- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Not a year has passed in D.J. Strawberry’s college career without some misery befalling him.

There was his famous father, the single thing instantly associated with Strawberry from the second he agreed to play basketball at Maryland. There was a shredded right knee ligament, which cost him half of his sophomore season. And there was the misery of navigating through a junior year doomed to end in an NIT berth.

The last two seasons, coupled with the lasting impact of his name recognition, might have driven others away. After all, was it really worth it?

“It got to a point where I thought about actually leaving, but I don’t think my heart would have let me leave without making a mark on Maryland basketball,” Strawberry said. “That’s what I came here for, to make a name for myself and put myself in position to play at the next level. I wasn’t ready for that yet.”

He might be now after overcoming a miserable January and helping Maryland (24-8) reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. Strawberry was at the forefront of the Terps’ push to secure a No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region and a meeting with No. 13 Davidson (29-4) this afternoon at HSBC Arena.

Pro prospects aside, Strawberry ripped asunder all of the problems that hindered his career. His explosive play on the wing and in passing lanes made the knee injury a distant memory. A handful of signature performances — notably a career-high 27 points in an upset of North Carolina last month — ensured Maryland would not wallow in the NIT again.

In the process, he is now D.J. Strawberry, a guard for the Maryland basketball team. A top defensive player in the ACC. A guy for whom fans gleefully chanted “D-J Straw-ber-ry” during pregame introductions at Comcast Center. The willful leader who wouldn’t let the Terps slide into oblivion for the third straight season.

In short, he is without question his own man, one to be respected for his own accomplishments.

“He plays with a lot of spunk,” Miami coach Frank Haith said. “The thing that Darryl has going for him is his toughness. He’s a tough kid. With that characteristic comes a workmanlike attitude. He’s a worker. I don’t coach him, but you can tell the kid’s a worker. He’s got himself in position where he’s a pretty darn good player.”

Added Maryland coach Gary Williams: “It’s been great to see the change. He was a very quiet person, a very, very withdrawn person because of the attention he got in the past. I think he wanted to create his own identity at the university, and he has.”

Turning a corner

The memory of last year’s NIT trip lingered throughout the summer, compelling Strawberry to push himself and, by extension, his teammates as the Terps approached another season. All was well as Maryland won its first eight games, and Strawberry averaged 20.4 points during a soft nonconference stretch before ACC play began in earnest.

It could have been a springboard. Instead, it produced a comparison he couldn’t maintain, and Strawberry slid into a slump as the Terps scuffled to a 3-6 start in league play.

“I like doing that on the big stage,” Strawberry said. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to play well. I was going out there with a lot of thoughts on my mind instead of just thinking about the team and do what it takes to win games. I was thinking about what I had to do to prove myself to scouts. If you win games, all that will take care of itself.”

Perhaps the tipping point was a Jan. 30 game at Florida State when he scored just seven points. Or maybe it was a home loss a week later to Virginia after a comeback fell short. Either way, Strawberry adopted a new approach, hoping it would generate different results.

Time had run out on simply providing an example. And so Strawberry sloughed off the pressure he imposed upon himself and finally relaxed, provoking a change teammates credit for aiding the Terps’ turnaround.

“D.J.’s really opened up. In the beginning part of the year, he was really quiet. He wasn’t really outgoing, wasn’t really talking, wasn’t cracking jokes that much,” forward Bambale Osby said. “Now, D.J.’s turned into a person. A person, a player, a teammate — he’s just turned into everything. … D.J. just blossomed. I can’t think of a better word to use.”

Being more vocal is one thing; producing in significant situations is another. Strawberry mastered both throughout February, thriving as the Terps charged up the ACC standings. He enters the tournament averaging a team-high 15.2 points, and his play of late outside of a six-turnover outing last week against Miami is the best of his career.

And that, Strawberry and the Terps hope, is just the beginning.

“I think D.J. changed a lot,” freshman guard Greivis Vasquez said. “He become more of a leader, a real leader. You tell that in the way he’s playing the last couple games. He’s a big part of our team, and our goal is to win. He’s going to be the key for us this season to win a championship.”

All in the family

All of Strawberry’s success cannot hide a reality Williams acknowledged late last month: “It hasn’t been easy all the time being D.J. Strawberry, if you know what I mean.”

His father, former major leaguer Darryl Strawberry, was once one of baseball’s most feared hitters before his career was derailed by substance abuse. Darryl Strawberry kept a quiet profile while following his son’s career, attending a handful of games this season while trying to remain inconspicuous as he watched his son.

The two posed for a photo in the depths of Madison Square Garden moments after D.J. won the MVP award in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in November, the dad beaming at his son’s accomplishment. Darryl attended D.J.’s final home game earlier this month to celebrate a career with its share of bumps.

In between, the father has been a valued source of advice for the son.

“He just kept me level,” Strawberry said. “Without him or without my mom too, I would have probably lost it by now. Being 2-5 in the league, I wasn’t too happy with the way we were playing or the way I was playing.”

His father, of course, knows enough about handling the pressures of the athletic arena. And he credits Williams for helping his son grow during his time at Maryland.

“I think any dad would be proud. …,” Darryl Strawberry said. “[He] just learned to be disciplined — a disciplined player and not a greedy player — and learned what team concept is. I think a lot of times young players don’t understand what team concept is and playing as a team. I’m just proud he understands what it is to be a team player and a team guy.”

An improved jump shot doesn’t hurt, either. D.J. Strawberry moved well beyond his reputation as a defensive stopper in high school, adding several offensive dimensions to become one of the ACC’s most complete guards.

And that has made him recognizable for all the right reasons.

“Before it was always Darryl Strawberry’s son,” Strawberry said. “That’s a good thing, but I’m my own person. I have to go out and make a name for myself and do my own thing. It feels good to have people know me for me and for playing at the University of Maryland and just playing basketball. It’s a lot better than just being Darryl’s son. Now I have a name for myself, so I’m all right.”

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