The 90-minute drive from Washington to Towson's SECU Arena was a trip down memory lane for several members of the Washington Wizards.
As the NBA franchise opened training camp Tuesday at the university's two-year-old basketball home in Baltimore County, players and even coach Randy Wittman reminisced about those halcyon days when they only had to worry about classes and basketball.
"It brings back memories of my first practice in college," said guard Garrett Temple, who is six years removed from his playing days at LSU. "I was anxious, nervous after not being highly touted."
For forward Kris Humphries, returning to a campus reminded him of a certain regret about his time at the University of Minnesota.
"I was only in school for a year," he said of his 2003-04 season with the Gophers. "I was thinking about how much fun I would have had if I had stayed longer."
Wittman, who teamed with former Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas to help Indiana capture the 1981 NCAA championship, said there's a distinct atmosphere to a college.
"You kind of get that feeling on campus," he said. "We went out to dinner as a team last night down the road, and you get that college feel when you see the faces in a college town."
The wave of nostalgia was especially poignant for guard Gary Neal, who starred in high school at Aberdeen and Calvert Hall and later at Towson. Neal, who turns 31 on Saturday, said he considers himself fortunate to still be playing in the NBA and to get a chance to return to his alma mater.
"There's a lot of guys who don't get the opportunity to come back to where they're from, let alone practice in a gym on the campus where they got their career started," he said, pointing out that about 10 friends attended Tuesday's practice. "So for me, it's exciting."
The same could be said for Tigers coach Pat Skerry, who got to connect with Neal and center/forward DeJuan Blair who shares University of Pittsburgh roots with Skerry. Skerry also watched practice and came away with some notes.
"It's always good to watch stuff the first day," he said. "They're putting stuff in, new concepts. You can see they're making some changes. They're trying to play a little faster and do some things that the Phoenix Suns did when Mike D'Antoni was there. So it was good. We picked up a couple things we would like to add and tweak. You can always learn and at the NBA, they're doing it at the highest level."
Asked to elaborate on what specifically he hoped to incorporate in his team's practices, Skerry deadpanned, "I'd like to have [Wizards point guard] John Wall with the ball in his hands. That would help a lot."
While the Wizards and Towson have formally agreed to only one year, there is an option for the university to play host to training camp for another year, and athletic director Tim Leonard said he is hoping to add a third year.
"I think the biggest thing for us is just some exposure," Leonard said, noting that Washington is staying at the Marriott Hotel on campus. "It obviously gets a lot of media attention and just to have our Towson name and brand out there, I've seen so many stories with pictures of our SECU Arena that's been associated with this. It's been great. The publicity value has been fantastic. I think it's great for our basketball program. Any time you have an NBA franchise around and they can see those types of players, it's good exposure for them."
Although Washington advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals in April and returns a pair of standout guards in Wall and Bradley Beal, pundits have lowered expectations after forward Paul Pierce bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason.
Wittman, who said several Wizards players are planning on attending an Orioles game during their three-day stay in Towson, said the brief stay at SECU Arena is an opportunity for the players and coaches to free themselves from distraction and concentrate on basketball.
"You've got more focus, I think," he said. "… You don't have the little things at home that you might have to do [like] go to the grocery store. We have everything here for them. I like it. I like it as a coach to be able to get away, and this is an hour-and-a-half away, but it's still away. And the place is great. I couldn't be more pleased with the facility."
The school's SECU Arena drew the biggest raves from Wizards players. Humphries said Towson's facility was a dramatic departure from Minnesota's Williams Arena, which opened in 1928 and is affectionately known as "The Barn" to the students there.
"The Barn is super, super old," Humphries said. "So this is pretty nice in here. I love The Barn, but it's more of a historical place than this. This seems like just a really nice arena here."
Temple said SECU Arena reminds him of the $15 million practice facility LSU opened in 2010.
"We go back to campuses, and when we see stuff that we helped build, you kind of get envious, like, 'This wasn't here when I was here,'" he said. "But it's always good to see that you helped make something. You want the people behind you to have even more than you had."
Neal, who played at the 5,250-seat Towson Center that opened in 1976, also marveled at the 5,200-seat SECU Arena. But he said he had a different wish.
"I will say I wish my teams were better," he said with a laugh. "I wish I had Jerrelle Benimon [the Tigers' two-time Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year]."