Saturday night at Pop’s restaurant in Durham. We’re almost done killing time over a leisurely dinner in the bar while our sixth-grader celebrates one of the many rites of passage heading his way in the next few years: a school social.
As the coffee arrives, my Terrapins struggle on the screen over the bartender’s head, their Final Four dreams fading at the hands of the Syracuse Orangemen.
The broadcast vacillates, maddeningly, between the simultaneous nail-biting finales of the Maryland/Syracuse heartbreaker and the Stanford/Alabama upset as a small crowd of diners ooze out of their seats in the more civilized section of the restaurant and coalesce over my shoulder. While the Terps struggle for breath and the almost-undefeated Stanford players grab their ears in disbelief, we all chat with the ease of strangers in bars. Ten years in this Tar Heel-Blue Devil-Wolfpack corner of the world have made me wary of cheering for my alma mater in public places, so I’m startled to learn that my compatriots are all pulling for my team.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a diehard basketball fan, though living in the Triangle has given me a healthy appreciation of the way the world stops for some people and workplaces on certain days each March. Cold beer on a hot summer day at the Durham Bulls is much more my style.
But I have to admit that Maryland basketball touches a soft spot. Len Bias died at the end of my first year in College Park, and our sports programs fell into a funk that lasted long after I graduated. Lenny was a U. of Md. icon, a (very tall) walking success story. We celebrated the promise of his fame and glory in the NBA as if we had personally achieved it. He dated a woman who lived two doors down from me in my dorm, and his appearance in the hallway never failed to draw a crowd of female groupies charmed by his Magic Johnson smile and soft-spoken flirtations. When he died of a drug overdose, successful Maryland sports died with him, for a while. The basketball and football coaches left. The teams all tanked. The student section of the bleachers seemed quieter at every sport. I felt robbed of some quintessential college experience, of my chance to be a Cameron Crazy, of camping in line for tickets to the NCAA championship.
But the Terps are back in the game now, no more so than two years ago, when they took the national basketball title and I actually saw Coach Gary Williams smile for the first time, ever.
Just a little over a week ago, the guys I’m standing with in the bar were all rooting for their own teams in the battle against Maryland for the ACC title. (The Terps came out on top of that one for the first time in more than 40 years, drawing another historic grin from our coach.)
But now we all stand united under one acronym, representing, among our small crowd, at least one graduate of almost every ACC school. We all heave a collective sigh as the buzzer sounds, 72-70, Syracuse. March is fading fast for all our teams. Soon, it will be baseball season.