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8 Upper

Team Player

By Tom Scocca | Posted 11/14/2001

Suddenly, Terence Morris looks valuable again. When Morris finished his University of Maryland career and departed for the lower reaches of the NBA draft, the college hoops world instantly forgot about him. What was he? A flash in the pan, a soft power forward who sank from preseason Player of the Year candidate to postseason nobody while Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter led the Terrapins to the Final Four.

That was the story. Morris was settling in as a practice body in the pros this fall. The Terrapins, with all four other starters returning, were entering the season ranked No. 2 by the Associated Press and No. 3 by ESPN/USA Today. So. On Nov. 8, with the score 0-0 in the season opener against Arizona, Dixon flipped the ball to Morris' replacement, sophomore Chris Wilcox. Wilcox took off from somewhere near the free-throw line, like a Roman candle: whizzzzz . . . BOOM! Spectacular throw-down. Terps 2, Wildcats 0. The Golden Age of Maryland Basketball was nigh.

And 20 minutes later, the Golden Age of Maryland Basketball was pretty much over. Unranked Arizona--which had lost four starters from its own Final Four team--got the feel of the Terps, dug in, and started outplaying them. The Wildcats squeezed out the bigger Maryland players on the glass, grabbed errant passes, sneaked behind the defense for easy baskets. After a few cosmetic scoring flurries from the Terps, Arizona gradually edged ahead, to a 71-67 victory.

It was a classic Maryland choke, of the kind coach Gary Williams was supposed to have exorcised back in March. They followed it the next night with a ragged victory over Temple, with last year's starters still befogged. The Terps were a top-three team this year because, last year, they'd finally come together. Now they've come apart again. They don't box out. They don't know where to go without the ball. They don't square up on defense. They don't, in short, do any of the things Morris used to do.

It's a frightening thing to see. Williams has always been a terrible instructor--his players arrive with whatever skills they picked up in high school and leave with the same skills, unimproved. What if playing sound team basketball was Terence Morris' natural talent, the way finishing the alley-oop was Laron Profit's or muscling up on the boards was Keith Booth's? What if, now that he's gone, the Terps can't do it anymore?

That leaves the team's fate with Dixon, who looks stronger than before, but slower. He went 5-10 on three-pointers against Arizona but was in constant foul trouble, and he didn't take a free throw of his own till the final minute of the team's second game, which means he isn't slashing to the basket like he used to. Baxter, meanwhile, disappeared among Arizona's defensive timber--and worse, he looked lost among his own team's offensive timber. Rather than helping make up for Baxter's lack of height, Wilcox and Tahj Holden seemed to be blocking his view of the basket. Maybe there was a good reason for Morris' old habit of vanishing from the play.

Was it only seven years ago that Peter Angelos was a folk hero? This was the man who saved the baseball owners from themselves in the 1994-'95 strike, by refusing on principle to field a scab team. The good of the game came first.

So much for that. Last week, the champion of the little man stood with the rest of the Lords of Baseball, voting with a 28-2 majority of owners to stick a shiv into the Minnesota Twins. Excuse me--to stick a shiv into two yet-to-be-determined franchises. The Lords insist that they have simply identified an abstract problem: There are two teams too many. Perhaps they will get rid of the Yankees, or of the Brewers, in which Commissioner Bud Selig still owns a one-third share.

But by most accounts, they plan to cut the Twins. Minnesota voters refused to give owner Carl Polhad a new stadium, so the 86-year-old billionaire is looking to snuff his two-time world-champion franchise, cashing out and taking revenge at one stroke. And the Lords want to make an example of the Twin Cities.

Angelos, though, isn't in this for Polhad's sake. The Twins are incidental. The team he wants to kill is the Montreal Expos. And he wants to kill the Expos . . . well, he wants to kill the Expos for us.

You see, every team that's eliminated is a team that will never move to Washington. The baseball-for-D.C. crowd has long coveted the Expos, who have been withering in Montreal, playing before four-figure crowds and barely selling their TV rights. The Expos even wear red, white, and blue. Just put them in RFK Stadium, turn the "M" on the hats upside down, and they're the Washington Senators.

But whither the Orioles then, Angelos wants us to ask. And he has an answer. If Washington gets a team, he told The Washington Post last week, the two neighboring franchises will "grind each other into serious financial problems." Both will be "mediocre at the gate" and unable to compete with the wealthiest teams in the league. They'll be like the Cubs and White Sox, the Dodgers and Angels, the Giants and A's--at best, one strong team dominating a starveling.

How did this man make it as a trial lawyer? Ignore San Francisco Bay, where they just don't like baseball. The Dodgers don't care about sharing metro L.A. with the Angels. The Cubs don't fear the White Sox. If the Washington-Baltimore Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area is one baseball town, it's a town where the Orioles have always been on top and the Senators have been on the bottom. That's why there are Minnesota Twins.

For an Orioles owner to admit fear of the Senators is for an Orioles owner to admit failure. Which is the real point here: Peter Angelos isn't trying to keep mediocre baseball out of the area. He's trying to keep his exclusive rights to mediocrity.

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