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Feb. 22, 2012
Excuse Johnny Rhodes for a moment. He has to take this call. Gary Williams waits on the alternate line.
"To this day, we are still in contact," the former guard says of his former coach a minute later. "We support each other. It's amazing to have a coach who is also your friend."
The bond is easily understandable. Williams helped Rhodes fulfill a childhood dream that once seemed iffy. Rhodes helped build the Maryland program from the residue of punishment to the realization of promise. As a result, he is the Terrapins' ACC Legend for 2012.
Known as one of the best defensive guards of the past 20 years, Rhodes is appreciated almost as much for his original decision to attend the school as for his on-court achievements.
"My freshman year was the first year we had gotten off probation," he said, referring to NCAA-imposed sanctions for rules violations under a previous administration. "I am part of the class that changed the program."
Rhodes, point guard Duane Simpkins and forward Exree Hipp, all of whom hailed from within a decent chest pass of Cole Field House, were the core of Williams' first fully loaded group of recruits. They all grew up watching Maryland basketball, dreaming of wearing the uniform and pausing while collateral damage from various events imposed harsh penalties on the program.
But as they were getting ready to make college choices, they knew things would work out.
"We had seen talent go elsewhere," the Washington, D.C., native said. "And we said, 'We'll be able to put Maryland back on the map.' Being area guys, we saw Len Bias and Walt Williams and other guys. Growing up, that was the school you always wanted to go to anyway. Then the circumstances weren't the best, but when our time came and the sanctions were lifted, it was perfect."
In his sophomore year, Rhodes was joined by Joe Smith, a forward from Virginia who had somehow been under-recruited. And off they went, making the NCAA Tournament's regional semifinals. Once banned from the postseason, Maryland was a player again.
Rhodes' role was to agitate and initiate. A gym rat with a sharp memory, he earned the respect of coaches and teammates for an ability to see something on tape -- and we are talking tape rather than modern video technology -- and put it to practical use.
"I was one of those guys who had a pretty good basketball IQ," Rhodes said. "Along with understanding the game, we watched a lot of film. I knew if they weren't able to swing the ball to this particular side, that would disrupt their offense. And I would try to disrupt the offense. A lot of times, they would make that pass and I'd be a step ahead."
Whether swiping passes or dribbles, Rhodes set a standard for laudable kleptomania. He holds ACC records for steals per game in a career (2.82) and a season (3.7 in 1996). In so doing, he became the only player in league history to surpass 1,700 points, 700 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals.
If Simpkins was the playmaker and Smith the finisher, Rhodes was the generalist who blended it all. The Terps made the NCAA Tournament in his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, and that success helped make it cool for local prospects to look at Maryland again. Among Rhodes' successors were two Baltimore guys, forward Keith Booth and undersized guard Juan Dixon. In 2002, Dixon led the Terrapins to the NCAA title.
When not messing with opponents' work, Rhodes created his own work as an art major. He transforms images these days as owner of a construction company.
"It's all in the same chapter," he said. "I'm able to visualize something when it comes to construction."
Like many others close to the program, Rhodes was shocked when Williams retired after last season, but he has maintained his ties to all parties.
"I've been on that campus from when I was a student to the present day," he said. "I'm always around and trying to be helpful and to be somewhat of a mentor to current players."
And as far as ACC Legend status is concerned, Rhodes will connect with his contemporaries in the group, including Randolph Childress of Wake Forest, Sharone Wright of Clemson and James Collins of Florida State.
"The talent throughout the ACC was incredible," he said. "Every game, you had to bring it."