- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

It's the biggest basketball game ever for Maryland, bigger even than last week's biggest basketball game ever. Walt Williams, who more than a decade ago helped put the wheels in motion to make it happen, will have to miss some of it due to a prior commitment.

When the Terrapins play Duke on Saturday in the NCAA tournament semifinals in Minneapolis, Williams and his Houston Rockets teammates have a game of their own. It's against the Wizards, of all teams, at MCI Center, and maybe 12 people will stay for the whole thing. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. Everyone else will be watching the Terps and the Blue Devils, scheduled to start at about 8:20.

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Rather than pout about it, Williams, who is in his ninth NBA season, had to laugh at the coincidence.

"I might have someone running back and forth from the bench to the locker room to tell me the score," he said.

"That someone will probably be me," said Tim Frank, the Rockets' media relations guy.

It's a good bet another Rocket, former Terps All-American Steve Francis, also will want to be kept informed. He and Williams had to endure a lot of, uh, stuff from their teammates earlier in the season after Maryland blew a big lead against Duke and then lost to Florida State.

"A lot of guys were in our ear after that," Williams said. "I stayed strong."

Williams stayed strong once before, and now he has a place in history. Terps coach Gary Williams always mentions how Walt Williams' decision to finish his college career at Maryland, despite sanctions that would keep him out of the NCAA tournament, injected a struggling program with the strength and credibility it needed to weather some difficult times.

"If he didn't stay, I'm not sure we could have kept our fan base," Gary Williams said. "He was 'the Wizard,' all that stuff. He was colorful. He'd dunk a couple, do some spectacular things. Students loved him. That kept things going through that period."

The word "shambles" often is used in conjunction with "that period."

It started in June 1986, when Len Bias, considered the greatest player to wear a Maryland uniform, died from ingesting cocaine after celebrating being taken by the Boston Celtics with the second pick in the draft. But the horror, shock and grief that resulted was just the beginning.

Coach Lefty Driesell, who transformed Maryland into a national power, was forced to resign. Two internal reviews by the university produced massive academic reforms and made it more difficult to recruit. The hiring of Bob Wade, a high school coach, to replace Driesell proved to be a disaster. Performance of both the football and basketball programs dropped off, attendance plummeted and the athletic department found itself millions of dollars in debt. Always permeating the environment like a poison fog was Bias' death.

The crushing blow came in 1990 at the end of Gary Williams' first season. Because of violations committed during the Wade regime, the NCAA pounded the program. Maryland was banned from postseason play for two years, television for one, scholarships cut. Williams, who returned to his alma mater after leaving a strong Ohio State program, said he was blindsided by the severity of the sanctions.

"We weren't on a level playing field," he said. "We were playing the top teams in the country not having the same number of scholarships. And we couldn't play on television, so how are you gonna recruit a top player to come here? Our admissions changed during that period, where they felt they had to be more careful about who was admitted. We lost two players. One's still playing in the NBA, the other played in the NBA for three or four years."

The first player, Donyell Marshall, went to Connecticut instead. He was Big East player of the year in 1994 and finished as the school's No. 6 scorer. The other, Lawrence Moten, attended Syracuse and became the all-time school and Big East points leader.

"It was a tough time," Williams said. "Whatever happened before I got here, the school looked on the basketball team as something that hurt the university a little bit in terms of their look around the country as an academic institution. You know what happened. We got that used against us time and time again in recruiting. About what type of place this was because of what happened."

Williams said there were times he thought he might not turn it around. So how do you get from there to the Final Four, not to mention a big, new, shiny arena, the Comcast Center, that will open for the 2002-03 season?

"You just keep working," he said. "There's no formula. I didn't do any one thing. We just kept working and did the best we could recruiting until we got a good group of guys who could play at the level necessary to win in the ACC."

In 1988-89, Wade's last season and Walt Williams' first, Maryland went 9-20 overall, 1-13 in the ACC. Enter Gary Williams. The next year, the Terps were 19-14 (6-8 ACC), led by Wade recruits Jerrod Mustaf, Tony Massenburg and Walt Williams. But during the ACC tournament, the NCAA sanctions came down. And because of those sanctions, Walt Williams, with two years remaining and now guaranteed never to play in the postseason, could transfer without having to sit out a full season.

"I figured he was gone," Gary Williams said.

Walt Williams had been a Maryland prep star at Crossland High School, leading his team to three state championship games, winning one. Remarkably, even though he was 6-foot-8 and could play guard, he said he was recruited by Wade only after his coach, Earl Hawkins, made a pitch on his behalf.

All Walt Williams ever wanted was to play basketball for Maryland. He grew up at Cole Field House, watching Len Bias and Adrian Branch. He bled red and gold. Now, wearing the colors himself, he blossomed during his sophomore year under Gary Williams.

"I didn't know what kind of coach he was," Walt Williams said, "but once I met with him, he explained to me how he would play an uptempo game, pressure basketball. He wanted me to go out and play the way I could play."

Probation, however, was a barrier Walt Williams had not foreseen. He could have avoided it, transferring to Nevada-Las Vegas or St. John's or Georgetown or any of the other schools that came after him, essentially repeating the recruiting process.

Williams decided to stay.

"My friends were here. I felt comfortable here," he said. "I felt comfortable with the coaching staff. Of course I wanted to go to the NCAA tournament. But I also felt that this was the best way to get to the NBA, to get to the next level. [Gary Williams] assured me I could play point guard and have the ball in my hands… . I just wanted to be a Terp. It was my dream, and it was my dream come true."

Gary Williams and his assistants, Billy Hahn and Art Perry, visited Walt Williams and his family at their home in Temple Hills to discuss the situation.

"Walt was very close to his parents," Gary Williams said. "He also knew he'd get a chance to play as a guard those two years. When you transfer, there are no guarantees."

Walt Williams said his decision "really wasn't that tough, once I weighed my options."

On probation during the 1990-91 season, Maryland still posted a winning record, 16-12. Despite suffering a broken leg and missing several games, Walt Williams led the team in scoring and assists. His senior year, the Terps fell to 14-15 as the sanctions took hold. But Williams electrified the crowds at Cole and recorded the highest scoring average in Maryland history before or since, 26.7 points a game. The Terps didn't win much, but they competed, and, mainly because of Walt Williams, they were fun to watch.

"I think the other guys on that team Kevin McLinton, Vince Broadnax, Evers Burns those guys made the ultimate sacrifice," Walt Williams said. "Setting screens, looking in the paper every day and seeing Walt and the Terrapins and things of that nature. I've got to take my hat off to those guys. Never once did I hear them complain."

In the 1992 NBA Draft, Walt Williams, who had remained at Maryland all four years, was picked seventh in the first round by the Sacramento Kings.

"I never regretted anything," said Williams, who is eighth in career points at Maryland. "Sometimes I think about what would have happened if I got to play in the tournament, where a lot of guys get exposure. But I'm happy with my decision. I never regretted my time in Maryland."

The season after Walt Williams' departure was the worst for Gary Williams. With two freshmen starting, Maryland was 12-16, 2-14 in the ACC. But the program had stayed the course, and good things were happening. Walt Williams' fingerprints again were in evidence. As a senior, he helped Gary Williams recruit his first significant class, which included the starting freshmen, Johnny Rhodes and Exree Hipp.

"When Gary Williams was sure about the guys he really, really wanted, he'd send them around campus with me," Walt Williams said. "I told them how much fun I was having."

Gary Williams' next batch of recruits included Joe Smith, who became a consensus All-American and national player of the year, and Keith Booth, who would finish sixth in all-time points at Maryland. Things really took off then; the past was obliterated. Williams said he sold the program on "blind faith," telling his recruits. "Trust me, we're gonna be really good if you come here."

Williams paused for effect.

"They bought it," he said.

"It was really tough, very difficult for those guys to make that decision," Williams said. "They grew up around the ACC, and they knew the other teams in the league, and they were being recruited by some of those teams."

Even if he didn't actually buy it himself, Williams was right. As the young players matured (Williams started three sophomores and two freshmen), Maryland rebounded to 18-12 in 1993-94, made the NCAA tournament and reached the Sweet 16. The season began with what Williams calls his breakthrough game, an 84-83 overtime victory over Georgetown at USAir Arena. It was the first time the local rivals had played since the 1980 NCAA East regional semifinal and the last time until the Terps beat the Hoyas a week ago in the West regional semis in Anaheim.

Since 1994, Maryland has been to the NCAA tournament every year. Now the Terps are in the Final Four for the first time. Walt Williams, who said "to be recognized as part of that is great," has no scheduling conflicts for Monday's final.

"We aren't gonna be playing on Monday," he said, "so I'll be able to see Maryland play in the championship game."

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