COLLEGE PARK -- Until he broke his leg midway through last season, Walt Williams led University of Maryland basketball players in a number of official and unofficial categories: points, assists, steals and breathtaking dunks.
Now fully recovered from the injury that kept him off the court for six weeks -- he returned for the final three games of the 1990-91 season -- Williams has a chance to lead in another category: the first Terrapin on television this year.
If Williams makes the team representing the United States in next month's Pan American Games in Cuba, he undoubtably will receive both the exposure and competition he missed while playing in only 17 games last season for Maryland. The Terps weren't on live television because of sanctions imposed by the NCAA as part of the team's three-year probation.
"It's pretty important, because I haven't played that much this year," said Williams, who survived the first cut in Colorado Springs, Colo., inMay and will, beginning Thursday in West Lafayette, Ind., try to make the final cut. "One of the big reasons I decided to try out was to get myself some more exposure. When I was told that I was one of the biggest surprises of the camp, it was nice to hear, but it showed me that people didn't know who I was."
The team's coach, Gene Keady of Purdue, had heard of Williams, but aside from a few dunks on ESPN's "SportsCenter," never had seen him play at Maryland. Williams will be among 17 players vying for a spot on the 12-player team. Among the others: Grant Hill of Duke and Jim Jackson of Ohio State.
"If he doesn't make the team, it'll mean we have a pretty good team," Keady said yesterday.
Keady likes Williams' size and versatility. At 6 feet 8 and now a solid 205 pounds -- about 35 pounds more than he weighed as a freshman -- Williams is one of the biggest backcourt players in the country. But his ability to play three positions (point guard, shooting guard and small forward) might help him lock up a spot and could lead to a prominent role on this year's Pan Am team.
"He was probably the best player in our camp," said Keady. "I was shocked to see a guy 6-8 do so many things. He can pass. He can shoot the three. He can post up. He can defend. He reminds me a little of Magic [Johnson]. I know that's saying a mouthful, but that's who I thought of watching him."
Williams looks at the prospect of international competition, which would be the first for him, as the next step in reaching his goal: becoming a first-round NBA draft choice next spring.
"I have to re-establish myself, that I was able to come back from the injury and play with the kind of talent I had before," said Williams, who was averaging a shade more than 20 points a game before suffering a fractured left fibula Jan. 12 against Duke. "At the time I was hurt, I wasn't thinking about it [turning pro]. I figured I'd be out a couple of weeks. But it took me a long time just to stand on my toes. It scared me a lot."
The injury caused the insurance company that signed Williams shortly after he got hurt to drop the value of his policy from $2.5 million to $1.5 million. The policy, which carries a $13,000 premium, is sanctioned by the NCAA for certain athletes with pro potential. According to Williams' mother, Theresa, the premium will be paid when her son signs his first pro contract.
Except for a few anxious moments next week when he finds out whether or not he made the Pan Am team, this has been a relatively peaceful summer for the senior point guard from Temple Hills. He has concentrated on basketball, leading the Kenner Summer League with 37.5 points a game. It has been easier than last summer, when he wrestled until early August with his decision to stay at Maryland after the sanctions were upheld.
"I didn't have to worry about anything," he said. "I can sleep a lot easier at night."
About the only thing Williams doesn't need going out to Indiana this week is that old show-biz offering for good luck. One broken leg in a year was enough.
Here are the 16 players who are vying for the 12 spots on the Pan Am Games basketball team roster:
Anthony Bennett. . . . . . . Wis.-Green Bay
Doug Christie. . . . . . . . Pepperdine
Terry Dehere . . . . . . . . Seton Hall
Tom Gugliotta. . . . . . . . N.C. State
Grant Hill . . . . . . . . . Duke
Thomas Hill. . . . . . . . . Duke
Robert Horry . . . . . . . . Alabama
Byron Houston. . . . . . . . Okla. State
Jim Jackson. . . . . . . . . Ohio State
Adam Keefe . . . . . . . . . Stanford
Christian Laettner . . . . . Duke
Eric Montross. . . . . . . . N. Carolina
Tracy Murray . . . . . . . . UCLA
Mike Peplowski . . . . . . . Michigan State
Clarence Weatherspoon S. . . Miss.
Walt Williams. . . . . . . . Maryland