Shooting For Greatness

Shooting For Greatness

Bethesda's Mark Turgeon was too short to play pro basketball as a young man. Now he's filling some big shoes as the University of Maryland's men's coach-and he's determined to take the team all the way to a national championship.

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Lefty Driesell used to thrust his hands toward the ceiling of Cole Field House in a “V for Victory” sign when the game was going right, and stomp his feet like a petulant child if a call went against the University of Maryland’s men’s basketball team, which he coached from 1969 to 1986.

Gary Williams screamed and sweated through countless suits during games in his coaching tenure at Maryland from 1989 to 2011.

Current coach Mark Turgeon is much less flamboyant than his famed predecessors. This fall, the graying, squinty-eyed Bethesda resident begins his third year trying to restore Maryland to the lofty level established under Driesell and to the zenith Williams reached with the 2002 national championship. But in a sport where coaches such as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Louisville’s Rick Pitino are markedly bigger stars than any of their players, Turgeon comes across as reserved, in some ways still the shy kid from Topeka, Kansas, who once hid behind his mother’s skirt when people came to visit.

A passion for basketball nonetheless burns deep within him. And every once in a while you get a glimpse of it. Turgeon has been known to stomp his feet like Driesell and pump his fist like Williams, even to leap with joy. He just uses his emotions strategically. During his first season in College Park, Turgeon argued a foul call when the Terps were trailing badly at Miami, and ended up being ejected from the game. Angry at the loss of their coach, the Terps rallied to force overtime (though they eventually lost in double OT).  

Like so many kids growing up in Kansas, where following the University of Kansas Jayhawks is a civic religion, Turgeon lived for basketball. His father and older brother played, but Turgeon took their love of the game a step further, playing year-round in a park near his house.

“I used to shovel the courts,” Turgeon recalls over lunch at his kind of spot, the unpretentious Old Georgetown Grille in downtown Bethesda, not far from the renovated home he shares with his wife of 20 years, Ann, and their children, eighth-grader Will, fourth-grader Leo and second-grader Ella.

“I’d put the ball by the fireplace so it would warm up and bounce,” the 48-year-old Turgeon says of his early days in the sport, when he idolized legendary guards Pete Maravich and Tiny Archibald as well as Kansas backcourt hero Darnell Valentine. “I’d go out and play for 10 to 15 minutes, come back in and do the same thing.”

As a fifth-grader playing for his dad, Bob, in a Catholic Youth Organization league, Turgeon missed a free throw with 10 seconds left, costing his team a victory. The next day he was out on the court shooting 200 free throws.

“Mark was small, but he was really competitive,” Bob Turgeon says by phone from Kansas. “He was persistent, unlike a lot of kids who won’t do what it takes to succeed.”

Ben Meseke, who coached Mark Turgeon at Hayden High School, has never forgotten seeing him first not on the court, but in the newspaper.

“In the photo, there was this little third-grader stretching his head into the huddle from the second row,” recalls Meseke, the junior varsity coach at the time who would go on to win six state titles with Hayden’s varsity. “He looked like a giraffe. His buddies were all up in the balcony throwing popcorn at girls, and he’s listening to every word the coach is saying.”

Turgeon’s height failed to match his devotion, however. He was all of 5 feet 2 inches tall and 100 pounds as a sophomore and didn’t even make the JV. But by the next year, Turgeon had grown 6 inches and was ready to conquer Topeka as a point guard.

“I had a lot of confidence,” Turgeon says. “I knew I was good. I would tell Coach Meseke I was better than the guys ahead of me. I felt like I gave us something we didn’t have.”

Turgeon got his break when Meseke had the players battle three-on-three in practice one day.

“Mark’s team just demolished everybody,” Meseke remembers. “My coaches and I are looking at each other going, ‘Why are we holding this kid back?’ He wasn’t that quick. He wasn’t a great scorer. The thing that stood out was his smarts. …He just knew the game. He could see the floor so well. Like a good chess player, he knew two or three steps in advance what was going to happen.”

Turgeon led Hayden to its first state title as a junior in 1982 and did it again the next year. Despite those championships and making the All-State team, Turgeon received only one scholarship offer—from Division II Washburn University in Topeka. He was convinced he belonged 27 miles to the east at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Larry Brown, who would become the only coach to win both NBA and NCAA titles, had just taken over at Kansas and had a few scholarships available. So Meseke called Brown and asked if he could bring Turgeon and another All-State player for a visit.

“We’re eating ice cream and Coach Brown says, ‘Mark, what makes you think you can play for the University of Kansas?’ ” Meseke recalls. “Mark looked him right in the eye and says, ‘Coach, I’m better than any guards you got on your team right now.’ I about dropped my ice cream in my lap. But that was Mark. He believed it. It wasn’t cockiness. It was just really strong confidence.”

Turgeon’s explanation: “I knew what I wanted in life, and I wasn’t going to let people hold me back. I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder, ‘Little Man’s Syndrome.’ I always thought I was better than people at basketball, and I had a passion for it.”

Jayhawks’ assistant coach Bob Hill knew Turgeon from the college’s summer camps, and thanks to his endorsement, Brown offered the young man a one-year scholarship that could be extended if Turgeon proved himself.

He began doing so in his debut against the University of Houston’s famed “Phi Slama Jama” crew, aka the Cougars, which was in the midst of three straight Final Four appearances. After Kansas lost, Brown’s mentor, legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith, phoned to say that Turgeon and fellow freshman guard Cedric Hunter were Brown’s best players.

“Turg was a much better athlete than you’d imagine,” says Brown, now the head coach at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I’ve had a lot of great players that I’ve been lucky enough to be around. Turg probably has as good a feel for the game as anybody.”

When Hunter became academically ineligible for the second semester, Turgeon started the rest of the season in the Big Eight Conference, a league known for its rugged physical style. But reality—namely the limitations of his height (he would reach only 5 feet 11) and talent—would hit Turgeon hard when the season ended.

“I had just set the assists record for a KU freshman, and Coach Brown asked me what I wanted to do [with my life],” Turgeon remembers. “I looked at him and said, ‘Coach, are you crazy? I’m going to the NBA.’ He said, ‘You’ll never play in the NBA, but you’ll be a coach someday.’ I walked out of there a little depressed, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. [From then on], I really studied Coach Brown, really studied the game. When I would come out of the game, he’d move me to the seat next to him so I could watch him coach.”

University of Colorado coach Tad Boyle was two years ahead of Turgeon at Kansas.

“There are certain people that are born to coach, and Mark’s one of them,” says Boyle, who left the financial world to rejoin his best friend as an assistant at Oregon and later worked for him at Jacksonville (Ala.) State and Wichita State. “He has always looked at basketball through a coach’s eyes.”     

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