When Maryland junior point guard Duane Simpkins was 12, his Washington, D.C., Boys Club team played a game at the Capital Centre. He doesn't remember much about the action on the court, but he does remember sidling up, wide-eyed and nervous, to Terrapin star Len Bias. "I mean, Len Bias," says Simpkins, still looking wide-eyed. "I just wanted to shake his hand. He was the thing."
When Simpkins's Maryland teammate Exree Hipp was 10, he and his friends used to push a long bench against the fence of a Congress Heights basketball court in southeast Washington and scramble up on it for a better look at Bias playing on the other side. "Man, the way Lenny used to dunk," says Hipp, a junior forward. "Everybody wanted to be Len Bias. Everybody wanted to go to Maryland."
And then came June 19, 1986, the day that Bias died from cocaine intoxication, only 40 hours after the Boston Celtics had made him the second pick in the NBA draft. Simpkins, Hipp and another current Terrapin starter, sophomore forward Keith Booth, all had the same reaction as they watched the television news stories about the tragedy: They cried their eyes out. "It felt like something was crushing me," says Booth, who was 11 at the time. Suddenly, no one wanted to be Len Bias. And no one wanted to go to Maryland.
It is against a backdrop of those memories that the Feb. 7 postgame scene at Maryland's Cole Field House must be juxtaposed. The delirious on-court celebration that followed the Terps' 86-73 win over North Carolina—Maryland's first victory over a No. 1 team in nine seasons, the last being a Bias-led triumph over the Tar Heels—seemed like nothing less than an exorcism. Few basketball programs have fallen as far and as fast and as ignominiously as Maryland's, and it follows that few have recovered so gracefully. The seventh-ranked Terps followed the Carolina victory with an 80-65 defeat of Florida State at Cole last Saturday and at week's end stood 19-4 and were tied with the Tar Heels atop the ACC standings at 9-2. That's rare air for Maryland, which has not had a winning league record since 1984-85 and was 2-14 in the league just two seasons ago, when Hipp, Simpkins and starting guard Johnny Rhodes were freshmen.
"The people who truly appreciate this win," said Terrapin coach Gary Williams after the game against the Tar Heels, "are the ones who were around during the dark times." Indeed, the victory continues a Maryland renaissance that started with a surprise trip to the Sweet 16 last season. Could it end at the Final Four in Seattle this year? Probably not. The Terps seem a little young (no seniors get much playing time) and a little small (the 6'5" Booth is their power forward) to go all the way. But they are a talented bunch, a balanced mixture of fire and ice that has galvanized the College Park campus and gone a long way to erase the memories of the dark era touched off by Bias's death.
The Terrapins have many sources of fuel—the persuasive and sometimes profane lungs of Williams and the lightning-quick extremities of Rhodes, the alltime Maryland steals leader, among them—but this is a team that gets by most of all on gallons and gallons of Joe. Sophomore center Joe Smith, the first Terp superstar since Bias, was not at his most impressive, believe it or not, on Dec. 10, when he scored 30 in an 85-74 loss to Massachusetts, or on Feb. 1, when he devastated Virginia with a 29-point, 21-rebound effort in a 71-62 win. No, to truly appreciate Smith one must see him when he's relatively bottled up, as he was by a collapsing North Carolina defense. A player of preternatural maturity, Smith never got rattled, never threw up a shot in frustration, never forced anything. He merely kicked the ball outside to the red-hot Simpkins and Rhodes and went to work on the boards, getting 16 rebounds, twice as many as the Tar Heels' formidable sophomore center, Rasheed Wallace.
The 6'10" Smith averages only 11.4 shots per game (he made 5 of 10 against Carolina, 7 of 14 against Florida State), a low total for someone in the select company of stars—Michigan State's Shawn Respert, North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse and Arizona's Damon Stoudamire are the others—deserving of player of the year consideration. Asked last week why he doesn't force more shots, Smith seemed genuinely confused by the question. "Why would I?" he said. Why indeed? The man's name is a metaphor for his personality.
Maryland's resurgence has turned a lot of attention toward Smith, and as one might expect of someone who thinks of himself as an average Joe, his celebrity is a mixed blessing. Much of the attention comes from agents who figure that Smith will leave Maryland after this season and be worth, oh, about $100 million to some NBA team. They mill around after games and try to make eye contact with Smith; they call his mother, Letha, at her home in Norfolk, Va.; they call Jack Baker, his old coach at Maury High in Norfolk; they call his dorm room. ("The agents all have the same I'm-not-like-the-other-guy pitch," says Williams, "and they're all exactly like the other guy.") Smith's defense against the agents is as formidable as his D on the court. He doesn't spend much time in idle conversation with them. He told his mother to change her number, which she did, and he never, ever picks up his own phone. "I let my answering machine do all the work," he says. His recorded message is rare evidence of his self-esteem: "This is the Beast from Norfolk," it says in his smooth gospel-singer baritone.
"I spend most of my time in my room," he says, "but I wouldn't call myself a prisoner. The one thing that bothers me is talking about whether I'm going to leave Maryland early. I don't know myself." One senses he's telling the truth. Despite his near hermit's existence, he's having a good time in college, and his low-key manner makes him popular with his teammates. "We get on him all the time, the way we do everyone else," says Rhodes. "But we all know he's the man."
The man who has overseen the brick-and-mortar part of Maryland's rebuilding job is Williams, whose hiring in June 1989 marked the beginning of the Terrapins' return to respectability. Lord knows he had a lot of work to do. Bias's death and the investigations that came with it brought about the forced resignation of Lefty Driesell, who had lost control of the program he ran for 17 years, and led to the hiring of Bob Wade, a career high school coach who was in way over his head. Maryland became a school for scandal, and, under the dark umbrella of an NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting and institutional violations, Wade was forced to resign after the 1988-89 season. Enter Williams, a onetime wonder-boy coach with a tightly wound demeanor on the sidelines but a squeaky-clean reputation. "It was the only job I would've left Ohio State for," says Williams, who played point guard for the Terps in the mid-'60s. "Then again, I didn't exactly know what I was getting into."