By the time the coach had fetched his girlfriend from the airport, sat through traffic and finally reached the gym at the University of Maryland, his intramural team was winning by 26 points. This pleased the coach greatly. It meant his practice plan had worked. “It must be the walk-through we had earlier,” John Auslander said, smiling as he hurried toward the sideline.
Several hours before, on a Thursday afternoon in March, the student managers for the Maryland men’s basketball team, who constitute Auslander’s team, had gathered at Comcast Center to review their zone offense and install a few set plays. Any team Auslander coaches will be drilled to its utmost, regardless of the caliber of opponent or gravity of the situation. He has watched too much film and scribbled too many notes and devoured too many self-help books written by his idols to let it all waste away.
As a senior forward for the Terrapins, his playing career almost over, every moment offers practice for the future, when Auslander hopes his focus on these sorts of things lands him a job as a Division I head coach.
“I’m trying hard to keep myself from thinking about that too much,” he said. “It’s tough when you’re at your room, before bed, you think about one day what you’re going to do, one day where you’re going to be.”
Unless his team wins this week’s ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Auslander will become the first four-year Maryland player in 21 years to miss the NCAA tournament altogether. But over the years, Auslander has become a buffer between the players and the Terrapins’ coaching staff and a source of blunt instruction for anyone choosing to listen — or even for those who don’t.
“In situations,” teammate Spencer Barks said, “I think to myself, ‘What would John do?’ ”
It’s why Auslander, who has played a total of 22 minutes this season, prides himself on leading the scout team during practice. It’s why he spends games at the end of the bench, standing on almost every possession to bark instructions at teammates. It’s why he arrived at the intramural gym with a piece of loose-leaf paper folded into his pocket. It was covered in scribbles. While waiting at the airport, Auslander had designed some plays.
“You’ve never heard of E.F. Hutton?” Bill Auslander asked, somewhat incredulous. “You’ve got to YouTube E.F. Hutton.”
Here’s what you find: a grainy commercial from the 1970s. Two men sit on an airplane. One reads the stock report in the newspaper, then asks the other what his broker thinks. “Well,” the second man responds, “my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F. Hutton says . . . ” At this point, the entire cabin leans forward to hear the tip. A voice-over comes on: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”
Bill Auslander invoked this comparison from the living room of his Northern Virginia home to explain his proudest moment as John Auslander’s father. This is saying something because the bulky Maryland graduate came prepared, with two pages of proud stories to tell, front and back.
Here’s one: Three days before Maryland’s season opener against Connecticut in November, someone set a screen on Auslander, and the player whose man set the screen failed to warn him. Unaware, Auslander ran smack into the pick and got drilled. “You’ve got to talk,” Coach Mark Turgeon recalled Auslander saying. “How are you going to play Friday if you can’t talk?”
Turgeon loved it. Because he rarely plays, Auslander treats practices like games, both as a forward with a quick jump shot and a budding coach. This means helping anyone who makes a mistake. During games, his perch near the water cooler has become a rest stop for teammates exiting the game because they know he always has advice.
This summer, as Auslander recovered from tibia surgery, he watched the Terps play a pickup game. During a break, guard Dez Wells approached Auslander. “How’d that look, John?” he asked. Everyone stopped. The players turned around. “Screen better,” he replied.
“When John Auslander talks,” his father said, deepening his tone to mimic the voiceover, “people listen.”
Two hours before his final regular season game on Sunday, Auslander gazed into the upper reaches of Comcast Center, where his name and number hung for Senior Day. He was trying to make a calculation and, for once, didn’t know the answer on the spot.
Every road game, Auslander gets heckled by opposing fans for standing during Maryland’s defensive possessions. During a game at Alabama last season, some family friends sent Bill Auslander a picture of their courtside view. The entire frame was filled with John’s back.
So how many times, Auslander was asked, does he stand up and sit down on average per game.
“I would say it’s got to be in the 50s,” he said. “Maybe more? Hundreds? That’s a lot, man. That’s a lot of squats. Maybe that’s why my legs are so beat up all the time.”
Or maybe it’s because Auslander still trains like a freshman eager to crack the rotation, even as his playing career winds down. He lifts on days off. He watches film alone. He leads extra shooting sessions with teammates. The intramural games have taught him to keep cool during timeouts, to scribble plays on the dry-erase board so everyone can understand. He has begun the graduate school application process and should have a spot waiting on Turgeon’s staff, on the bottom rung of the ladder.
“Taking the vow of poverty for the next five years,” Auslander said.
So when the lights dimmed for pregame introductions, Auslander was there on the bench, sitting with his warmup jersey off and his head bowed, ready for his first college start. The building began to thump, louder and louder as Maryland’s underclassmen were announced, climaxing at the unsung forward who rarely plays but who everyone says has already made a lasting imprint on the program.
“And at forward,” the public-address announcer boomed, “a 6-7 senior from Herndon, Virginia . . . number 23 . . . ”
Then John Auslander stood up.