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8 Upper

Red, White, and True

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/17/2002

Triumph never gets old. It's April 11, 10 days after the Maryland Terrapins' victory in the NCAA men's basketball final, and City Hall Plaza is awash in clear noon sun, shining on red shirts and hats. The weather is flawless, the temperature in the low 60s.

There are, by rough count, something like a thousand people out here on the cobblestones--a full plaza's worth of people, packed loosely in the back and more densely up by the stage. They've turned out despite the week-and-a-half wait and the city's feeble publicity efforts. People heard about it in the morning and came on down. They've made cardboard signs by hand, slipped freshly bought Maryland T-shirts over work clothes.

Nobody is visibly liquored up; nobody is smashing or burning anything. In truth, despite the looting of a bike store on Route 1 and a scrum of TV cameras around a bonfire, the championship riots of College Park didn't live up to expectations. The greater hooliganism, it turned out, was wrought by the losers in Bloomington, Ind.

But the drunk midnight crowds in College Park, whatever they did, were reacting to a single moment of victory. By now, the thrill of the title game has subsided and spread out into steady gladness. What's left is the fact: The Maryland Terrapins are the 2001-2002 national champions. They always will be.

Already, the future is pressing in. No sooner was the title won last week than Byron Mouton was off to draft camp in Portsmouth, Va., trying to show pro scouts that he still has the old scoring touch from his Tulane days, to go with the relentless defense and pep that were his specialties at Maryland. Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon may be college MVPs--of the East region and the whole tournament, respectively--but now the NBA analysts are skeptically eyeballing their height and talking about second-round draft picks.

Before all the tomorrows, though, there's this day. Happy-sounding music booms on the PA; Maryland cheerleaders do happy routines. The crowd claps along. Placards with Dixon's uniform-number 3 on them hang in the windows of City Hall.

What more is there to say about Juan Dixon? I've watched the tape of the final game, winding back the good parts over and over. My new favorite play isn't the Dixon three-pointer that put Indiana behind for good, or his fadeaway that extended the lead. It comes later, in the end game. Dane Fife, Indiana's star defender, knocks Dixon to the floor in traffic--and Dixon bounces to his feet, gets the ball in the clear, and is fouled by a late-arriving Fife. The Hoosier is slack-jawed with dismay: How can this little guy keep going? And Dixon, stepping to the line, visibly chuckles. No one is going to stop him anymore.

Now, on the stage in front of the plaza, the players and coaches are being introduced. In the middle back of the crowd, a sturdy young boy, with the shape and complexion of a miniature Lonny Baxter, holds up a Jack Russell puppy so it can see. The puppy looks nonplussed.

The human part of the audience is fully tuned in. Strength coach (and former Terp) Kurtis Shultz gets a loud cheer. Assistant coach (and former team co-captain) Dave Dickerson, who advised Indiana how to knock off Duke, gets a loud cheer. Gary Williams gets pandemonium.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, wearing a red necktie, hams up his share of the announcements with gusto and disc-jockey flourishes; City Council President (and Juan Dixon's aunt) Sheila Dixon, wearing a red suit, mangles some of her share. Bombast and malaprops alike are beside the point: We know who the players are, and we know how we feel about them.

And here they are. Baxter, even now looking sheepish at the attention. Mouton, soaking in it. Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle, looming over the rest of the team. Little Andre Collins, carrying the championship plaque with the net draped over it, holding it aloft.

The celebration falters only when Chris Wilcox steps forward. "One more year!" the fans chant, holding up index fingers. It's impossible, really, to believe the pleas will be answered--not after we've been through this with Joe Smith and Steve Francis. You can find rumors that Wilcox will put off the pros and come back to play his junior season, and you can believe them if you want. But Indiana's Jared Jeffries has already declared for the draft, and Wilcox whipped Jeffries in the national final. Wilcox's game may still be half-baked, but the NBA seems ready to work with it. And who says no to the NBA?

Still, right now, he doesn't have to decide anything. He just stands, with his teammates, as the cheering rolls across the plaza. Saving the locals for last, Sheila Dixon and O'Malley bring out Earl Badu and his family--and then, finally, Juan Dixon and the relatives who raised him. The clapping and cheering crests at the sight of the skinny figure in a baggy shirt. The mayor steers him to the microphone, and he makes a few brief, polite remarks. A thousand faces are beaming at him. He steps back with the rest of the Terps.

The applause keeps coming. Dixon steps back to the mike. "One more year!" he chants. Wilcox squirms, and the crowd picks it up. Laughing, Dixon darts to the mike again. "Two more years!" The players start milling. Confetti explodes from above, little squares of red and white tissue. A few drift to the stones at my feet, and I grab them and tuck them in my shirt pocket.

Most of the confetti, though, stays hanging above the plaza, twirling and fluttering in the sunshine. Red and white squares fill the air. It seems, just now, that they might stay up forever.

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