More than three decades after his 17-year coaching tenure ended at Maryland in the university-wide tumult that followed the cocaine-death of star player Len Bias, Lefty Driesell received the “long overdue” honor of having a banner raised in his honor.
The ceremony, which took place before Saturday’s men’s basketball game against Ohio State, attracted dozens of former players, staff members and team managers who came to be with the now 85-year-old Driesell.
Driesell got out of a wheelchair and stood with his wife, Joyce, flashing his trademark “V” sign for victory and pointing to the crowd. After the banner was lowered next to the Maryland state flag, the pep band played “Amen,” the song played during games at Cole Field House when Driesell coached there.
“Today is really special for me because when they told me they wanted to hang a banner for me, I told them I never got a rebound, I never scored a point, I never turned the ball over,” Driesell said during a pregame ceremony at Heritage Hall. “I said that today is for my players. When I walk out when they lower the banner, I told them I want my players to come.”
They turned out in droves. From Will Hetzel and Bob Bodell, who made up his first few teams after Driesell came to Maryland from Davidson in 1969, to future NBA players such as Buck Williams and Albert King, to Dave Dickerson, who was a freshman on his last team.
“I think it’s a really neat thing to do. The university and the athletic department is doing a good deed recognizing one of the most important figures in the history of Maryland basketball and the university,” Dickerson said Friday.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon recalled that his first interaction with Driesell wasn’t all that positive — mostly because Turgeon’s teams at Jacksonville State never beat Driesell’s teams at Georgia State.
“He was a really serious guy. He wouldn’t talk to you being in the same league,” Turgeon said before practice Friday. “Soon as I moved on to Wichita State, we became fast friends. Since I’ve had this job, we’ve really become a lot closer. He’s been really good to me and my family.”
Driesell recalled recruiting King, who was considered the best player in the country as a senior at Fort Hamilton High in Brooklyn, N.Y., and going to the housing project to, as King said Saturday, “close the deal.”
When Driesell got to the apartment house, he quickly figured out that the elevator to King’s 12th floor apartment didn’t work.
“I said, ‘This kid better be good,’ ” Driesell said of a player who left with 2,058 points, at the time a school record.
The now 57-year-old King said that he appreciates the lessons he learned from Driesell now more than he did as a player.
“When you’re 17, 18 years old, you don’t appreciate what your coaches tell you all the time,” King said. “He always told us, ‘Respect, work hard, practice hard, play hard.’ Back then, I didn’t want to listen to that all the time. Now I feel and understand what he was saying. We all had talent and we all had ability, but what coach wanted to ensure was that we became good people. And when you look around this room, a lot of guys are good people.”
Turgeon called the honor of commemorating Driesell’s career at Maryland — which included 348 of his 786 career victories, eight NCAA tournament appearances, an NIT championship and the invention of Midnight Madness — “long overdue.”
“I think he should be in the Naismith Hall of Fame,” Turgeon said.
Driesell was nominated in December for the third team by the committee considering Hall of Fame candidates.
Dickerson, now an associate head coach at Ohio State, took time out of his pregame responsibilities to join former teammates Jeff Baxter and Derrick Lewis at the pregame ceremony. Dickerson credits Driesell for helping his life turn out as it has.
“I give Coach Driesell a lot of credit for me being at the University of Maryland by giving me a scholarship there,” Dickerson said Friday. “I was fortunate enough to meet my wife there, we got married on the campus in the chapel. Just a lot of great memories I had at the University of Maryland and it all started with Coach Driesell.”
Turgeon, who had his starters go over and shake Driesell’s hand at courtside before the game began, appreciated the time the legendary coach spent with the current team at practice on Friday.
“We had a great 24 hours with him,” Turgeon said after the game. “He spoke to the team. I told my team a lot of stories about him, things he’s done in his career. It was great to see him. He has a lot of great advice. I heard the ceremony went great. More importantly, we’re undefeated when he’s in the building, so I felt pretty good going into the game.”