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Maryland and its coach complete climb from ashes

ATLANTA -- Maybe it will all sink in sometime this spring or summer. When Juan Dixon is playfully nerfing some improbable step-back jumper over those improbable nuclear family members who became his life support when both his parents died of AIDS. When Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox are seriously bullying some poor, unsuspecting lighter weights in NBA rookie camp -- lighter both in stature and in the wallet comparative to the trillions the pair of bookend muscle men will be counting out of their pro paychecks. When Gary Williams is golfing with his coaching cronies in Oregon or beaching at the Jersey Shore or -- more likely -- venting his veins somewhere in the general vicinity of College Park, Md., in hopes of coming up with some new, unknown mystery guests he can mix and mold and turn into a motherlode, just in time to open the Turtles' new home shell.

Doubtless what all of Maryland's minions will remember most about winning the 2002 national championship won't be Dixon's hustle, drive and relentless 18 points, including that killer triple he nailed just after Indiana took it's first, last and only lead of the game midway through the second half. Or Baxter's 15 points and 14 rebounds -- twice as many as anybody else in the game (anybody being Wilcox, who had 10 and seven.) Or even that other unsung senior, Byron Mouton, whose energy and spirit resulted in one outrageous leaping, one-handed fling-save from the baseline when the Terps clung to a 53-49 lead just as the clock went under four minutes and the Hoosiers were still storming the trifecta gates. That precious possession ended when Maryland's Drew Nicholas -- you probably never heard of him either, but stay tuned; his brother starred at Colgate where Drew was once a ballboy for the Red Raiders -- somehow slipped in among a forest of trees and flipped in the goal that moved Maryland out of danger and safely on the way to its 64-52 first NCAA title.

What they and every other Tortoise Head- - yeah you, Connie Chung and Carl Bernstein and Boomer Esiason and Jim Henson (RIP) -- primarily should recall is: The Bigger Picture. The Longer Road. How Williams pulled this off in only a baker's dozen of years (13) -- that unlikely, tragicomedic span from Len Bias to Catch 22. Or rather from when Williams took over the scandal-ridden program in the aftermath of Bias' death to last year's humiliating 22 points-ahead-to-moronic-meltdown against Duke in the NCAA semifinals. The vicious chant didn't start then (Those cute Cameron Crazies invented it long before) but "Sweat... Gary... Sweat" entered the national fan lexicon at full cry when Williams' first Final Four team lost in Minneapolis last March.

"I'd like to believe it didn't take winning a national championship for closure," a profusely sweating (well, what'd you expect, Donald Rumsfeld?) Williams said in the bowels of The Georgia Dome sometime after midnight, which made it Tuesday morning. Among other things, that meant nobody had played April Fool on the coach and he actually had become the first man in over a quarter-century to coach his alma mater to the title. "But," he said, countermanding his own thought process, "I looked deep into that crowd and the faces and memories came flying back. There are people in their 70s all over Maryland who will sleep better tonight."

Whoa. That kind of fan backing precedes even Charles Lefty ("Ah Kin Coach") Driesell and his "UCLA of the East" proclamation. That passionate fan base was there long before Driesell over-promoted some of his players to the extent that the backlash against one Terp star, a curly redhead named Jim O'Brien, resulted in opposing schools' fans dressing in clown-and-wig outfits mimicking "Bozo." It even pre-dated another Terp student named Larry David, who may have become so infatuated with Driesell and his team's efforts constantly ending in nothingness, he came up with the situation comedy for the age, "Seinfeld."

It's not that Maryland basketball was all a joke. It was just all so infuriating. Red Sox rootaholics think they suffer. But "Garyland" was an emotional whirlpool long before Gary. Driesell turned out New York attorneys like Len Elmore and U.S. Senators like Tom McMillen and solid other players like Tom Roy. But they kept losing the big ones -- once by 103-100 in a memorable ACC tournament final to NC State which kept the Terps out of the NCAAs -- and the responses would include banners, for example, at Duke which screamed (long after Roy graduated): "TOM ROY STILL SUCKS!

Upon the horrid, cocaine-related death of Bias on the 1986 weekend the brilliant power forward was drafted No. 2 by the Boston Celtics, however, all the laughing stopped in College Park.

Three years later, enter into the coaching pit Williams (Maryland, '67), a former Terp point guard who averaged 4.5 points in a non-sterling career whose apex he apparently regards as the time he entered Cole Field House as a spectator and watched Texas Western beat Kentucky in the '66 (Brown vs. Board of Education) NCAA championship game. Williams inherited a team that had won only nine games and finished in last place in the ACC . As Larry David/Jerry Seinfeld might have said back then: Not that there's anything wrong with that.

"Having played at Maryland, I hate to even think about (that time)," Williams said in Atlanta. "Because there was so much mistrust, so much doubt about the place of the basketball program at the university."

Williams had, however, become a hotshot coach in his time away from the Beltway -- he took both Boston College and Ohio State to the NCAAs, and is still the only coach to direct programs in the ACC, Big East and Big Ten conferences -- and he duly impressed one young fan in his very first practice.

"I was finishing up my degree," says Dave Dickerson, the previous year's Terp captain who is now Williams' assistant coach, "and I wanted to see how the new guy ran things. I had come to Maryland to win and we really hadn't. Things had been bleak (in Dickerson's undergraduate years, the Terps were 13-43 in the ACC.) Well, Tony Massenburg came out of that practice and he was gassed. 'Man,' he said, 'Things are gonna change around here fast.' "

In those days, remembered Williams on Monday night: "People in the league used to think 'we're playing Maryland tonight. Easy win.' Well, that's been changing for a long time. I thought about that tonight. I saw a lot of the faces in the crowd responsible. Len Elmore was here. And Massenburg, Steve Francis, Walt Williams."

Ah, Walt Williams. More than anybody, Williams, W. persevered for Willliams, G. He stayed at College Park. He stayed when he could have gone pro or transferred to another big-time program. He stayed despite NCAA sanctions which cost him and the Terps TV games and the NCAA postseason in the prime last two years of Williams' terrific career.

"The Wizard (That's what Williams, G. actually calls Williams, W.) is the only player in ACC history to score 30 points in seven straight games. Of course he had to, we weren't very good," says G. "He should have made All-American. But he never complained. He just kept putting people in the seats -- at a time we couldn't recruit any player 70 percent of the ability of The Wizard."

Not that most of Williams' recruits since have reached some higher power. "Our past made us who we are now," says Dickerson. Which is to say a remarkable collection of white and black (but hardly blue) chip players whom were overlooked by most of the major schools.

"We don't have a lot of McDonald's All-Americans," says Dixon. "Coach just recruits guys who want to work hard to become better players. We didn't come to school with big egos."

Indeed of all the Terps, probably the most sought-after prospect out of high school was Mouton -- and he chose Tulane before transferring to College Park. Maryland's only Mickey D All-Am guy among the current crew is Danny Miller, who left the program after last year's run to the, uh, hoses.

Next season with Dixon, Baxter, Mouton -- and surely the dynamite stick Wilcox (who is the athletic image of Shawn Kemp, pre-Shoney's Breakfast Bar and Breeders Cup days) -- all gone, the returning Turtles may be hard-pressed to win the ACC, much less repeat at the nationals. As Nicholas said to his roommate, Dixon, after the latter buried Kansas with 33 points in the Atlanta semifinals: "Man, you're leaving shoes (to fill) this wide!"

In 2002-03, of course, Nicholas will be expected to be Dixon. Tahj Holden -- from Count Basie's old stomping grounds in Red Bank, N.J. -- and Ryan Randle will stomp the ramparts left by Baxter and Wilcox. And freshman Travis Garrison, a 6-8 Dematha High School product and -- whoops, McDonald's All-American -- may step up for Mouton. Williams also will have the luxury of patiently developing a handful of other potentially smash rookies such as guards John Gilchrist and Chris McCray and the sublime lefty shooter Nick Caner-Medley (think Oregon's Luke Jackson).

"But our mindset will still be the same it's been for the last two years," says Terp junior point guard Steve Blake. "We go into every game confident, thinking we're the best team in the country. Tonight we proved it."

"Yeah, we've got the respect now," says assistant coach Dickerson -- a South Carolina native who is contemplating a move up to one of the mid-major head jobs as we speak, perhaps the College of Charleston? "The best part is we don't have to sell anybody anymore on whether we can win. We just won it all."

Giddy cliché flow like tears and instead of champagne in "amateur" championship dressing rooms. "I don't know how to act. I've never done anything like this in front of 53 million people," said Wilcox, who was off by a few zeros. But picky, picky.

Then there was this from Nicholas: "At no time in my life have I been so happy I couldn't cry," said the Hempstead, N.Y. kid. "But I'm not kidding. I really can't get any tears out of my eyes."

Conversely, there will hardly be a dry eye in Bloomington if star Hoosier forward Jared Jeffries turns to the NBA. In Atlanta the two most significant games of his life turned into the only time all season JJ went consecutive contests failing to score in double figures. He obviously needs another year to bulk up and hone his skills around the bucket. At times Wilcox and Baxter made the angular Hoosier look like, uh, Drew Gooden.

Absent Jeffries -- and senior starters Dane Fife and Jarrad Odle -- Indiana will reload with oodles of new talent including a backcourt Mike Davis has been hyping all winter: Bracey Wright from Texas and Marshall Strickland from (wouldn't you know it?) Maryland, by way of a few dozen of those basketball academies and AAU teams.

Throughout March Madness, it was a revelation to observe a bunch of Indiana kids actually having fun on a basketball court, enjoying the experience, sharing laughs with their coach (with not a single smashed telephone, humiliated media dog or bullwhip in sight). To watch Davis during the championship game was to understand why. Even on the short end of the stick most of the evening -- he made no mention of the fact Indiana shot but seven free throws (making two, tying the tournament low set in 1944) -- the new Hoosier Daddy kept grinning, chuckling, winking at his players, referees, writers, a couple of NCAA officials at the scorers' table, anybody who crossed his line of sight. Coaching bliss? Well, sort of. "Blessed," Davis kept saying. "I am so blessed to be here."

And he'll probably be back again. Back-to-back? Williams who just did it knows how difficult that can be. The braided Wilcox having mussed Gary's hair something fierce -- "It's too plain for me; had to give it a new style," said the player -- very early Tuesday morn, Williams still looked like something Mike Tyson had chewed on. He contemplated the absolute weirdness of what his team had just done. Win Maryland's first championship in Maryland's 2002nd game in the year 2002? Beat five former NCAA champs in a row -- Wisconsin (1), Kentucky (5), Connecticut (1), Kansas (2) and Indiana (5) -- which, combined, had won 14 titles?

"This is so great, the timing and everything," said Williams, who vows to raise the NCAA championship banner in Cole Field House before transferring it to the Terps' new digs across the way at the new Comcast Center. "I think we'll have a new aura about us next season. A whole new feeling. That will be a real rush."

Uh, Gar. Terrapin Nation is already rushin'.

Curry Kirkpatrick is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine