Allegany Communications Sports­­

I had been around Lefty Driesell before as he had come to Cumberland quite a bit during his heyday as the University of Maryland basketball coach in the 1970s — ACITs, high school sports banquets, Allegany Community College basketball games …

Matter of fact, he was in Trojan Square Garden recruiting Lawrence Boston that night in 1975 when the Trojans battered national power Vincennes in the game that made Bob Kirk’s grassroots local program a national program itself.

Lefty also brought his Maryland teams to Allegany County a couple of times — once to Allegany High, once to Frostburg State — to play preseason intrasquad scrimmages.

He was wonderful to be around because he loved kids and always took the time for us, to talk to us and to sign autographs for us. In fact, one time as a swarm of us had him surrounded at Allegany High when he was here to recruit the great Adrian Dantley, one of us in a wiseguy manner (not me) mentioned N.C. State’s greatest player, David Thompson, who had fast become Maryland’s chief nemesis, and Lefty didn’t blink as he said in that deep Southern drawl, “Who’s cussin’?”

When I was a student at Maryland, Lefty was the easiest spot on campus to make because he was truly larger than life and all of us were in absolute awe of him. He had such a robust presence to him. He was so BOOM when he entered a room or was nearby. He was just … Wow, it’s Lefty.

Then, through the grace of God and my sports editor at the Prince George’s County Sentinel David Ginsburg, things changed for me in a way that changed the trajectory of my career; or rather, started my career, because until, of all people, Lefty Driesell came along in my life, I didn’t have a career.

I think about that quite often and I count my blessings for it, and I have said my prayers for Lefty Driesell since learning of his death at age 92 on Saturday morning.

The first professional conversation I had with Lefty (and I say that as though I had thousands of them; I didn’t) came at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville as I was covering Northwestern’s Leonard Bias in the Northwestern Summer League, and Lefty was there almost every night to watch him, shoveling popcorn into his mouth as he studied Bias and envisioned what would soon be.

Lefty couldn’t talk about Bias because it was against NCAA rules, but he gladly talked about anything else. He was so polite and gracious to me, probably because I was the only reporter there and usually pretty nervous when I approached him.

He asked where I went to school and I said Maryland and Fort Hill High School. He said he knew Fort Hill because, “Ah recruited Mark Manges to play basketball for me. He played football instead, but I told him he could do both.”

Then he asked me what I did “for a real living” and I told him I helped manage a Pizza Inn in Greenbelt and that his former All-American player John Lucas, then with the Washington Bullets, came in with his family quite a bit as Lucas had become friends with my boss during his days at Maryland.

“I taught John Lucas everything he knows,” Lefty boasted. “About basketball and about tennis. In fact, last time we played, I whupped him in straight sets.”

I, of course, was a little skeptical about that one, as Lucas had also been an All-American tennis player at Maryland, and could have joined the professional tour had he not been the top pick in the 1976 NBA Draft.

So the next time Lucas came in I kidded him and told him what Lefty had said, to which Lucas, who was not shy himself about telling you how he would beat you at anything, anytime, anywhere, said in a not-so-kidding tone, “Lefty cheats.”

Not long after that, my editor allowed me to help him cover the Maryland basketball beat, beginning on Thanksgiving weekend in 1982 when Len Bias played his first game for the Terps against Penn State at the Baltimore Civic Center, and for the next two seasons, primarily because I had covered Bias in high school, I helped cover the Maryland beat for the Sentinel until I was hired at the Cumberland Times-News as a full time sportswriter in 1984.

That 1982-83 season, the ACC had put in an experimental 30-second shot clock and a 3-point line that was just 17’9” from the center of the basket at its nearest point and Lefty did not like it one bit, calling it “rinky-dink basketball.” Naturally, Maryland used the 3-point line to its advantage that season, beating eventual national champion N.C. State at Cole Field House, with guard Steve Rivers scoring most of his game-high 29 points from beyond the 3-point stripe.

After the game, Lefty opened with, “Ah know what y’all are gonna ask, so Ah’ll just save you the trouble … Ah still think it’s rinky-dink basketball, but that don’t mean we ain’t gonna use it.”

I wasn’t one of the big boys on the beat — that would have been the likes of Michael Wilbon and John Feinstein of the Washington Post and Bill Free of the Baltimore Sun — but whenever I was working on a story about any player who was from P.G. County, Lefty was always patient when the other reporters had left and I would stick around to ask him a few questions.

He gave me the same access to his players that he gave all of the other reporters and, in fact, invited the entire press pool to Ledo’s in Adelphi the night Maryland beat defending national champion North Carolina.

He could be abrupt, combative and stubborn after games, but he was always honest and direct, sometimes too direct for his own good, as in “Ah’m in charge of the men’s center on this campus.”

I remember the next season when Maryland finally won the ACC Tournament championship in 1984 for Lefty, finally getting the monkey off his back, as the Terps beat Duke in the final at the Greensboro Coliseum, the site of so many heartbreaking losses for Maryland and their coach.

“Ah’m so happy,” Lefty said after the game, “Ah’m gonna take this trophy, screw it to the hood of my car and drive all around the state of North Carolina.”

To which Bias, who had been the star of the title game as a sophomore, said, “I’ll go with you, Coach.”

When you were around Lefty Driesell, you wanted to go with him. He just had that magnetism, that determination, that leadership and that charm. He had the charisma.

He was generous to his last penny if the need be. He was always helping and caring for those who couldn’t help or care for themselves.

He loved his family more than anything in the world, and it was clear that every single player he ever coached was a member of his extended family.

Being around him, even as infrequently as I was, was not only the biggest boost of my career, it’s been one of the biggest joys of my life.

Lefty Driesell was one of the finest people I have ever met. He had a heart of gold. And already, this world misses his spirit and his heart of gold.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT