My friend Lynn, a 100-pound spitfire who sits to my right at every home game, is tugging at her hair while in a crash position, appearing as if she's ready for a head-on collision on the Beltway. With each rant by my fellow fans in the stands and each mistake by the Terps on the court, I can feel all my muscles tightening up. My jaw is clenched so tight that I'm ready to run over to the Terps huddle and pull a Gary, berating the bench. As one of the more vocal members of my section, I yell out, "Come on you guys! Step it up! Let's get a good shot!" I believe, no matter how improbable and absurd, that my cheering and yelling can actually help the team.
It's at that point that something happened that I view as the turning point in Maryland sports history. It began as a faint murmur from a couple sections over to my left. Initially, I thought it was a Mouton cheer: "Moooooooooooo" Yet Byron wasn't on the court. Before my brain could process what was happening, a smattering of boos resonated throughout the arena. A Maryland turnover later, and the intensity of the booing increased. No longer were the boos emanating from a handful of overly negative fans that every team has, but a chorus of the ugliest sounds ever heard in this glorious building broke out, almost as if there were a conductor present. And as the halftime horn sounded, an even louder noise erupted, which although it may have only come from several hundred, to me seemed like it was from the entire crowd. It was as if decades of frustration had built up in Cole and the final blow that ignited the eruption was that fateful halftime horn.
Now many of the people who booed that night will undoubtedly state they did so in complete and utter frustration. That's if you could actually find someone who would admit they participated. They will say that it was their only recourse, that the first half was so unbearably painful because it served as a reminder of past failures. Three decades of heartbreak coming to a head that night. For some it was flashbacks from the UCLA game in 2000 and the St. John's game in 1999. For others it was the NC State games of the '73 and '74 seasons or Ralph Sampson rebounding his own missed free throw and hitting a two pointer in the lane in the early 80s. And for everyone who calls themselves a Terps fan, it was the vivid memory of the ultimate nightmare, the Duke game.
For many, the experience of the Duke loss a few weeks earlier was so agonizing, so disappointing, that it destroyed their last shred of hope. One friend told me that he felt like his dog had died. Another was so mad, he couldn't even talk; steam was literally flowing from his 230-pound frame as we exited onto Campus Drive. As for me, I was in a state of shock. Perhaps I was in denial. Was that just a dream or did that really happen? If it weren't for ESPN Classic, I'm not sure I would be able to distinguish between the two. Perhaps after years of therapy, I might be able to move on. Well, as long as my shrink wasn't a Dukie, that is. One thing was clear, Cole was surreal on that January night, and by the time Florida State came to town a few weeks later, no one had forgotten. Not the fans, not the players, not the coach.
The suffering that Terps fans have experienced, however, does not excuse booing your own team, the very team that you go to support year in and year out. On a day that celebrates love, we had committed the ultimate sin that a fan base could. We actually cheered against our team and Gary. At a moment when we could have stepped up and demonstrated our support and perhaps helped to rejuvenate the team, we failed miserably. We felt sorry for ourselves. "Why us?" we thought. Why do the Terps always have to tempt us with their potential, deceive us with an amazing performance, and then disappoint us over and over again? It's tough being a Terps fan. We needed to blame someone and Duke wasn't there that night. So we took it out on the coaches and the players. And boy did they hear us loud and clear. Once the game finally ended and after the NIT chants had subsided, it was Gary's turn to speak. After all he had done for the school and the program, he was genuinely hurt by what transpired that night from his fellow alumni. You could hear it in his voice in the post-game show and in successive interviews over the next week. I even quipped to one of my buddies that I wouldn't be surprised if Gary decided to leave. Thank God I was wrong.
At one point, when he was alone in his office, I can picture him reflecting and questioning if it was all worth it. For the ultimate competitor, who wanted to win more for his alma mater, more than anyone present in the building that night, it was a bitter pill to swallow. His Terrapin family had turned against him.
For the first time in my life, I was not proud to be a Terps fan. One characteristic of Terps fans that had always given me a sense of pride was that we were loyal. We had a particular disdain for fair-weather or bandwagon fans. I remember a conversation I had with a Duke fan who couldn't understand why I would put so much energy into rooting for the Terps when they had never won anything. I told her I didn't care if Duke won 10 championships in a row and the Terps were last in the ACC, I would still cheer for them. Being a fan (and an alumnus) of a team, a program, and a university is a lot more than how many championships you win. It's about taking pride in what the place stands for-education, teamwork, passion, hard work, fun, heart, competitiveness, and fairness.
The team used the Florida State game as a turning point. They refocused and rallied. Gary did a masterful job and the guys stepped up and were determined to succeed. I believe that Terps fans did the same thing. Not only did the team hit rock bottom that night, but also so did the fans. Perhaps the team's success that we've been fortunate enough to enjoy over the past 14 months has made it easier on us. But let's not forget where we've come from. Next year, if we struggle at times, lets show that we've learned to be patient and supportive no matter what the outcome. We're lucky to be Terps fans. Where else can you find such a knowledgeable, passionate, and genuine fan base? We're real people and we can admit when we've been wrong. We're not perfect, but we don't claim to be. But thanks to coach and our hoops team, we now can believe anything is possible. We expect to win, but can accept it if we lose. Gone are the conspiracy theories and the bitterness.
Bye-bye Red Sox fans, you're on your own now. Thanks Gary.