WASHINGTON — Lefty Driesell was working hard, trying to recruit the most ballyhooed high school basketball player in the Western Hemisphere, 6-foot-10, 245-pound J.R. Reid, of Kempsville High in Virginia Beach, Va. But hard as he was working, massaging Reid's ego, assuring him that he was Maryland's prepaid ticket to glory, Driesell wasn't having much luck.
This was the evening of March 4--more than a month before the national letter-of-intent signing period was to begin--and Reid was ready to announce that he had finally chosen a school from his list of five finalists: Maryland, Virginia, Iowa, UCLA and North Carolina. In phone calls to the head coaches of the five schools, Reid's coach, Dick Ponti, revealed that J.R. had chosen--sound the trumpet, please--North Carolina.
Waving white flags, the coaches from Virginia, Iowa and UCLA bowed out of the race, wishing Reid luck. But the coach from Maryland was in no mood for such graciousness. Not only had he just lost the player he had dreamed would lead Maryland to its first NCAA basketball championship, he had been clobbered again by his Atlantic Coast Conference coaching nemesis, Dean Smith.
"When I phoned him, Coach Driesell asked me, 'Is J.R.'s decision definite?' " Ponti recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, coach, it's definite.' He said, 'Do you think there's a chance of J.R. changing his mind?' I said, 'Coach, I'll be honest with you. There really isn't.' "
But Driesell wasn't ready to surrender--and he made that clear in repeated phone calls to Reid and his parents.
"Coach Driesell told me, 'If you come to Maryland, you'll play 40 minutes a game, be all-America and step right into Len Bias' spot without any difficulties,' " Reid remembered. "He probably thought he could change my mind because he's done it before with other players. He said he'd stolen Tom McMillen from Carolina after Carolina had stolen Charlie Scott from him. And he said Carolina had stolen another player from him. So he said he was one down and hoping I'd come to Maryland."
Reid politely informed the coach that his decision was final. But Driesell pressed on. Maybe, he figured, he would get lucky.
"Getting down to signing time, Coach Driesell was saying anything to get me," Reid said. "At one point, he said there was nothing to do in Chapel Hill. He said the life style at Maryland is more to my liking and I'd be able to do more things, have more fun, enjoy my college life better at Maryland. I told him I wasn't from a big city, and big-city things might not be the best thing for me. Then he changed. He said, 'Well, if you don't want to hang out in the big city, you can always relax. But there are always a few clubs you can still go to. In Chapel Hill there's none of that.' I knew better because I had been to Chapel Hill."
Again, Reid told Driesell, "I'm going to North Carolina, and I'm not changing my mind." Again, Driesell persisted. "He was the only coach who wouldn't take 'no' for an answer," said J.R.'s father, Herman Reid. "But we expected that from Coach Driesell," said J.R.'s mother, Jean Reid. "He's a fighter." And for Driesell, the fight had only begun.
If Driesell's behavior seems a bit overbearing, a bit desperate, so be it: This is Lefty.
Understand this about Maryland's never-say-quit basketball coach: hard as he has worked, he has had little luck in attracting any world-beating big men to his campus in recent years. He has lost Ralph Sampson to Virginia, Chris Washburn to North Carolina State, Danny Manning to Kansas, to name a few, and now he was losing Reid, a player he had been romancing for more than three years.
Driesell hasn't signed--and kept--the top big man from a recruiting class since 1970, when McMillen opted for Maryland after first committing to North Carolina. Of course, that merely puts Driesell in the company of hundreds of other coaches. But with Driesell, expectations are higher, not only because he promised when he arrived at Maryland 17 years ago that he would build a dynasty similar to John Wooden's at UCLA, but because he is one of basketball's most colorful, resourceful and, certainly, accomplished recruiters.
Driesell has successfully recruited seven players who would eventually be selected in the first round of an NBA draft: McMillen, Len Elmore, John Lucas, Brad Davis, Buck Williams, Albert King and Bias, who died of cardiac arrest induced by cocaine use two days after the Boston Celtics made him the second choice in the 1986 draft. In his 26 years as a college coach--the first nine were at Davidson--he has compiled a 523-223 record, which ranks fourth for most victories among active NCAA Division I coaches. And he would have won even more games, no doubt, perhaps even a national championship, if Moses Malone, his finest recruit ever, hadn't signed a pro contract on the day he was to enroll for classes at Maryland.