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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Championship Memories Can Be Future Comfort


WASHINGTON — If you're a lifelong fan of a team, then, at least once, you absolutely positively want to win the biggest prize in your sport.

How long can you hang your hat on that one championship?

Forever, if need be.

Some masochists and puritan Red Sox fans might feel otherwise. But normal people, like Maryland Terrapin basketball fans, grasp the concept of closure. That's why Terps fans are in heaven this week. They finally have that championship glow.

After your team reaches its highest goal, you feel that intense tingle of satisfaction for days and sporadically for weeks. You had nothing to do with it. But it's yours. Who says nothing in life is free? Finally, on sweet unpredictable occasions, you find yourself grinning that private victory smile right up until the next season.

Years later, it still pops up. You see a middle-aged scout, like Kevin Grevey, in the stands at the Final Four. And you suddenly think of him throwing in southpaw jump shots from the left wing for the Bullets in the NBA Finals. You glimpse gray-haired Scott McGregor at an Oriole game and there he is, young again in your mind, shutting out the Phillies to win the World Series.

The sight, or the mention, of Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Coach Gary Williams will now bring those same clean, permanent recollections of joy--and of ourselves at another part of our life--to the mind's eyes of Maryland fans for the rest of their lives. Heck, the mention of Drew Nicholas or Ryan Randle might be enough.

Because I've lived in this area all my life, the phone has been ringing steadily this week with old friends who are Maryland fans. Telling, and retelling, the saga of your team's quest is part of the proper digestion process. You've got to nail it down just right.

For Wizards' fans, the year was 1978, when their team was still the Bullets. For Oriole fans, it was 1983, after the last-day-of-the-season heartbreak of 1982. For Georgetown basketball fans, the year that's circled in memory is 1984. But please, don't mention that shot in the finals by Michael Jordan in 1982 or a miracle team named Villanova in 1985.

Further back, before my memory begins, Maryland football fans still have Jim Tatum's title team in '51. Because the Senators will be back pretty soon (knock on wood), we can even throw in the '24 World Series, though it doesn't feel tangible now that the late Shirley Povich can no longer tell us about Bucky Harris.

Of course, Capitals fans are still waiting, that ultimate cheer stuck in their throats since 1974. Their visit to the Stanley Cup finals in '98 was an excellent adventure. But it's just not the same if you can't put the championship trophy in the lobby, to celebrate your title.

When Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes brought the NBA title to town 24 years ago, Washington hadn't had a world title in any pro sport since the Redskins won their second NFL title of the Sammy Baugh era in 1942--a 36-year wait.

Talk about a town that was ready to party. From Capital Centre to the District Building, every Bullet rode in the back of his own convertible, waving to fans who strung the streets for over 10 miles. There'd be hundreds of fans at an intersection in the middle of nowhere, waiting to cheer for one minute as Abe Pollin passed.

If feelings about Maryland's win on Monday seem unusually strong, perhaps it's because we've been in a mini-drought for titles since the Redskins won their third Super Bowl 11 years ago and D.C. United sunk two years ago after winning three MLS titles.

Jordan, Jaromir Jagr and Steve Spurrier have come here recently. However, Gary Williams--who played at Maryland, coached at American University for four years and has been back at Maryland for a dozen more seasons --is the first to get us back to the top. After his 20 years of good work here in local sports, plus 34 seasons of coaching, maybe he deserves it the most.

If Williams has had a long wait, so have countless Maryland fans, many of whom have invested their time and emotion over decades. "I saw some of the same faces tonight that I saw in the stands when I was a player," Williams said long after his team's 64-52 victory over Indiana. "We've had a core of fans who stuck with us through all the hard times. I'm especially happy for them."

From 1923 to 1953, Maryland was in the Southern Conference, then joined the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1953. The NCAA tournament crowned its first national champion in 1939. That's a lot of basketball over a lot of years--2,002 Maryland games in all. And that's a lot of frustration, especially because Maryland's been serious about having a great team since the day Lefty Driesell arrived in 1969, a third of a century ago.

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