- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. — As his years in professional basketball piled up and his time as the starting point guard on N.C. State’s national championship team in 1983 grew more distant, Sidney Lowe maintained a magic number in his mind.

The former DeMatha star thought about it more after his playing career ended, and it didn’t go away during NBA head coaching stints with Minnesota and Vancouver/Memphis.

It had nothing to do with unhappiness. It had everything to do with returning home to an extended basketball family rich in both tradition and expectations.

“All along, I hoped and said ‘At about 52, I’d like to get back down here and hopefully coach here in some capacity,’ ” Lowe said yesterday in his office. “I didn’t know if it’d be as an assistant or head coach or whatever. But I wanted to coach at N.C. State. Fifty-two, I don’t know why that is the number, but that was the number. I’m ahead of schedule.”

By quite a bit. Lowe turned 47 last month, and the subject of his latest timetable is building the Wolfpack (13-10, 3-7 ACC) back into a national — and perhaps just as importantly, a Tobacco Road — power.

The job requires some patience from Lowe, whose undermanned team meets Maryland (18-7, 4-6) tonight at RBC Center. But the optimistic District native has tried to blend the lessons from his high school coach (Morgan Wootten) and his college coach (Jim Valvano) to make progress.

And if one thing is obvious from his nine-plus months back at N.C. State, it is the substantially heightened emotional investment of fans compared to the NBA.

Strangers tell him vivid stories of his playing days, and a display of two ticket stubs from the Wolfpack’s upset of North Carolina earlier this month sent by a fan sits on his desk.

“Here, the people’s heart is in it because they either went to N.C. State or they grew up watching N.C. State or their parents went to N.C. State,” Lowe said. “It’s different. There’s a family-type atmosphere. When they see you, they just want to embrace you.”

Seeing red

There are echoes of N.C. State’s storied past throughout the team’s basketball complex. On a shelf in Lowe’s office is the book “Jimmy V and Me,” a collection of stories about the late Valvano. On the wall is a picture of Lowe shaking hands with President Ronald Reagan during N.C. State’s post-title White House visit.

On display on the concourse overlooking the Wolfpack’s practice gym are the national championship trophies from 1974 and 1983, with banners commemorating the titles over the opposite basket and ones for the program’s ACC titles on the other sides of the court. All were added since Lowe took over.

Another change is a red paint scheme around the RBC Center court, just like it was at Reynolds Coliseum. But the most obvious statement came when Lowe wore a bright red jacket a Raleigh tailor gave him for this month’s home game against North Carolina.

The snappily attired Lowe was a hit, especially after the Wolfpack sprung a 83-79 upset.

“I thought he was wearing that because that showed how much he wanted to win that game,” senior guard Engin Atsur said. “You can’t wear a jacket like that and just go out and lose by 30.”

Of course, Lowe’s been welcomed back by fans after replacing Herb Sendek after last season. Lowe received a crash course in collegiate coaching, and marveled at the professors, athletic department personnel and boosters who remained around the program.

There was also an old reminder: The importance of beating North Carolina and Duke. The Wolfpack did neither the last two seasons and averaged only one win over the two teams combined in the last 16 years, so it is no surprise even Lowe acknowledged defeating the Tar Heels constituted a “big win.”

“When you’re N.C. State, you have North Carolina and Duke on either side of you, so you’re always going to be measured against those two teams,” Maryland coach Gary Williams said. “Valvano did an incredible job. Sidney played for Valvano, so I’m sure he’s taken a lot of lessons from that.”

Lowe absorbed philosophies from both Wootten and Valvano, and their influence on him is obvious. Wootten was a stickler for fundamentals and competitiveness, and the Wolfpack’s struggles this year stem from a depleted roster and fatigue rather than immediately correctable problems.

As for Valvano, his joie de vivre rubbed off on Lowe. Hence, perhaps, the red jacket.

“I think I’ve had on some red every single game in my tie,” Lowe said. “There’s some kind of red in there. If you don’t wear something red, you’re going to hear about it. I try my best. I told them ‘I’m running out of ties.’ ”

Fated to coach

Lowe started thinking about a coaching career when he was a junior at DeMatha. It was about that time Wootten formulated the same idea.

“He was basically the coach on the floor. He knew the game so well, he knew everybody’s role,” Wootten said. “With his background, it’s not surprising that he’s taken this team that’s not deep and doesn’t have as much talent and he’s done a wonderful job with them.”

It is a team that was, at one stretch, down to five recruited scholarship players. Atsur missed 12 games with a hamstring injury, leaving 6-foot-7 Gavin Grant to run the point and the Wolfpack to play as few as six men in a game. It also limited Lowe’s options, a frustrating prospect for a man who enjoyed outthinking and outworking opponents as a player.

He’s found other ways to make an impression. Lowe set up a reunion that drew 35 former basketball players last summer. After the victory over North Carolina, David Thompson, Tom Burleson and Chris Corchiani all visited the N.C. State locker room.

“It’s a perfect pick for the program,” sophomore forward Ben McCauley said. “He loves it here and he’s home. He’s back to where he played his ball. He brings just great energy to the team. The atmosphere has completely changed around here.”

So much so that perhaps the sometimes overzealous N.C. State fan base can legitimately dream of titles.

“State has got themselves a great coach,” Wootten said. “You give him a couple years and they’ll be right there. Sidney’s up to the big challenge. The word will get out that he’s fun to play for.”

For now, Lowe is savoring his return to Raleigh. The losses gnaw at him, but he sees progress from his inexperienced club — perhaps even to put them, along with him, ahead of schedule.

“It was a dream. It was a wish, and it actually came true for me,” Lowe said. “A lot of former players don’t get that opportunity, they just don’t. For it to happen the way it did and so soon, before 52, I’m just thankful.”

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