From the illuminated silhouette showing a familiar figure pumping his fist that adorned the outside of the arena, to the season's first sellout crowd inside, Comcast Center had a different feel to it Wednesday night.
It had a different feel to Gary Williams, too — different from any of the game nights he had spent there during the last nine years of a 22-year career at Maryland. Even with an old and familiar rival, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and his eighth-ranked Blue Devils, it was not the same for the 66-year-old coach.
In fact, Williams acknowledged afterward that all the pomp and ceremony of having the court named for him had not quite hit him.
"As time goes by, it will sink in," Williams said during a news conference after the pre-game festivities.
Williams, who retired last May and is still employed by the university as a fundraiser, gave a crowd that included many of his former players and longtime supporters one last fist pump as he walked onto the court.
"It was good, I didn't practice," said Williams, who vowed that it would be the last time.
Just as he was at the news conference in 1989 that introduced the 1968 graduate as Maryland's new coach and at the announcement of his sudden departure last spring, Williams was emotional. But he was also as defiant as ever.
Asked by a reporter about the comments made by former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell and others who said that the court should not have been named in his honor, Williams said, "That's not my concern. My concern is supporting this basketball program and Mark Turgeon."
Williams has purposely stayed away from the arena — "the House that Gary Built" is what longtime play-by-play man Johnny Holliday called it during the pre-game ceremony — he said he would do whatever he can to help Turgeon and the Terps in the future.
"This is Mark Turgeon's program. This is not my program anymore," Williams said.
One of the things Williams said he would like to do is help establish a Maryland basketball Hall of Fame at Cole Field House. But for now, he is trying to stay busy in his work as an analyst for the Big Ten Network.
The notion of having a court named after him, as Krzyzewski and a handful of other coaches have been similarly honored in recent years, is something that seemed unfathomable when Williams first came here from South Jersey in the mid-1960s — or even when he graduated.
"When I left here in 1968, I never thought I'd be back," he said. "It's been a great ride."
It wasn't always the smoothest of rides. The Terps went on NCAA probation for violations committed under former coach Bob Wade the year after Williams arrived. After making the National Invitation Tournament in his first year, Maryland was not even permitted to play on live television or in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament the next.
"We were on tape delay," recalled former Terps star Walt Williams, who was always credited by Gary Williams with helping keep the program afloat by staying at Maryland despite the sanctions. "I think people forgot how bad things were because he had so much success. That was the bottom."
The top came more than a decade later, when Gary Williams coached and Juan Dixon led the Terps to the national championship by beating Indiana in Atlanta in 2002. Dixon, who finished as the program's all-time leading scorer, returned Wednesday night with his now-3-year-old son.
Williams joked that he told Dixon's son "that I was the reason he scored all those points," and that the toddler "looked at me like I was crazy." But Dixon said that the court-naming "was long overdue", adding, "I'm proud of him."
Sitting in the first row of the student section, Dan Rossiter of Towson said he became a Terps fan before the team won the national championship, attended his first game — "against UMES in 2002 or 2003" and wanted to come to Maryland in large part because of the basketball team and its fiery coach.
"It's just an honor to be here for the court-naming," said Rossiter, who graduated in December.
Williams said coming to Comcast Center brought back memories of other big games — including the victory here over Duke two seasons ago that helped the Terps clinch a share of the regular-season ACC title — but there were other memories, too.
"It wasn't fun getting hammered by 25," said Williams, whose first home game against Duke was a memorable 114-111 double-overtime loss.
Williams acknowledged his former players — "It's all about the players," he said — as well as his former longtime assistant coaches and the fans for his success.
"You helped us win a lot of games, and you have a great opportunity to do the same tonight for Mark Turgeon," Williams said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun