When I stepped off the court on March 4, 1994, I was determined to put my University of Maryland Baltimore County basketball experience behind me. The season (we finished 6-21) and my performance as a Division I athlete had been major disappointments. For most of the next 22 years, I dreaded and often deflected the inevitable questions (which come daily) about my basketball history. Most of that stemmed from my own failed athletic dreams. But UMBC’s performance on the court — 17 losing seasons in that time span — had given me little cause for alumni pride.
Last season, under new head coach Ryan Odom, however, I felt a sudden shift. I received an email from the team about their early-season winning record and was invited to attend a game on campus. My wife and two young sons came along for an alumni day event in which about a dozen former players and I were honored at halftime. When I returned home to North Carolina, I spent a half-day digging out old media guides buried under piles of junk and later got a few photographs framed. For the first time in many years, I began to feel good about my basketball stint at UMBC.
Still, I couldn’t have imagined what would take place this year. By March, I expected another good season to come to an end in the championship game of the America East Conference against Vermont, a team UMBC had lost to in 23 consecutive attempts. But then star guard Jairus Lyles hit a game-winning basket to send the Retrievers to the NCAA tournament. That would surely be the high note, I thought. Especially when I saw they’d been paired against the University of Virginia, the top overall tournament seed, which had beaten the University of North Carolina (twice), Duke (at Cameron Indoor Stadium) and virtually everyone else in their path all season.
Instead, of course, UMBC made history this past weekend, becoming the first 16-seed ever to beat a 1-seed in the men’s tournament — a feat many in the college basketball world said would never happen. Seated just a few rows away from the court, I found myself more enthralled than I’d ever been at a basketball game — even those in which I played. Overnight, famous people on major networks I’d watched for more than a decade started talking about the Retrievers. And as a former player there, it felt as if, in some small way, they were talking about me and my former teammates, too.
What will this mean for UMBC moving forward? It’s easy to imagine that a higher profile will lead to more revenue and a greater number of applications from around the country. While those are welcome developments, I deeply hope that UMBC can retain the spirit that brought me to its campus more than 25 years ago.
As a high school senior in the early 1990s, I had a lot of good options. I’d been recruited for basketball scholarships at a handful of mid-tier Division I programs. But as a student in a science and technology magnet program, I didn’t want my college choice to be so completely tied to basketball. I thought about Harvard, Penn and the Division III Johns Hopkins. I also considered both UVA and the University of Maryland with the idea of attempting to join one of those teams as a walk-on player.
Enter Freeman Hrabowski, vice president of UMBC at the time and its president since 1992. He spearheaded the then-nascent Meyerhoff Scholarship Program that, in its earliest form, sought to increase the number of African American students in STEM professions. During a visit to my high school to meet with several potential prospects, Hrabowski impressed me with his vision of what we could achieve in college and beyond. I’d grown up in a modest all-black neighborhood and saw the success of African American professionals as largely beyond my grasp. Hrabowski made it seem reachable. Yet he also voiced his support for me to pursue basketball, as I had been recruited by UMBC’s coaching staff. No other school offered this three-dimensional investment in me as an individual.
The decision turned out great. I found myself among a group of high-achieving African Americans (UMBC has been known for producing more African American MD-PhD students than any other undergrad school) and my ambition grew. I eventually earned a scholarship to Duke University School of Medicine, then later graduated from Yale Law School. More recently, I’ve written a memoir about race and medicine that reached the New York Times bestseller list. That’s just me. Several of my colleagues from UMBC and the Meyerhoff Program have had equal success or scaled greater heights.
So while I love that UMBC has become a household name over the past week, I would hate for basketball to completely overshadow the school’s achievements in other areas. Beyond the Meyerhoff program, UMBC has had a dominant run as the best chess program in America, winning numerous national titles. This year, a UMBC student was chosen as a Rhodes Scholar for the first time ever.
But maybe UMBC can find success in the classroom and on the court, as Hrabowski envisioned for me as a high school senior. That will allow me to truly savor Friday night’s experience of witnessing in person the UMBC-UVA game that will be talked about for long as the NCAA tournament exists. I’ve come to accept and be proud of the fact that my time as a student-athlete at UMBC will always be integral to my life. For a weekend, I got to share that joy with the rest of America.