Twice in my life I’ve done the double, seeing Maryland play a basketball game in person followed by watching the Redskins play on television and both times it’s been a soul crusher. My two-steps happened on January Sundays exactly 43 years and 50 weeks apart. And while the first time around the stakes were much higher, the bitter taste is quite similar the second time around.
Let’s start with Sunday, January 14, 1973. Having done a favor for a junior high friend, I was repaid with an invitation to join his father and him for a noon game at Cole Field House. And this wasn’t just any game. Maryland, ranked number two in the country was taking on North Carolina State, ranked number four. Both teams were unbeaten, with Maryland better known thanks to the duo of juniors Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, who had led the Terps to the NIT championship the previous spring. It turned out that NC State had not only the best player on the court, but arguably the best player in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference – better in college than Michael Jordan. His name was David Thompson. NC State had cheated to get him and was spending the season on probation, which kept them out of postseason play. But they won every game they played that season, including the one on this day, with Thompson providing the knockout punch.
Maryland had fallen behind 63-50 with 14 minutes left, but had gone on a run to go up by six with about six minutes left. That’s when Lefty Driesell, celebrated as a recruiter, but sometimes criticized for his coaching, went to a questionable strategy. With no shot clock in those days, he told freshman point guard John Lucas to hold the ball and force NC State to foul. That’s exactly what happened, but the strategy backfired when McMillen, their best free throw shooter at 85% missed the front ends of one and ones with 4:49 and 2:31 to play. Tied in the final seconds, NC State’s 7’4″ center Tom Burleson put up a shot that was caught in the air on the rebound by Thompson and deposited in the basket for the 87-85 game winner with three seconds left. Dunking was outlawed in those days, otherwise Thompson, with a 48″ vertical leap, could have done it. He finished the game with 37 points on 15 of 26 shots.
The game was televised on NBC, which used it as a lead in for their Super Bowl coverage. An estimated 30 million people watched it, making for the largest audience ever to watch a college basketball game to that point in history. The Super Bowl? Oh yes, the Super Bowl. That was number seven featuring the Redskins against the undefeated Miami Dolphins. And yes that didn’t go my way either.
Super Bowl parties were just becoming popular and our family was invited to watch the game at the Crawfords up the street. Now you have to remember, D.C. was a two team town at that point. The Senators had left for Texas a year and a half earlier. The Bullets still played basketball in Baltimore and the Capitals birth as an expansion team was over a year away. Even Georgetown basketball with rookie coach John Thompson didn’t have much impact. The Redskins and Maryland basketball mattered – in that order.
The excitement and confidence for this Super Bowl was off the charts. Yes the Dolphins were unbeaten, but we’d just seen the Skins dismantle Dallas in the NFC Championship game 26-3 two weeks earlier. Even Vegas had the Redskins as slight favorites. What could go wrong? Everything.
Larry Brown had been the offensive MVP of the league while running for more than 1,200 yards in only 12 games. Miami’s “No Name” defense swallowed him up. A sure touchdown pass from Billy Kilmer to Jerry Smith hit the goalpost, which in those days was up against the goal line. Kilmer was intercepted to set up a touchdown pass. And normally reliable Curt Knight missed a 32 yard field goal. The only glimmer of hope came with about two minutes left when Garo Yepremian attempted a pass after his field goal attempt was blocked. The pass was batted in the air and picked off by Mike Bass, who took it 49 yards for a score. It was their only score. Miami won 14-7.
Two crushing losses by the only two teams in town that mattered. Awful.
Now to Sunday, January 1, 2017. D.C. now has teams in every major sport, while life for me and Maryland basketball had changed quite in bit in those nearly 44 years. Married with grown children and owners of a partial season ticket plan, my wife and I attended the Terps – not ACC game, not Cole Field House game and not even a game between two ranked teams. XFinity Center was the place, the Big 10 the conference and Nebraska the opponent. It was however, another noon start. And like the NC State game in ’73, another soul crusher.
Maryland, expecting to crack the top 25 with a victory, fell behind by seven in the second half, but thanks to a 17-0 run, had gone ahead by 13 with 8:37 left thanks to freshman Kevin Huerter’s seventh three pointer of the day. Then the roof caved in. Incredibly the Terps missed their last nine shots and went the final six minutes without a point and lost 67-65. And it wasn’t on a buzzer beater. Melo Trimble, who was a freshman sensation and used to win games like this with a three pointer, had an open look with seven seconds left and launched an air ball. While he remains the best player on the team, the shot is symbolic of why Trimble is still playing college basketball as a junior and is not yet in the NBA.
Like 1973, my day continued with watching the Redskins play on TV. But this time, instead of the Crawford’s 25 inch, tube TV with a good set of rabbit ears, my viewing was on 60 inches of glorious HD. Obviously the game wasn’t as important as that Super Bowl, but a win against the Giants, who had nothing to play for, would have put the Redskins in the playoffs in back to back years for the first time in 24 years. It’s been a long walk in the desert since the last Super Bowl championship, so two straight years of postseason play would have meant something.
Surprisingly, the Giants played their starters, including quarterback Eli Manning, most of the game. Not surprisingly, Manning was effective against what has been an anemic Redskin defense, particularly on third down, all season. It helped them keep the ball for nearly 36 minutes while rushing for 161 yards, including 102 yards for somebody named Paul Perkins. But the Redskins had their opportunities with the ball in their hands, more than two minutes to play, all three timeouts and a chance to tie or even beat a playoff bound team that certainly had no interest in playing overtime.
With the ball at midfield, Kirk Cousins had running room in front of him, but elected to throw a double clutch pass to Pierre Garcon that was intercepted by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, effectively ending the game and the season. The Redskins attempt at the old Cal versus Stanford, “the band is on the field” toss around when they got the ball back with six seconds left went the other way for the Giants 19-10 victory. Another Maryland-Redskin two step, another pair of punches to the gut.
There’s a big difference between being 14 and middle aged and how I view the world. But the games still matter and the bad losses still hurt. And with all that’s changed in the world and my life, maybe that’s actually a good thing.