If, like me, you grew up in the 1970s, the only college basketball world you’ve known is the one Lefty Driesell created. That made it hard to wrap your head around some of the facts that rose to the surface as word of Driesell’s death last week got around. A few of your elders knew those facts, but all you’ve ever known is what you’ve seen, and what came before that is almost inconceivable.

Maryland basketball being a nonentity on the D.C., Baltimore, statewide and regional sports scene? Maybe, but that’s just beyond imagination. No big, splashy, raucous first day of practice? Seriously, it seems as if Midnight Madness has been around forever, but there was no such thing until Lefty invented it. Arm-waving, foot-stomping, gyrating antics on the sidelines? That’s not the way Dean Smith or John Wooden coached.

But it turns out it’s more than that. High school legends from New York, Philadelphia, D.C., Baltimore, up and down the East Coast and all over the country, from famous programs and storied playgrounds, beating a path to College Park, raising the level of the rest of the metro area, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the nation to match? It was commonplace as far as we can remember.

And, yes, Black players, the ones who went everywhere else but the South once upon a time. They didn’t go down South at all before Lefty settled in at North Carolina’s tiny Davidson College in the 1960s, before he battled Smith at North Carolina trying to coax Charlie Scott to break down the stubborn, near-impenetrable barriers. In 1966, Scott went with Smith and very famously integrated the North Carolina program, but Lefty came up with more than a compromise, another New York kid, Mike Maloy — the first Black player in Davidson’s history — to shake things up in a region that needed shaking up.

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That’s something you didn’t even know if you were of that certain age — that Lefty helped integrate ball down South when the South was barely interested in it, when everyone followed Adolph Rupp’s lead and when Pete Maravich did miraculous things at LSU against only a certain kind of competition. Lefty was one of the reasons that came to an end — and, once it did, seeing Len Elmore and John Lucas and Mo Howard and Albert King and Buck Williams and Ernie Graham was not an anomaly, not the exception, not even the norm, but expected and demanded.

“I mean, he was a guy from the South, and yet he always had a connection to Black players,” Elmore recently said, looking back five decades to when Driesell came to Manhattan’s Power Memorial Academy to see him and a teammate who also went South to play for him, Jap Trimble. Lefty told the entire starting five, “I’ll take all five of y’all,” Elmore recalled, and it was easy to imagine hearing and seeing him say it with the grin, the drawl and the charm that became so recognizable and eventually his signature.

Plus, Elmore added, repeating what recruits have said about the Driesell recruiting experience for decades, “My folks loved him.”

Tony Massenburg, one of the last Maryland players to play for Driesell, echoed what one of the first had said, about the early-1980s visits to Sussex Central High School in southern Virginia, which was more Tar Heels country than it even was Hokies or Cavaliers country then. By then, Massenburg recalled Monday, he was already sold on Maryland, because he had grown up on what Driesell had feverishly and fearlessly put in place decades earlier — and because his favorite player, Len Bias, was there.

Then, he remembered, Driesell brought his personal touch. “That’s what sealed the deal for me — when my parents met him, when he made the visit to our home,” Massenburg said, “and when Coach Driesell came down to my high school — you know, my little high school in southern Virginia. I mean, that was a huge deal.”

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Driesell clearly felt at home everywhere — after all, he went into Petersburg, Virginia, when the area was barely a few years removed from rigid segregation and the resulting wrenching poverty, and convinced Moses Malone to come to Maryland, before the pros lured him away.

He also knocked another seemingly impenetrable barrier down by hiring the first Black assistant coach in the ACC, George Raveling, an early boost to one of the most influential careers in college basketball history. Driesell “did some very progressive things — at one point, we started four Black players,” Elmore said. Again, almost unfathomable, the early 1970s, below the Mason-Dixon Line, four Black starters and a Black lead assistant coach, in a league centered on Tobacco Road.

“He wasn’t afraid to step out of the box a little bit, at a time when the ACC was kind of ruled by the Bible Belt, so to speak, and that mentality that came with it,” Massenburg said. “Maryland being the furthest north of all the schools in the ACC probably allowed him, to a certain degree, a little bit more flexibility than, say, the schools in North Carolina. But, make no mistake, he was still stepping outside the box. So you admired him for that, and the fact that he was willing to take that chance on young men of color when a lot of schools weren’t.”

The end for Driesell at Maryland will always be remembered more than the beginning, for the saddest and most bitter of reasons. When Bias died in the summer of 1986 and the program, athletic department and nearly the whole university imploded in the aftermath, it signaled the end for Driesell there — and, one would assume, the end for him in coaching and in that world he helped build.

“I felt so bad when he was asked to resign,” Elmore said. “We all thought that he was scapegoated, because it didn’t reflect who he was, and his relationship with the players or the program.’’ Worth noting, he added, not without some anger, “You can see the fact that, once he left, the nonsense continued.”

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Massenburg, one of the players who lived through that aftermath, said his old coach had gotten “a raw deal” and added that he was not surprised, as many had been, that Driesell got to coach again. “His reputation had taken a huge hit, just on the fallout,” he said. “But I also knew that the things he accomplished and who he was would probably get him another opportunity.”

What he accomplished and who he was eventually got Driesell immortalized in the Basketball Hall of Fame … speaking of things that once seemed unfathomable, certainly in the summer of 1986.

They also got him remembered in the most heartfelt, loving ways by those who inhabited the world he created, the world that was never the same once he arrived.

David Steele is the author of “It Was Always a Choice: Passing the Baton of Athlete Activism.” His more than 30 years as a sports journalist include working for national publications such as The Sporting News and writing columns for daily newspapers in San Francisco and Baltimore.

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