Edna Hughes remembers the youth league coaches asking what was wrong with her son. They wondered why a big kid like Lonny Baxter would be so quiet and so passive and so, well, uninterested.
“They said he wasn’t tough enough and wanted him to change his demeanor,” Hughes says. “I said, ‘He’s not going to change. Tell him what to do, and he’ll do it.’ He has never really been one to express himself.”
Baxter still doesn’t talk much, and he still isn’t flashy. This is, after all, a guy who lists sleeping as one of his favorite hobbies.
“I’m just a nonchalant person,” Baxter says. “I’ve been mad many, many times, but it’s just really hard to get it out of me.”
Nobody takes exception to the Maryland Terrapins’ silent senior these days. In fact, Baxter’s stern look and glaring eyes became a trademark as he rose to the ranks of the nation’s best centers.
“He plays with the same frown all the time,” teammate Juan Dixon says. “No emotion at all.”
Says coach Gary Williams: “He just wears that mask in games. A referee’s calls, another player is not going to take him out of it. Lonny is quiet, but he’s a very aggressive player. Usually quiet guys aren’t that assertive. That’s what’s different about Lonny.”
What also is different about Baxter is that he has a tight end’s frame but still runs the court well. He is quick and agile, more so now than ever. Baxter trimmed down and gained strength in the offseason and is in the best shape of his life. He already has shown a new, explosive leaping ability.
The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Baxter was considered too small to play center and was told not to bother with a big-time program like Maryland. He would never get much playing time. Last season, Baxter proved he belonged, leading the Terps to their first Final Four and being named the West Region MVP along the way.
The barrel-chested Baxter played one of his finest games in the Terps’ victory over Stanford in March, a win that gave Maryland the West Region championship and was one of the biggest victories in school history. Baxter scored 24 points and schooled the top-seeded Cardinal’s heralded front line of 7-footer Jason Collins and his 6-11 brother, Jarron.
“They just played off me, so I went around them,” Baxter says. “It wasn’t something I was looking to do. They gave me space, and I took advantage.”
Baxter easily cruised around the twins, using previously unseen dribble-penetration moves and making 11 of 18 shots.
“I had seen it in practice, like that left-handed move with that reverse layup,” Williams says. “I never saw it in games. I don’t think they expected him to be able to drive like that that far away from the basket. He probably couldn’t a year ago. That’s where the quickness comes in.”
That performance came two days after Baxter torched Georgetown’s front line in the regional semifinals. Baxter dominated the bigger and reputedly more physical Hoyas, finishing with 26 points and 14 rebounds.
“Lee Scruggs called me soft,” Baxter says. “That made me mad, but I didn’t show it on the court.”
That’s the way Baxter has been since he picked up the game on the blacktop at Westgate Elementary School in Bethesda and throughout a well-traveled high school career. Baxter went to Silver Spring’s Springbrook and Rockville’s Richard Montgomery before spending a year at Anacostia, living in the District with his aunt and ailing grandmother.
It was as a senior at Anacostia that he began to draw the attention of recruiters. He led the Indians to the city title, scoring 35 points in a victory over Gonzaga at Cole Field House. He didn’t have the required SAT scores for college, however, so he went to Hargrave Military Academy in rural Virginia to repeat his senior year and earn the required scores.
“He was about 6-7, 290 pounds when he first got there,” says Kevin Keatts, who coached Baxter at Hargrave. “As big as he was, he was also one of the quietest guys. He tiptoed around. He went from being a teddy bear to a man at Hargrave.”
The military regimen was a shock for Baxter and just what he needed. The newfound discipline helped Baxter academically. His grades went up, and soon he achieved the required test scores.
“I finally realized what it took to get things accomplished,” he says.
Maryland took an interest in Baxter after seeing him play in summer camps before he went to Hargrave. Baxter was a huge Terps fan. He idolized Len Bias as a child and once even met him at Prince George’s Plaza. However, he never mentioned that to Williams or assistant coach Dave Dickerson when they came to visit. And Baxter was getting plenty of advice to steer clear of College Park.
“Everybody kept telling him not to go to Maryland,” Hughes says. “They said ‘You’ll never play center, you’re too small.’ His dad wanted him to go to Xavier. I always said, ‘Do what you want to do.’”
What he wanted to do was to play for the Terps.
So Baxter came to Maryland and roomed with old friend Steve Francis. He played sparingly as a freshman at first. Then center Obinna Ekezie suffered a season-ending injury to his Achilles’ tendon in February, and Baxter was thrust into the starting role. He struggled, regularly getting into foul trouble, and his minutes diminished in the NCAA tournament.
That served as a warmup for a sensational sophomore season. Baxter averaged 15.6 points and 8.8 rebounds and was named first-team All-ACC. His ultimate arrival as a big-time player came when the Terps upset Duke 98-87 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 9, 2000, to snap the Blue Devils’ 31-game ACC winning streak and 46-game home winning streak. Baxter totaled 22 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
“That was the game that told Lonny, ‘I’m pretty good. I can do this,’” Williams says. “I think he knew he could rebound and play defense, but that Duke game told him he could score.”
Last season, he averaged 15.6 points and 7.9 rebounds. Over the summer, he earned a spot on the U.S. national team at the World University Games in China and was a top player. In addition, he did offseason conditioning and ate better.
“When he first got here [as a freshman], he was out of shape and didn’t like to work out at all,” says Maryland strength coach Kurtis Schultz, who advised Baxter to lay off pastas and fast food. “Even last year, he had some baby fat. This year, he’s ripped. He’s gained muscle and lost weight.”
The new physique allows Baxter, already on several preseason All-American lists, to jump higher and move faster. Players and coaches say Baxter also has loosened up personally: He even will tell a joke or hum a tune in practice.
But don’t expect him to talk trash or taunt anytime soon.
“He keeps to himself a lot,” Dixon says. “He responds with his game. If somebody runs their mouth, he lets them feel the wrath of that shoulder right in the chest or the chin. I want him to be more talkative, around me anyway. I get on him about that. He just keeps to himself. I guess that’s just how he gets it done.”