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College Basketball - The Greatness of Garyland

By Brendan McEvoy
Saturday, November 30th, 2002
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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 Magazine.

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 case).

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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