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The Christmas Day playing experience: The 1984 Terps’ holiday away from the mainland

Maryland men’s basketball has played on Christmas Day just one other time in school history. Here’s how it all went down.

Tony Massenburg, Len Bias and Derrick Lewis in Hawaii in the following season (1985).
Photo courtesy of Derrick Lewis

Scooters, snorkeling, and Christmas Day basketball.

It was 1984 and Maryland men’s basketball was off to Honolulu, Hawaii, to play in the Rainbow Classic tournament where it would face Iowa on Dec. 25 — the only time in program history the Terrapins have played on the holiday until this season.

Back then, the team still flew commercial, which, to say the least, is not ideal for super tall basketball players on an 10-hour long flight. The 1984-85 squad featured Maryland legend Len Bias, Adrian Branch, Derrick Lewis, Keith Gatlin and Jeff Baxter, among others.

When they landed, Johnny Holliday, the voice of Maryland Athletics, specifically remembers head coach Lefty Driesell telling players it was a business trip, not a vacation. But unbeknownst to Driesell, the assistant coaches, or Holliday at the time, the Terps got into plenty of antics throughout their stay in Waikiki Beach.

“They turned us loose in Hawaii,” Lewis told Testudo Times.

Players don’t remember much from the Christmas Day game itself, a 70-68 overtime victory over Iowa, but everyone has a clear memory of one aspect of the trip: moped scooters. It was Adrian Branch’s idea, Lewis said — “He was the ringleader.”

The players had seen people riding around the island on scooters and were intrigued. Branch found out they only needed their IDs to rent them and it was go-time from there.

“I remember just us terrorizing the island residents riding scooters all over the place,” Lewis said jokingly. “That was the highlight of the trip.”

“We were all up and down the streets. We had a ball!” Gatlin added.

Imagine a string of 12 basketball players all driving in a unit across tropical paradise, all the while holding up cars at every stop sign and light. The group eventually caused an actual traffic jam.

Derrick Lewis and Keith Gatlin take a photo with a fan on Waikiki Beach
Photo courtesy of Derrick Lewis

Though he isn’t sure how, Baxter said an assistant coach found out about their antics following the incident. He’s convinced someone from the hotel must have alerted them. So they struck a deal.

“Okay, if y’all don’t play well or win, we’re going to tell coach,” Baxter recalled the assistant telling them. Sure enough, Driesell never found out.

Born on Christmas, the head coach was celebrating his 53rd birthday (Gatlin’s birthday also fell during the trip on the 23rd). Driesell wasn’t big on celebrating his day, though; he was more focused on winning, Baxter said.

The Terps did just that with the overtime victory over the Hawkeyes. Bias led the team with 24 points, followed by 21 points and seven rebounds from Branch. Lewis had nine rebounds and two blocks — both team highs — and Gatlin led with six assists.

Here is the full original box score from the Iowa matchup.
Courtesy of Iowa

“At the end of the day, it was business once we got on the court,” Baxter said.

When they weren’t on the court or cruising around town, players said they spent their spare time at the beach hanging out, joking around and trying to impress girls. They soaked in the sand and warm weather, experiencing a landscape they had only seen before in commercials or movies.

Baxter and Bias snuck off to go snorkeling one day. They got gear from people working at the beach and plunged into the waves, though Baxter said he was a bit more hesitant than his teammate.

“Lenny went down...and he came up and told me something about a fish of a color (he doesn’t remember which). I didn’t go that deep,” Baxter told Testudo Times. “Literally, I stayed really close to the land. I was like, ‘I’m not going that deep.’”

On Christmas morning, the team gathered for a special breakfast, where they received some NCAA-approved gifts from Driesell. Baxter remembers getting some fresh Maryland gear, which was exciting because Nike was new on the scene and all the rage at the time. “They were on fire,” he said.

Following their win over Iowa, coaches and players had a late holiday dinner together at the hotel. They defeated Hawaii, 79-71, the following day, before falling to No. 10 Georgia Tech, 70-69, in the final game of the tournament.

“Just to have a good time out there with all the guys, it was really special,” Gatlin said.

The Terps spent both Christmas and Thanksgiving on the road that season, in which they finished with a 25-12 record and a Sweet Sixteen appearance after facing what was deemed the toughest schedule in the country. They traveled to Alaska earlier in the year for The Alaska Shootout, a Thanksgiving tournament; however, that trip was not as ideal of a climate.

Alaska was extremely cold and dark during that time of year, with only a few hours of sunlight a day. The team stayed in the hotel most of the time, as there wasn’t much else to do.

“When we got there they kept saying, ‘Change your blinds because you’re going to wake up at 8:30, 9 o’clock in the morning and it’s going to be pitch dark.’ We was like, ‘No way!’” Gatlin said while laughing. “And sure enough, we got up, it was like, ‘Man, this is crazy!’”

The Terps defeated Alaska-Anchorage, 54-52, and blew out Tennessee, 72-49, in the final two games of the tournament. Coincidentally enough, in the first contest, the Terps faced a Kansas team that featured current Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon at point guard.

“I just remember we won, that’s about it. And Lenny Bias hit his head on the backboard when I was out on the court,” Turgeon said. “We both had really good teams, so I don’t know why they...played us in the first round against each other.”

Now the head coach of the Terrapins, Turgeon will lead his team against the Purdue Boilermakers Friday afternoon, marking just the second Christmas Day matchup in program history.

“Obviously, we’re gonna be fired up to play and we’re looking forward to the game,” Turgeon said. “Playing on Christmas Day is pretty special.”

* Correction: The original photo caption said the photo was from the tournament in 1984, as this is what was reported to Testudo Times, but it was from the following 1985 season in Hawaii. Tony Massenburg is on the left instead of Tom ‘Speedy Jones.’

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