered the chance to debate the hoops question of the era: Which team was better? When Nickelberry stayed with his dad in Maryland, he rooted for Terrapins star Len Bias. When he stayed with his mom in D.C., he cheered for Hoyas all-American Patrick Ewing.
"How often does that happen, when you have two teams that successful so close?" said Nickelberry, now a Clemson assistant coach. "That was our Tobacco Road."
That is now history. Coaches retire, new powers emerge and the national college basketball landscape changes considerably in two decades. As the season begins this week when George Mason and others tip off, three teams from distinguished conferences join the Patriots as integral parts of the area scene, although each program is at a different developmental stage and the interconference rivalries pale next to those of the 1980s.
Maryland is a Final Four contender despite being picked by the media to finish sixth in the ACC. Georgetown is rebuilding under first-year coach John Thompson III, the son of the John Thompson who lifted the Hoyas to prominence more than two decades ago. George Washington, yet unproven, has all five starters back and was picked to win the West Division of the Atlantic 10, which last season included two teams, Xavier and Saint Joseph's, that reached the NCAA tournament's regional finals. While George Mason remains in a league, the Colonial Athletic Association, in which only the tournament champion will get an NCAA bid, the Patriots will get a chance to establish themselves locally and nationally during their first appearance in the BB&T Classic, at which Maryland and George Washington are annual staples.
No one denies that a rekindled local rivalry would benefit each program, specifically in recruiting. But Georgetown, picked to finish 11th in the 12-team Big East, and George Washington, hungry for its first 20-win season since 1998-99, have more immediate concerns.
"I have a great sense of tradition and Georgetown's place in the Big East," Thompson said at Big East media day. "That being said, you can't drive yourself crazy if you start thinking big picture. What's important to our team and our program is that we improve. If you start trying to compare and contrast that group of guys that I have now with 1984 Georgetown, you may drive yourself crazy."
George Washington Coach Karl Hobbs played down the preseason magazines touting his team as a national sleeper, calling it "speculation." He said his program has not proven itself to be considered with Xavier, Dayton or Saint Joe's, much less with the team from College Park that won the 2002 national title. "You can't talk about us in the same sentence," he said.
Added George Washington senior T.J. Thompson: "It was mostly all Georgetown and Maryland in the past. It's nice to see people talking about us. But we have to give them a reason to talk about us."
Coaches and players pinpoint several changes on the national scene in the past 20 years that had local ramifications. Rice Coach Willis Wilson, who grew up in the Washington area, remembers a time when all the local talent stayed in the summer to play pickup games, fostering competitive rivalries that never aired on television. Counselor games at Maryland would be must-play events. Washington native Adrian Dantley would show, Wilson said, as well as other NBA stars.
Now, opportunities exist all over the country for players to find similar competition during the offseason. Maryland's John Gilchrist said he and several other ACC standouts competed in Santa Barbara, Calif., this past summer against Michael Jordan. North Carolina's Raymond Felton competed against top-flight college players from around the country at a high school all-American camp near Atlanta.
Not only that, "the best local talent used to stay home," Wilson said. "All the D.C. talent was split between Maryland and Georgetown. I don't think that happens now."
Hobbs, however, acknowledged that the primary goal of local high school standouts is still to suit up for Maryland or Georgetown, two teams rich in history and which compete in two of the country's most formidable conferences.
Two ACC teams -- Duke and Georgia Tech -- made the Final Four last season, and three teams are among the nation's top four in the preseason coaches' poll. The past two national champions, Syracuse and U-Conn., play in the Big East, which next season adds Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette, three teams whose coaches all have Final Four experience.
"Players, deep down in their hearts, they want to go to Maryland, as well as Georgetown," Hobbs said. "As well they should. We'd like to get our program to the point where kids say, 'I'd like to go to GW.' "
Players on George Washington and Maryland said they specifically remember watching Allen Iverson play two seasons at Georgetown in the mid-1990s. Now, a player of Iverson's high school renown often believes he is good enough to skip college altogether and enter the NBA draft straight from high school. That has fueled more parity and, in turn, allowed schools from less prestigious conferences to have more success with four-year players.
"Everyone wanted to go there [Georgetown] when they were younger," said George Washington's Ricky Lucas, a native of Herndon. "But there's a lot of other schools out there. . . . We want to establish ourselves so there is no question if we were in the shadow."
Maryland Coach Gary Williams believes the incomparable strength of this season's ACC, particularly with the conference tournament at MCI Center, will generate local excitement that rivals only that of the 1985 Big East season, when three teams, Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's, made the Final Four.
"I'd say that was the only year that approached this year in the ACC," said Williams, later adding, "It wears you down as a coach. But where would you rather coach?"