By Brendan McEvoy
Saturday, November 30th, 2002
They call it Garyland and with good reason.
Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams has a national championship
to his credit, and he's 17 wins shy of 500 for his career. He's a hard-working,
charismatic coach who wears his heart on his sleeve.
But if you want to know what really makes Williams great, read Tom
Friend's story about Darryl Strawberry, Jr. in the December issue
of ESPN The
Friend tells the story of a tortured teen who has had to wear his father's
travails tightly around his neck like a boa constrictor. I don't want to
give away the ending, but Strawberry, Jr. received a scholarship from Maryland
to play basketball next fall.
According to Friend, Williams saw in Strawberry the next Juan Dixon
-- a late bloomer who is a defense-first, pass-first player with a nonstop
motor, who also happens to be the son of a junky parent (parents, in Dixon's
Williams was able to see past the external factors with Strawberry (who is
not a starter on his high school team) just as he did with Dixon, who was
a 6-2, 140-pound high school senior when Maryland recruited him. Perhaps
the intangible was a competitive spirit or an undying desire to succeed --
but Williams recognized it because, for him, it was like looking in the mirror.
In John Feinstein's book, "A March to Madness," about the 1996-97
basketball season, Williams is described as an undersized scrapper who played
point guard at Maryland in the mid-'60s. Today, the description still fits.
His teams scratch and claw as he nervously paces the sidelines, sweating
through his $1,000 suits, working the refs, pushing his undersized program.
Yes, undersized -- as in its stature in the basketball community. Being in
the same conference as Duke and North Carolina, the Terps used
to be a guarantee game in the seasons before Williams took over. Before his
arrival, the ACC's last significant Maryland memory was the tragic
cocaine-induced death of Len Bias in 1986, which, along with former
coach Bob Wade's tenure, led to a downward spiral in the program.
Williams had to compete with the auras of Dave Odem's Wake
Forrest program, Bobby Cremins' Georgia Tech squads, Dean
Smith's legendary Tarheels, and Mike Krzyzewski's powerhouse Duke
program that gobbles up the smartest McDonald's All-Americans by simply picking
up the phone.
Because of Maryland's reputation in the late '80s, Williams couldn't go after
the same kind of players as Duke and Carolina. Instead, he targeted kids
who felt snubbed by the college basketball elite, like Joe Smith and
Steve Francis. Strawberry, Jr., who, at best, was being recruited
by some mid-major colleges, is his high school team's sixth man. But Williams
said, screw it, I think this kid has what it takes -- as if Williams is going
to trust a prep coach's judgment.
Young Strawberry would like to distance himself from Darryl, Sr., but he's
got his father's fast-twitch muscles and has been through so much adversity
that curling off a screen and taking the game-winning jump shot is as stressful
as tying his shoes. Williams knows that. He also knows players like Strawberry
may need four years to develop -- like Dixon, Lonnie Baxter, and
Steve Blake. And with the best high school players leaving college
early for the NBA draft, Williams will have hungry, experienced seniors with
something to prove -- a commodity worth any five McDonald's All-Americans'
weight in gold.
But Williams is worth much more than that to Maryland. And we're only starting
to realize just how great he really is.
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