Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What Mediocrity Hath Wrought

I'll never forget the day I went to pick out my season tickets at the brand new Comcast Center. It was the summer following the national championship season - perhaps the best timing for the opening of a new building in the history of such occurrences.

No one could possibly draw up a better game plan.

"Hey, we're building a new, state-of-the-art, on-campus, pro-style basketball facility that will seat 17,950. We need to sell some tickets. Anyone on the marketing team got an idea?"

"Well, how about if we win the national championship the season before we open the building?"

"GREAT idea!"

And that's actually what happened. We all know the 2001-2002 Terps brought home the title in April and the 2002-2003 Terps opened the Comcast Center in November.

So everyone was all geared up to get a great seat in the new building. You had to ante up some cash first, though. People and businesses were paying $25,000, $50,000, even $100,000 to become "building campaign partners" or some such nonsense and get the sweetest tickets in the house. This is true.

I had season tickets for several years prior to the national championship. Two in section A, row 6. They were great seats behind the basket at Cole. Me and my pal Herbst got them from a friend I used to work with who let me take over the tickets when she moved out of town. It was a sweet deal. To keep them, we only had to make a minimum contribution to the Terp club each year - at least $125 and then, of course, buy the tickets.

Our first season with the tickets was Steve Francis first and only year in College Park. Good times. Then came the Terence Morris/Juan Dixon/Lonny Baxter/Steve Blake/Chris Wilcox/Byron Mouton era ... good times my friends, some of the best live crowds I've ever had the joy of joining.

Then Maryland won the national championship. Shortly thereafter came the letters and calls explaining that in order to get seats in the new building, you had to pony up enough of a donation to get yourself ranked among the top Terp Club point holders who would get access to season tickets.

So Herbst and I recruited two more friends, and each of us kicked in $500 for a total donation of $2,000. Then came the fateful day when I got to walk into a trailer adjacent to the almost completed Comcast Center to pick out seats from a giant board that indicated what was left.

My heart sank. Basically I had a choice between the last row in the section next to the corner or about five rows from the top in the corner. I chose the seats in the corner but not quite at the top. Something about a seat in the very last row depressed me more than a seat in the worst section in the house.

I had good seats at Cole. I had an eye level view of the rafters at Comcast.

After holding onto the tickets for a couple seasons, I let them go a couple years ago. Who needed it? I watch on TV. I go to the games when someone offers a ticket. I find it ridiculous to pony up Terp club dues year after years for the right to buy tickets. It's the PSL that never goes away.

Fast forward 7 years. Leading into this season, there is no line of people clamoring to give six figures to Maryland for the privilege of watching the men's basketball team.

My old seats in section 224 are available if you want them. You'll find ads in the Post sports section offering season tickets for anyone willing to part with a relatively modest $599.

They'll even let you make $99/month payments for six months. That was definitely not the case after the national championship. You had to pay up and you had to pay up right then and there.

You could say that this is the byproduct of a weak economy. But it is also the byproduct of a weakened program. Since the national championship, Maryland has had a winning record in ACC play only twice. They haven't been mainstays in the top 25 and haven't produced the kind of teams and players that make you stop what you're doing and pay attention. In short, every since Juan Dixon and company left campus, there has been almost no buzz around Maryland basketball. A little reported or perhaps known fact is that the fat cat donors who ponied up in the tens of thousands for access to seats after the national championship, rarely go to the games. Sure, they'll show up for Duke and UNC, maybe even Georgia Tech and Clemson. But South Carolina State on a Wednesday in December? Forget it. The place has been a morgue for most of the out of conference games for the past five years.

And that's a shame. Because Maryland basketball, at its best, is a lot of fun. Gary is an entertaining coach to watch. His teams play an up-tempo, entertaining style. The team supposedly has some very talented freshmen big men coming into the program who will give the Terps some overdue muscle and skill inside.

But talk is cheap and tickets are available. Operators are standing by.

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