GREENSBORO, N.C. — Maryland’s departure from the Atlantic Coast Conference hit a lot of longtime Terps fans hard this weekend. Many who have been coming here for years and witnessed two of the school’s three ACC tournament championships, in 1984 and 2004, were sad to say goodbye to Greensboro Coliseum.
After spending years covering the Big East Conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, I felt like the Eddie Albert character on the '60s sitcom “Green Acres” when I went to cover my first ACC tournament, in 1986.
The accents were different.
The food was different.
The pace was different.
The only thing that was the same, and sometimes was better, was the hoops.
It was here where I watched Georgia Tech's Duane Ferrell, a Baltimore kid out of Calvert Hall, steal an inbounds pass at midcourt and dunk to beat Len Bias and Maryland in the semifinals of the 1986 tournament, denying Lefty Driesell a chance at his second title in the same building in three years.
It was here where, in 1998, I finished a series that led me to seven conference tournaments in seven days. I was so bleary-eyed getting here after trips to places like Green Bay, Wisc.; Chicago; New York; and Nashville, Tenn., that I could have been on Mars, if Mars had some of the best barbecue joints on the planet.
There were other memorable ACC tournaments in other cities: Landover, in 1987, where Jim Valvano might have had his last big victory before his career unravelled and his life tragically was cut short by cancer; Atlanta, in 2001, where Duke and Maryland played the third of their wondrous four-part mini-series that season.
I came to Baltimore and went on the Maryland beat two years after Driesell’s lone ACC tournament championship and left the beat a few years before John Gilchrist helped Gary Williams to his lone title in 2004. When I returned here Wednesday, one of those who created a memory was staring me in the face.
The Terps practiced at a local high school where Keith Gatlin, the point guard on that 1986 team, is now the coach. I can recall Gatlin getting some redemption two years later, scoring 25 points to help beat Georgia Tech in the quarterfinals, 84-67, by hitting six straight 3-pointers with that push shot of his.
There was a certain symmetry, at least for me, in the way the Terps lost to Florida State in Thursday’s second round. Just as Ferrell made that steal and dunk to knock Maryland out of the tournament, Seminoles center Boris Bojanovsky’s dunk with 0.4 of a second remaining did the same.
I came back Friday to see a little more basketball and to say goodbye to many old sportswriter friends, some of whom I likely will never see again. A reporter from Syracuse mentioned how out of place some of the team’s fans said they felt in the heart of Tobacco Road, and I could relate.
It probably will be that way for me next year, when the Terps head to Chicago for their first Big Ten Conference tournament. While I’ve been to the United Center a number of times, including for a day during that seven-day whirlwind for the first-ever Big Ten tournament, it certainly will be different.
As much as I’m not going to miss the students at Cameron Indoor Stadium — a couple whom I came close to clobbering over the years, even as recently as last month’s Terps-Duke game, for their incessant arm waving over the top of my head — I will miss the ACC tournament, especially those played in Greensboro.
The city doesn’t seem to have changed much over the years, at least the section of town around the Coliseum. The arena itself is much bigger and brighter than it was when I first came nearly 30 years ago, expanded to compete with and eventually surpass Charlotte Coliseum as the largest arena in the South.
Going to the Big Ten will be an adjustment.
I certainly won’t pack golf clubs for a few of those much-needed rounds in the middle of winter when Maryland was playing a 9 p.m. game in Raleigh, N.C.; or Durham, N.C.; or even Tallahassee, Fla.
I know a few of the coaches and watched enough Big Ten basketball this winter to know most of the important players the Terps will have to face. (I know Mark Turgeon is thrilled that several, including Ohio State’s Aaron Kraft, are graduating.)
When the temperature here went from the mid-70s to the low-30s a couple of days ago, I thought it was a signal of how my life as a Maryland beat writer is about to change. I look forward to going to new places — Madison, Wisc., and Iowa City, Iowa, are at the top of the list. I just don’t look forward to getting there.
Leaving Greensboro for the last time, I know I probably never will be back. The accents, food and pace of the place haven’t changed much since 1986, but unlike New York for the Big East tournament and Chicago for the Big Ten tournament, this town for this week is just about the hoops, not the hoopla.
I doubt that will ever change.