- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

There was a time earlier this season when the Final Four meant nothing to Byron Mouton. Basketball just wasn't important after he learned in December that his older brother had been murdered outside a Houston apartment complex.
Maryland's small forward was devasted following the death of Kevin Mouton, 32, who had been shot and killed in his car. Suddenly Byron Mouton's boundless exuberance for life and basketball was replaced by grief.
"The first day I went home and my mom was crying," said Mouton, who headed back to Rayne, La., to his mother Shirley's house after learning the news. "I hate to see people upset and not happy. The main thing is, I just wanted to be with my mom and stop playing ball and going to school. I thought that was the most important thing. She made me realize that my brother [Brian] was home and she has great neighbors. She said the most important thing was for me to keep on going with my life and not let this stop me.
"She always says, you have to think what your brother would want you to do, and that's to play ball and get an education and a degree. That's key for me. I know he is very happy with what I'm doing right now."
Mouton sat in the locker room in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse on Sunday glowing from what had just taken place. The senior again is his charismatic self and has triumphed over tragedy. He was smiling because the Terrapins had earned their way back to the Final Four after a tight victory over Connecticut. Maryland flew to Atlanta yesterday afternoon, and will play Kansas in a national semifinal game Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.
"This is too much fun," he said. "Two-for-two. Not bad at all."
The 6-foot-6 forward has been playing the best basketball of his career during the second half of the season. It would be a stretch to suggest that he is playing any harder since his brother's death. He has always played with a body-sacrificing sense of abandon and is the first to dive for loose balls and has no problem mixing it up with bigger players fighting for rebounds.
However, he seems even more relentless in pursuit of loose balls and rebounds with no regard for who may be in the way. Mouton usually wins the scrums with a menacing look.
Those around Mouton believe he is playing with a greater sense of purpose since the tragedy. He has become a more consistent scoring threat to complement stars Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, in addition to his defense and rebounding. In the NCAA tournament, he has served as a defensive stopper limiting Wisconsin star Kirk Penney and Kentucky standout Tayshaun Prince.
"Our improvement as a team came when Byron started to do that," said coach Gary Williams, who has never dealt with a similar situation in 33 seasons as a coach. "His brother died suddenly this year, and when he came back from the funeral situation, he just seemed like he was more focused. And he really appreciated the idea of playing basketball and realized he was a senior and this was his final go-around in college basketball."
Teammates rallied around their hurt friend. Dixon, who had dealt with both parents dying of complications from AIDS due to drug use when he was in high school, urged his fellow senior to stay tough. Mouton not only is playing with an increased sense of urgency but also was the only team member to make the honor roll last semester.
Mouton scored a season-high 21 points in the dramatic comeback win over Virginia on Jan.31 and recently concluded a run of scoring in double figures in 11 straight games the longest stretch since transferring from Tulane after his sophomore season. The always emotional player has also improved his endurance and now finishes games strong, where he was visibly drained in the second half of games early in the season.
"You never know how it is going to affect somebody," teammate Tahj Holden said. "With his brother's death, I think he came back with a whole new outlook on life like there is never a tomorrow promised. You just have to go out and play your hardest even if it's not your best, and have fun. Because regardless of whether you live 22 years or 60 years, life is short. And it goes by quick. I think he came back with that in his mind."
Mouton, who averages 11.0 points and 5.0 rebounds, didn't miss a game after his brother's death. After spending five days with his family, he arrived in College Park early on the morning of Dec. 10, and was in uniform against Detroit that night. He received a warm ovation when he came off the bench.
"I always ask Mouton, 'Why are you smiling?'" Holden said. "He's like, 'Because I'm happy.' I'm like, 'What are you happy about?' He's like, 'I don't know. I'm happy that I woke up.'"
Mouton regularly finds himself conversing with his brother, whether in prayer or when he just finds himself alone for a free moment.
"When you look over and you see your brother pushing you, it just makes you a stronger person," Mouton said. "It takes something tragic to happen and you never know when your career is going to end. Like when my brother had passed away, you never know. I just took that into consideration that any given day it could be over. I just thank God that I can play basketball. I'm sorry it had to take something tragic like that to make me realize that."
And while he was thrilled to help Maryland to its first Final Four last season, this one was much more special and personal. After experiencing a death that took away his brother and part of himself, Mouton has rejuvenated his soul with a fresh perspective on life.
"It's much sweeter," he said. "I don't want to take anything for granted. I think that is what I have been living by ever since the day it happened. God gave me a gift to be athletic enough to play basketball and I don't want to take anything for granted."


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