Byron Mouton has often had to reinvent himself. A big scorer in high school in Louisiana who turned into more of a defensive stopper during his two seasons at Maryland, Mouton tried to start an online basketball apparel company while finishing his professional career in China three years ago.
"I called it '6th Man For The True Fan,'" Mouton recalled recently. "People could take any jersey and we'd put their name on it. But after I came back to Maryland after the season, the business connection I had for the fabric in China went away. I had to figure out something else to do."
Mouton kept the 6th-man theme alive, and started a youth skills development program in Montgomery and Prince George's counties that has grown to some 15 AAU teams for boys and girls, as well as an after-school mentoring program that involves more than 5,000 students ranging in age from fourth grade through high school. He said he is in the process of security funds to build a gym to house the program.
He laughs at the irony of his organization's name.
"I think I was the sixth man in four games my entire career [at Maryland]" said Mouton, who actually came off the bench seven times as a Terp, starting all but one game his senior year.
Mouton's road to Maryland was a bit circuitous. Though former Terps assistant Dave Dickerson had spent time recruiting Mouton out of Rayne, La., where he was among the country's top 25 prospects, Mouton first committed to play at Kentucky, but opted out of his scholarship when Rick Pitino left for the Boston Celtics. With LSU on probation, Mouton opted to stay close to home to play at Tulane.
After he scored more than 15 points a game as a freshman, his average went down and his desire to play at a more high-profile program went up.
"We were under .500 my first year and around .500 my second. I had never played for a losing team and I was used to winning championships," Mouton said. "When I made it known that I was going to transfer, the three schools I considered were Maryland, Kentucky and Connecticut. Usually when you transfer, you have to go down a level. I wanted to challenge myself."
Aside from his connection to Dickerson, who recruited him again (this time successfully), Mouton didn't know anything about the Terps except that College Park was near where his stepbrother lived in Waldorf and his stepsister lived in Northern Virginia. But in choosing Maryland, Mouton discovered a new family - his teammates and coaches.
It was never more apparent than during his senior year. After playing in the BB&T Classic in Washington, Mouton's stepbrother was outside the dressing room at the MCI Center. Maryland coach Gary Williams told Mouton that instead of returning with the team to campus, he should go with his stepbrother.
"I asked him, 'Why am I going home with you?" Mouton recalled. "He had to explain that my brother Kevin had been murdered in New Orleans. It was tough for awhile."
Mouton said he sought counsel from fellow senior Juan Dixon, whose parents had died from complications from AIDS while he was in high school.
"My teammates were always there for me and so were the coaches," Mouton recalled. "It was truly a family. It was an incredible experience."
Mouton said that the Terps were a mentally tough bunch, and three losses the previous season - regular-season defeats to Florida State and Duke, as well as the loss to the Blue Devils in the NCAA semifinals in Minneapolis - helped fuel their collective passion during the championship run in 2002.
Included in that tournament run were back-to-back wins over Kentucky and Connecticut in Syracuse, N.Y., that helped Maryland reach the Final Four in Atlanta.
"I just remember walking in there [to the Georgia Dome, and] so many people supporting us from around the country after hearing the stories about Juan's family and my brother being killed. People had our backs."
As for the victory over Indiana in the championship game, Mouton said, "I think it was destiny," but added, "I'm actually disappointed that we didn't win two [national championships]."
Mouton, who once outscored both Tracy McGrady and Lamar Odom at the ABCD high school all-star camp, was more of a role player at Maryland. His friends back home kidded him about why he didn't shoot that much as a Terp. In two seasons, he averaged a little more than 10 points. He was named third-team All-ACC as a senior.
After finishing his professional career with the Maryland Greenhawks, Mouton thought of going to work for his brother's insurance company in Washington, but wanted to be able to have a job that gave himself a little more freedom "and kept me in the gym." Securing donations from State Farm Insurance as well as Choice Hotels, Mouton's 6th Man Skills Development organization began.
"I love it, to be able to do something I love, get up when I want, motivate them academically, have a chance to help kids and still be able to be in the gym," Mouton said. "I wouldn’t want to do anything else - unless somebody wanted to hired me to be a head coach at a university or an NBA scout."
He said that he learned as much from the most tragic event during his time at Maryland - his brother's still-unsolved murder - than from the one that ended with he and his teammates cutting down the nets.
"It helped me a lot by telling me life is short," said Mouton, whose brother was 32, a year younger than Mouton is now, when he was killed. "It taught me to value the little things: put God first, stay positive. It helped me understand the value of life. "
Mouton said that when he first started the youth basketball organization, one of his goals was to see one of his players one day wear the same Maryland uniform that he did.
"They weren't doing so great. I thought I could help them out," he said.
Who knows? Maybe one of his players from the 6th Man organization will become a sixth man (or woman) for either Mark Turgeon or Brenda Frese.
"I would love that," said the proud Terp.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times