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

April 08, 2002
April 08, 2002

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April 8, 2002

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

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.

This is an article from the April 8, 2002 issue Original Layout

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.'"

These days Williams happily attends David's birthday parties,
takes him to the zoo and even crawls with the towheaded
two-year-old into his nylon-mesh playpen during trips to
Columbus. Williams recently gave David a sweatshirt that says put
me in coach, and he purchased a special kid-sized bed for his
grandson's visits to Maryland. "It's almost like a do-over,"
Williams says. "When my daughter was two, I didn't realize how
much fun that was because I'd be thinking, I hope I can get that
job, or, We've gotta go see this kid play."

The boss's new approach to his own life applies to his team as
well. Williams lets his players take half-court shots to end most
practices ("When I played, it was, 'Practice is over, get
dressed,'" says assistant Matt Kovarik, a former Terps guard),
and he offered an emotional apology to the team after its ACC
tournament semifinal loss to North Carolina State last month,
taking full blame for abandoning an effective zone defense that
the players wanted to stick with.

But the kinder, gentler Williams was nowhere to be found on
Monday night, not when he called a timeout after Indiana had tied
the game at 40-40 with less than 12 minutes remaining. "There was
a lot of yelling," says junior forward Ryan Randle. "After he
calmed down, he told us we had to find a way to win. We knew if
we started pounding it inside, we'd be all right." Duly
admonished, Baxter bulled his way to the basket for a layup on
the next trip downcourt, a scene that was repeated frequently
down the stretch as the Terps' burlier frontcourt of Baxter, Tahj
Holden and Chris Wilcox dominated Indiana's Jeffries, Jeff Newton
and Jarrad Odle.

These Terrapins have the distinction of being the first team to
win a national title without a McDonald's High School
All-American since that honorific was created in 1978. Williams
has built his program on unheralded prospects like Baxter, a
once-overweight forward who played in the shadow of an NBA draft
pick (Korleone Young) on his high school team at Hargrave
Military Academy. Likewise, before Wilcox morphed into a
surefire NBA lottery pick, the 6'9" sophomore forward was a
project from a backwater town (Whiteville, N.C.). "The longer
you coach, the more you realize you don't have to have the best
talent," Williams says. "You can beat teams that might be a
little more talented than you are if you're willing to work
harder. Plus it's more fun. You're not dealing with a bunch of
guys who are upset that they're still in college when they're
juniors."

Or, as Randle cracked after the Terps had dispatched Kansas (and
its four McDonald's selects) 97-88 on Saturday, "Man, I guess
we're gonna have to be Burger King All-Americans."

In that case the smallest of small fries is the perfect
complement to Maryland's Whoppers. Dixon was a 6'1", 145-pound
wraith upon graduating from Baltimore's Calvert Hall High--"My AAU
coach, Anthony Lewis, called me World," says Dixon, "because my
head stood out so much on my body"--but Williams decided to take a
chance on him when he saw Dixon play at the Peach Jam, an AAU
tournament in Augusta, the summer before his senior year. "It was
like a thousand degrees down there," Williams recalls. "The game
was a 20-point blowout, his team was losing, and with two minutes
left he dove on the court for a loose ball. You see that and you
say, Well, he's probably going to work pretty hard when he gets
to college."

Coaching careers can be made on such tiny decisions. In his
freshman year Dixon got better just by lining up against
All-America Steve Francis every day in practice. He learned how
to tighten up his footwork on offense and defense, increasing his
efficiency. He studied tape until his eyes glazed over, learning
his opponents' schemes. And he lifted weights like a Venice Beach
tough guy, improving his bench press from 100 pounds to 230 and
packing power into his twiggy legs. "When I first got to
Maryland, I couldn't grab the rim," Dixon says. "Now I'm dunking
on a consistent basis." More than that, he's a 165-pound
first-team All-America with a physique that Williams compares to
a middleweight boxer's.

In Dixon, Williams also discovered a kindred spirit, the lone
Terrapin who isn't afraid to give Williams some of his own
medicine--"The only one," Patsos says, "who will really give as
good as he gets." During Maryland's opening-round defeat of
Siena, Williams went apoplectic after Dixon missed an ill-advised
three-pointer, whereupon Dixon turned and screamed, "Coach, shut
the f--- up!"

Warning-label utterances are nothing new to Dixon, who, in the
final minutes before every tournament game, would pop Jay-Z's The
Blueprint into his CD player, listen to track 6 (U Don't Know)
and conclude by repeating the last line three times: "I will not
lose ever. I will not lose ever. I will not lose ever." In
Saturday's semifinal Dixon put those words into action with his
jump shot, matching his career high with 33 points to sink the
Jayhawks. "Can you say a guy had a quiet 33?" Terps guard Drew
Nicholas asked afterward. "Everything he got was in the context
of the offense. It was amazing."

After Kansas had taken a 13-2 lead, Williams delivered a
spittle-laced philippic. ("If we're gonna lose this game, we're
gonna lose it fighting. We aren't gonna be punks!") Dixon
answered by scoring 10 straight points, but his finest moment
came later, after another on-court exchange with his coach. With
just under two minutes to go, the Jayhawks had whittled an 83-63
Terrapins lead to 87-82. Memories of last year's Final Four
collapse against Duke, in which Maryland had gagged on a 22-point
first-half advantage, came flooding back to Williams, who later
admitted that he'd begun to contemplate what he'd say in the
postmortem press conference if the Terps choked again.

With Maryland sagging against the ropes, Dixon clanged a
three-point attempt, and suddenly Kansas had the ball, but this
time Williams had an entirely unexpected reaction. "Take the next
one!" he encouraged his star from the sideline. Dixon nodded. Two
years ago he sank a baseline runner at the MCI Center in
Washington, D.C., to beat Illinois, a shot the coaching staff
considers to be the moment Dixon became the Terps' leader. Sure
enough, after a defensive stop, he hit the same baseline runner
the next time down the court. Game over.

In Monday's title game, two of Maryland's most important plays
wouldn't even make it into the box score, and both came courtesy
of Mouton. Clinging to a 53-49 lead late in the second half,
Terps guard Steve Blake, suffering through his worst performance
of the year, missed a three-pointer, only to have Mouton go after
the loose-ball rebound and, while falling over the baseline,
throw a Hail Mary pass back to Blake at midcourt. "I just wanted
someone on my team to have a chance to get it," said Mouton, who
struck again a minute later, lunging wildly to tip Baxter's
missed free throw to Dixon. In both cases the Terps scored
immediately. "Sick plays. Just sick," Indiana's Fife would moan
afterward. "But that's Mouton's game. They run nothing for him on
offense, so he digs for everything."

Second chances. They were the story of the game, and so much more
for Maryland and its hard-driving, long-suffering coach. To
understand Williams's newfound equanimity, it's best not to gaze
at his one-man sideline show. Instead, you have to peer under
that calcified shell and hope to catch a fleeting glimpse as he
sheds his $300 Italian loafers and climbs into his grandson's
playpen. In much the same way that Williams seized a second
chance with his family, he and his Terrapins redeemed themselves
on Monday, grabbing hold of the championship denied them by last
year's inglorious Final Four exit.

So thank you, Coach, and thank you, Maryland, for reminding us
once again: Do-overs are allowed, in life and in basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO COVER Mighty Maryland FEAR THE TURTLE Juan Dixon leads the Terrapins over IndianaCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO; BOB ROSATO; AL TIELEMANS; JOHN W. MCDONOUGH STAR BURST Dixon delivered when the Terrapins needed him most, scoring a game-high 18 points to go with his five steals.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO; BOB ROSATO; AL TIELEMANS; JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2) WAR OF NERVES Williams (opposite) agonized while the normally steady Blake (25) and the Terps turned the ball over 16 times.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO; BOB ROSATO; AL TIELEMANS; JOHN W. MCDONOUGH IRRESISTIBLE FORCE Like Dixon, Baxter came to Maryland with little fanfare, but he helped the Terps dominate the Hoosiers inside.COLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES SWEET REDEMPTION Having left last season's Final Four so ignominiously, Dixon and Baxter savored Monday's win, embracing on the floor as Holden gave them a well-deserved pat on the back.COLOR PHOTO: PETER JONES/REUTERS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PATRICK SCHNEIDER/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO; BOB ROSATO; AL TIELEMANS; JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Net gain Williams's frown was turned upside down by his team's victory.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO; BOB ROSATO; AL TIELEMANS; JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
"Gary's teams reflect his intensity," says UConn's Calhoun.
"That's what makes him a great coach."
"The longer you coach," says Williams, "the more you realize
you don't have to have the best talent."
Second chances were the story of the game--and much more for the
long-suffering Williams.