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Heading back to East Coast a long, strange trip for columnist

YOU'RE NEVER coming back from there.

That's what everyone told me nine years ago. Family, friends, colleagues,they all presumed what everyone presumes when one moves from the cold, dirty,crusty East Coast to the sun-drenched, easygoing, mild-mannered West Coast.

"San Francisco?" I was told. "Yeah, right. You'll miss the snow in thewinter. You'll miss the humidity in the summer. You'll see the Golden GateBridge, and it'll make you nostalgic for the Harbor Tunnel. You'll hate thePacific Coast Highway because it can't hold a candle to I-95 on a holidayweekend. Man, you're out there to stay. You're never coming back."

I have to admit, it was a convincing argument. I left in the summer of 1995to write for the San Francisco Chronicle, and, at the time, the idea that Iwould ever come back to this time zone - much less to The Sun, within snarlingdistance of where I grew up in D.C. - seemed preposterous.

At the last get-together with my friends (most of them classmates atMaryland back in the days of Lefty and Boomer) nine years ago, the idea gotmore preposterous as the night went on. The sense that my move was permanentwas growing with every emptied bottle, glass and plate of Buffalo wings.

"Let's see, you're going to see the 49ers every week," one friend pointedout. "You'll be watching Young and Rice and Deion, going 14-2, playing untilJanuary, 70-degree playoff games at Candlestick Park. But all the while,you'll be dying to come back and check out the Redskins. Guess you'll just gettired of covering Super Bowl parades, huh?"

"Uh-huh," another chimed in. "We'll see a Super Bowl parade in Baltimorebefore we see you out here again." That brought roars of laughter.

"Yeah, the big rally in the brand-new, state-of-the-art downtown stadium."

"'Cause, you know, teams are running over each other trying to move there.The NFL can't wait ... " He couldn't even finish; he was almost choking.

"But you might luck out," someone else blurted out. "By then, there mightbe a ticket available for an Orioles game."

"Yeah, a ticket. For the last-place Orioles. Sometime in the 21st century,one single ticket available at Camden Yards. Let us know a year in advance sowe can get it for you."

More loud guffaws. Heads at other tables began turning our way. Therestaurant manager shot us a dirty look.

"How 'bout this?" another friend said, ignoring the dirty look. "Steelecomes back to town just in time for us all to go see Maryland in the Orange Bowl." The whole table hollered. My sides were actually starting to hurt.

"That's right. ACC football champion Maryland Terrapins."

"Ahead of Florida State."

"Top-10 team."

"OK, OK, OK." Another friend was trying to keep a straight face. "Then,then, we go - then we go see - the basketball championship trophy."

I briefly lost consciousness on that one.

"Yeah, we'll all go to Cole Field House - "

"Oh no, they'll be too big for Cole Field House by then. We'll have to goto the huge, sparkling new, on-campus arena ... "

"Right next to the big expanded football stadium ... "

"And we can see the picture of Gary Williams with the net around his neck,holding the trophy ... "

"With that famous smile on his face ... "

Nobody could even speak for the next couple of minutes. The manager shushedus loudly. It didn't work.

Finally, we caught our collective breath and turned silent andcontemplative. Time to get serious and look forward to the life that lay aheadfor me.

"You're going to miss the Bullets finally getting it together," someonesaid, breaking the silence.

"Yeah, but he's going to see Golden State every night. Maybe they'll sendyou back here for reaction when Joe Smith wins the MVP."

"Or when the Warriors win a championship. They're on their way now with Joeand Sprewell and Hardaway and Mullin. They lucked out winning the lottery andgetting a chance at him."

"The Bulls can't win it every year. Michael Jordan will be done in a coupleof years. And done for good. No more comebacks."

"Warriors and Bullets in the finals. Joe Smith against Chris Webber andJuwan Howard. It's just a matter of time, just a matter of them maturing."

"Don't forget Rasheed. Bullets are set up front for the rest of thecentury."

"Rematch of '75. You'd get to go back to Cap Centre."

"Or," said one friend, barely sputtering it out, "to the new arena indowntown D.C."

That was when the manager finally threw us out. No one could blame him.

In the parking lot, everyone said their goodbyes. "Nope, you're staying outthere for good," one friend said.

He was wrong.

"And if you do get back here," added another, "by that time, you won't evenrecognize this place."

He was right.

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