WASHINGTON — To look at his shoulders and at the way he plows through defenders for dunks, to see the expression that flashes across his face when an opponent tries to steal his rebound, you would have trouble believing Tony Massenburg was ever anything but a bull on the basketball court.
"When I was a freshman, I thought of myself more as a finesse player," the 230-pound Maryland forward said recently. "I played hard down low and I used what I had to the best of my ability. And I was sort of inexperienced."
That was two years ago, and a lot has happened since. Adding 20 pounds to his frame might be the least important happening. The focal point of change in Massenburg might have been the summer of 1986 when he, like the other Maryland Terrapins, had to deal with teammate Len Bias' death. Massenburg also learned he would not be playing the following season after being put on academic probation; it was reported he had copied answers on a final exam.
Massenburg would not comment on the charge or what he thought of the penalty, but he said that long summer was important for him.
"I look back at it now as a summer where Tony Massenburg really did some serious growing up," Massenburg said. "More mentally than physically. It's not easy to deal with adversity, but when you learn to deal with adversity, it makes you a stronger person.
"That summer was a turning point in my life. I could've said, 'This is it. I'm not doing this anymore. Somebody is out to get me.' But that's not what I did. I kept striving. I knew that somewhere down the line, there would be a rainbow at the end of all of this."
When Massenburg returned to the Terrapins' active roster on Dec. 28-after 20 months of being out of uniform-he scored a career-high 25 points and showed he would be a crucial component in this season's Maryland team.
Massenburg has started all five of the Terrapins' games since his reinstatement-of which Maryland has won four-and he probably will start Thursday night against North Carolina. He is tied for the team lead in scoring (15.8 points per game) and rebounding (9.2 per game). Though his 25-point blitz of South Carolina in his debut might have been surprising, those who have watched Massenburg practice this fall aren't surprised he has scored in double figures every game and had double-figure rebound totals in the last three.
"Tony Massenburg is the master of disaster," teammate Mitch Kasoff said affectionately on the first day of practice.
"I'm not surprised because he's practiced extremely well," Coach Bob Wade said. "And I'm not surprised how the team has taken to him and gravitated to him. He showed in practice, day in and day out, that he would be a tremendous force in our program."
Although he was eligible under Maryland and NCAA requirements, Massenburg didn't play until December because athletic department officials wanted to make sure he was on solid ground academically. Keith Gatlin and Rodney Walker also had practice and playing restrictions placed on them.
"The academic counselor (John Bowman) made the initial recommendation," Athletic Director Lew Perkins said of an August meeting that included him, Wade and Bowman. "Then we all sat down and talked. We looked at each kid individually and decided what was best for the kid and what was best for the program. Bob was totally involved and very supportive."
Massenburg apparently worked hard in class to regain his roster spot.
"Tony impressed me as a person who put forth tremendous effort and showed tremendous patience in getting his academic work done," said associate athletic director Gerry Gurney, who directs the academic support unit. "My only hope is that he will continue to pay attention to his work as he has in the past. I believe that if a student-athlete can just devote half the discipline they exhibit on the court to their academic work, they will be more than successful."
Massenburg said he is majoring in government.
"Right now, that's about the only thing I'm interested in. Who knows? Some day I might want to be a lawyer. And I'll sue you guys," said Massenburg, who then paused and finally smiled. "I'm just kidding."
The first semester restriction meant more waiting for Massenburg, but he already was accustomed to that.
"It was kind of strange, but I adjusted to it quickly," Massenburg said of the 1986-87 season in which he could not practice or play. "My day wasn't that far off from what it had been. I used to work out after class, so when the guys were in here, I would be working out at the weight room or playing pickup games. So it wasn't that much different than it is now."
Wade said Massenburg came to the basketball office a few times a week and that he would receive a report from Maryland's strength and conditioning coach, Frank Costello.