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A Staggering Achievement
Grant Wahl
April 08, 2002
Steadied down the stretch by the unflappable Juan Dixon, Maryland overcame a multitude of errors to win its first national championship
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April 08, 2002

A Staggering Achievement

Steadied down the stretch by the unflappable Juan Dixon, Maryland overcame a multitude of errors to win its first national championship

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All night long, as his team bumbled and fumbled with an uncharacteristic lack of poise, Maryland coach Gary Williams scowled. He stomped. He screamed. And only when the game was over, when his players were celebrating and his two-year-old grandson, David, was perched happily in his arms, did Williams allow the widest of smiles to cleave his famously agitated face. "Can you say, Go Terps!" he asked, kneeling to face David on the Georgia Dome floor in Atlanta moments after Maryland had defeated Indiana 64-52 in Monday's NCAA final. Let the record show that David—cut from the same cloth as the hard-to-please Williams—simply tossed his red-and-white pom-pom into his grandpa's face.

Williams burst out laughing. How could he not, after his defense had smothered Indiana's inside game, limiting the Hoosiers to 10-for-35 shooting from two-point range? Or after his guards had flown at Indiana's three-point gunners, pushing them out to NBA range and beyond? Or after Terrapins guard Juan Dixon, the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, had shown why he should have won player-of-the-year honors for the entire season?

Midway through the second half of the sloppiest championship game in ages, just after Indiana had erased a 12-point Maryland lead, Dixon pointed to his brother, Phil, in the stands and delivered a message. "It's all right, it's all right," Dixon mouthed. "I got it." Indiana forward Jared Jeffries soon gave the Hoosiers a 44-42 advantage, their first of the game, but from that point on, Dixon made good on his word. He sank a cold-blooded three-pointer over the outstretched hand of Indiana guard Tom Coverdale. Then, with guard Dane Fife draped like kudzu over his shoulder, Dixon drove to his left and drilled a preposterous fadeaway 15-footer, the two jumpers kick-starting a game-breaking 22-5 run. "I wasn't nervous at all," Dixon would say later. "I've been through tougher situations in my life. This was nothing. I knew we were going to win."

"A lot of guys can score 20 points, but then they run and hide during the last few minutes," a jubilant, sweat-soaked Williams said afterward. "Juan hits every big shot for us."

While winning Maryland's first national title, Williams showed that he's like a real-life terrapin: He may have a hard shell, but he's soft and vulnerable inside. Granted, Williams can be a raving, spitting, cursing maniac on the sidelines. For years the worst place to sit at a Maryland game has been on the bench, where the full brunt of his venom is often felt. In the semifinal against Kansas last Saturday, just before center Lonny Baxter reentered the game with two fouls, assistant coach Jimmy Patsos told him, "Don't get a foul, because I don't want to get screamed at for the next hour." What people fail to realize, though, is that if Williams's players thought he was truly abusive, his teams wouldn't win. "Some guys yell and scream, but their players don't reflect that intensity," says UConn coach Jim Calhoun, whose Huskies lost to Maryland in the East Regional final. "His teams reflect his intensity; that's what makes him a great coach."

Yet Williams's antics are misread more often than a treacherous downhill putt at Augusta. "I've always felt that's the tip of the iceberg with me," he said in a quiet moment last week. "I'm not quite what people think I am." Indeed, before practice at the Georgia Dome last Friday, Williams sneaked up on senior forward Byron Mouton, who lay on the floor of the Maryland locker room listening to music with his eyes shut, and quietly dripped water onto his face before scurrying off to hide in the bathroom. (Mouton never had a clue that Williams was the culprit.) The night before, at an NCAA event with the other Final Four coaches, Williams choked up and his eyes filled with tears as he sat onstage at the Fox Theater describing his love for his daughter, Kristin, and her son, David.

"People see Gary, and they think he's a wild man," says Big East Conference commissioner Mike Tranghese, one of Williams's closest friends. "I tell them Gary is one of the kindest people I know, and they think I'm lying."

Like Dixon, whose heroin-addicted parents both died of AIDS before he turned 18, Williams sought refuge from a turbulent home life in what he speaks of reverentially as "the game." From the time his parents divorced when he was 14, he lived in an all-male household in Collingswood, N.J., with his father, Bill, and his brothers, David and Doug. A check sorter at a bank, Bill was an intensely private, devout Presbyterian who had no interest in sports. Neither did Gary's mother, Shirley, who moved to California after the split, or his brothers. Though he worked with Doug on his father's funeral arrangements—Bill died in February of heart failure, the day before Maryland beat Duke in Cole Field House—neither brother has come to see Gary at the Final Four the past two years.

"We weren't one of those families that were really close," says Williams, a team captain and starting guard during his career at Maryland, from 1964-65 to '66-67, "but the game was always a constant in my life. My parents got divorced, but you could always go shoot a basketball if things weren't going well. The great thing about basketball is, if you have a ball and a rim, you can go play and you don't need anybody else around."

When Williams started his own family, he continued to bury himself in the game. He still has a hole in his heart from missing out on Kristin's childhood during the years he was beavering away as an assistant at Lafayette and Boston College and then as a head coach at American University, BC and Ohio State. In 1990 Williams and his wife, Diane, split up after 22 years of marriage, a painful reminder of his own broken home. Yet his life changed, he says, when Kristin and her husband, Geoff Scott, gave him his first grandson, David, in late 1999. "Once he became a grandfather, there was a certain peace he felt," says Kristin, a part-time schoolteacher who lives in Columbus, Ohio. "He just decided he wanted to do things right. My dad keeps saying, 'You've got the rest of your life to work on your career, but you're never going to get this time back with David.' "

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