- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

Gary Williams strolled into Olsson's downtown store at 12:15 yesterday, looking as casual as any working stiff checking out the latest books on his lunch break. An employee wearing a "Maryland National Champions" T-shirt escorted the Terrapins' coach to a storage area, where he sat down and affixed his signature to about 150 books in 20 minutes.

When you win the NCAA tournament, there are certain perks. One might be the opportunity to publish your autobiography, which means signing your name more times over a 10-day period than most folks do in a year. Eight more such sessions are scheduled. By the time practice starts in a couple of weeks, Williams might be the first one-armed coach in ACC history.

Then again, maybe not. "My arm's in good shape," Gary said hopefully, flexing his fingers to restore some blood flow.

And here's a bit of news you might not know: Gary Williams is left-handed. I wonder if the eminent Charles Grice Driesell, Gary's Terps predecessor once removed, has been informed. Maybe we should call them Lefty I and Lefty II.

Twenty people were waiting in line, copies of Williams' "Sweet Redemption" in hand for personal inscription, when Gary emerged from the storage room and sat down at a small table with his ghost, David Vise. An observer wondered whether he might thrust his fist into the air to arouse the mini-multitude, as he used to before combat at Cole Field House, but this was a different Gary Williams.

Absent was the nervous, sweating croucher who inhabits the sideline in front of the Maryland bench and yowls periodically at the zebras. This was the offseason Williams tanned, handsome and peppering his small talk with one-liners.

The first person in line was Achie Mah, a computer programmer from Bethesda and a Maryland grad, class of '91. "I've been a fan ever since," she avowed. "I've been here since 11:30, but I wasn't expecting to be first in line I guess I got lucky."

Mah wasn't the only one. Larry Strickling, a student assistant in Maryland's sports information office in the '70s, is a telecommunications executive living in Chicago who just happened to be in town when he heard about the book signing. He bought three "one for my dad, one for my son and one for me" and got a nice conversation with fellow alum Williams besides.

One person sought, and got, Williams' signature on three basketballs. Another placed two copies of Sports Illustrated in front of him. A third proffered a scrapbook of pictures taken at the Final Four. By this time, Williams probably would have autographed a blank check had one plunked onto the table.

After a while, with momentarily no more people in line, a store employee put three boxes of books in front of Williams. As Gary signed them, a distant look clouded his eyes.

"I know what you're thinking," a man said. "You're thinking about how close the start of practice is and how much work you'll have to do."

Williams smiled. "When you're an assistant coach, you always wonder what it's like to be a head coach, but you can't really know until you become a head coach. It's the same with winning a national championship. You can't really know what it's like until you've done it.

"The respect you get from other basketball people, the calls from old friends that makes you appreciate the magnitude of what you've done. But since the Final Four, it's all been a blur."

In sports, you see, what's past truly is prologue. On the night of Oct.11, Gary Williams will convene the 2002-03 Terps for the start of Midnight Madness at the brand new Comcast Center. Then everything starts over. And Williams, like any coach worth his whistle, is looking to the future rather than the glorious immediate past. Nobody expects his young troops to make the Final Four for a third straight spring. But there will be other challenges having a winning season, contending for the ACC title and even tossing a roadblock or two in front of Mike Krzyzewski's latest Duke destroyers.

"It's gonna be strange at the start because I'm gonna be saying, 'Where's Byron? Where's Lonny? Where's Juan?'" Williams said, referring to departed anchormen Mouton, Baxter and Dixon. "But that's the great thing about college basketball there's a different challenge each year. What you miss are the people. I spent more time with some of those guys than anybody else for four years, and suddenly they're gone and it's Oct.11 and time to start again."

Well, he's more than willing. At 56, after more than 30 years as a coach, he still succumbs to boyish enthusiasm when basketball matters arrive. After all, basketball is what Gary Williams is all about and probably always will be.

"You seem so relaxed," a man said as Williams signed perhaps his 500th book of the day. "You don't have the intensity you always show during the season."

Williams looked up and smiled pleasantly. "I'll get it back," he said.

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