Call it a Terp Tunnel.
Though older and grayer, and in some cases a bit heavier, than during their careers in College Park, these mostly middle-aged men still evoked clear images from the past 50 years for the fans who came to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Maryland men’s basketball team.
It was fitting that Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams was among the last to arrive of the estimated 250 people to share memories, take selfies and renew friendships that were forged like steel and some that had faded over the decades.
Given the four years he spent as a player in the 1960s and the 22 more after he returned in the spring of 1989 to rebuild the Terps into the national power they had once been under Lefty Driesell, the 73-year-old Williams was to many who attended the unofficial guest of honor.
That was to be expected considering how Williams led Maryland to its first Final Four in 2001 and, a year later, to its only national championship.
Asked if he still gets a thrill seeing his signature on the Xfinity Center court named after him, Williams said, “That’s not something you ever think will happen in coaching. I was a JV high school coach the year I left Maryland. I never thought I’d be a college coach, let alone have my name on the court. A lot of good people along the way helped, a lot of great players. It just ended up that way.”
The presence of many who attended Saturday’s event brought smiles, and in some cases, tears.
They included four members of the 2002 national championship team coached by Williams as well as a handful of others who played both for him and Driesell over the nearly 40 years they stalked the sideline at Cole Field House and Comcast Center.
If the festivities were missing something, or in this case someone, it was the 87-year-old Driesell, whose elusive goal of following Williams into the Naismith Hall of Fame was realized last fall. According to an athletic department spokesman, it is difficult for Driesell to travel.
Though not present in person, the indomitable Driesell was certainly there in spirit.
Buck Williams joked that Driesell traveled to his hometown of Rocky Mount, N.C., for the food, not the power forward who became the ACC’s rookie of the year as a freshman in 1978-79, a two-time all-ACC player as a sophomore and junior and the third player taken overall in the 1981 NBA draft.
“I always thought he was coming down to recruit me for my talent, he was really coming down to get some barbecue,” Williams joked. “Everybody knows that Lefty loves barbecue.”
At 6-7 and 195 pounds, Derrick Lewis was even a more undersized big man than Williams during his career, which began under Driesell.
“It’s funny, I saw Buck Williams, I saw Tom McMillen come in, it’s really flattering just to be invited back,” said Lewis, who remains the program’s all-time leading shot blocker.
Four key players who helped the program turn around again under Gary Williams — Walt Williams, Joe Smith, Keith Booth and Johnny Rhodes — also came to be part of what many likened to a large fraternity reunion.
“It means a lot, a lot of guys you don’t get to see too often or spend too much time with,” said Smith, who left Maryland after his sophomore year as the ACC player of the year and the No. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA draft.
While Walt Williams never got to play in the NCAA tournament with the program recovering from the NCAA sanctions that Gary Williams inherited after Wade’s three years, he has long been credited by his coach and others for keeping the Terps competitive.
After the Terps were banned from playing in the NCAA tournament and kept off national television for two seasons, Williams had a chance to go to several high-profile programs after his sophomore year in 1990-91, including Nevada Las Vegas. He stayed in College Park.
“That’s one of the highest praises I’ve ever received, to have someone talk about me in that frame,” said Williams, who still holds the school’s single-season scoring record as a senior.
“It’s just awesome to see how the program has grown, and knowing that I was a part of it. I know a number of kids that came behind me saw me playing here. After a while, it transitioned into a championship.”
Drew Nicholas, one of the members of the 2002 championship team to attend Saturday’s event, tells the story of Juan Dixon throwing the ball high into the air at the Georgia Dome after Maryland beat Indiana for the title and teammate Steve Blake catching it when it came down.
“He still has that ball, I’m still a little mad at him,” said Nicholas, whose most famous moment came a year later, when he hit a last-second 3-pointer in the opening round against North Carolina-Wilmington in the 2003 NCAA tournament en route to a Sweet 16 appearance.
Said Blake, “At the very end of the game, Juan had the ball and his way of celebrating was to toss the ball in the air. My first reaction was, ‘What is he doing?’ I caught it, I got it and I never let go and I still have it my house hanging up on my wall.”
Coach Mark Turgeon, now in his eighth season at Maryland, said that being the coach of a program with such a rich tradition is much different than being a beloved ex-player, as he is at Kansas where he was part of a team that played in the 1986 Final Four, losing to Duke in the semifinals, and a graduate assistant on the Jayhawks’ championship team two years later.
“There’s a lot more responsibility, a lot more on your plate,” Turgeon said. “You’re not just worried about your team, you’re worried about all former players, all former coaches, living up to the standard that was set before you. It’s different. I don’t get overwhelmed by it. I’m very proud to be the coach at Maryland. This is the kind of program I always wanted to lead.”
Perhaps it was Booth who summed up the night the best.
Though he has remained in the area as an assistant at Maryland and Loyola, the Baltimore native and former Dunbar star said he hadn’t seen Joe Smith in more than two decades until they reunited Saturday.
“This is good,” Booth said. “Whenever you can have an event and bring people back in good circumstances — usually people in a family do that for funerals and stuff — it’s a time of celebration. 100 years of Maryland basketball and I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.”