Friday, May 06, 2011

Thanks Gary

My favorite memory of the Gary Williams era of Maryland basketball did not burn its way into my brain at Cole Field House, Comcast Center, or even Minneapolis or Atlanta, where Gary and the Terps played in back-to-back Final Fours.

No, the indelible moment took place in Anaheim in March of 2001. Gary and the Terps had just defeated top seeded Stanford in the Elite 8 and I was lucky enough to be in the stands, in the lower bowl even, having snuck down from the nose bleeds I scalped to sit in Terrapin red among a bunch of well-heeled, burgundy-clad Stanford alums.

After the final horn blew on an amazing game – Maryland won 87-73 – Gary climbed up the ladder to take his turn cutting down the net. He’d finally done it. All the years, all the battles, all the sweaty suits, and all the sideline rants were in the past. He had a look of elation and peace. The Final Four awaited. He’d done it.

For the prior two hours, his third-seeded Terps took apart top-seeded Stanford, led at the time by future NBA players Jarron and Jason Collins along with All America Casey Jacobson. Maryland's Lonny Baxter absolutely schooled the Collins twins in the second half to the tune of 24 points with an array of half hooks, drop steps and reverse layups. Juan Dixon nailed his share of trademark jumpers and the score kept stretching out, stretching out in Maryland's favor as the clock wound down.

I'm getting the chills now typing as I remember that game. It meant so much. No team before or since, in my opinion, embodied the Gary Williams era more at Maryland. They were scrappy and talented, but not overwhelming favorites. They played hard, like their coach, and took their share of criticism. Just a month or so prior to that magical night in Anaheim, the Terps fell at home to a mediocre Florida State team. The home crowd booed the team off the court.

As Maryland completed the win over Stanford (for my money, the best played game of any team in the Gary era), the Florida State loss felt like another season. But I bet Gary remembered. I bet he heard those boos somewhere in his brain as he ascended the ladder, scissor in hand. I remember watching him intently, not wanting to miss a second of it. I can’t remember feeling as happy as a fan or as satisfied for a coach as I did at that moment. He cut the remains of the net, grabbed it, and swung it over his head. “There! You see this?" he seemed to say with each twist of the rope. "You didn’t think I could do it, did you? Well here I am. What do you want to say now?”

I just want to say thank you. Thanks Gary. There will never be another coach like you. It was quite a ride.