HAVANA -- The red light of a television camera finally blinks when Walt Williams plays basketball.
For the last year, he has been the best-kept secret of the college game, a scorer trying to lift the University of Maryland above the mists ofNCAA probation. With his school banished from live television and postseason tournaments, Williams was the equivalent of an off-Broadway performer looking for a breakthrough role. A part, any part, would do.
After months of auditioning, stardom now may be just a jump shot away.
On what may be the grandest international stage left to American college players, Williams has played his role superbly at the Pan American Games. The senior-to-be still brings the shooter's 1,000-yard stare on to the court, but he is emerging as a more versatile and valued player while mastering an unfamiliar
The point guard is now a forward.
"It's something I'm still getting used to," Williams said. "But it's a position I'm having fun with. I've played them all in my career. I've even jumped center."
Williams will be expected to muscle up for the U.S. men's basketball team when it ventures into the thicket of the medal round. In tonight's potentially treacherous semifinal, the United States meets Puerto Rico. The other semifinal matches Cuba against Mexico, with the winners meeting Sunday for the gold.
The United States never has lost to Puerto Rico in the Pan Am Games. But last summer, the United States won only twice in three close international encounters with Puerto Rico at the Goodwill Games and the World Championships.
"We know everyone is dangerous in this tournament," Williams said. "We're taking nothing for granted. Our aim is to win the gold."
When the United States began training in June, few gave Williams a chance to make the team. He still was recovering from the broken left leg that sidelined him for 11 games in the middle of the 1990-91 season. Despite limping noticeably, Williams managed to average 18.7 points a game for Maryland.
"My leg was actually fine," said Williams. "What happened was I came back before my left leg was the same strength as my right. I was unbalanced and that caused the limp. I had to build myself back up."
In the Pan Am camp, Williams was surrounded by shooters with more glamorous national credentials. But he made himself indispensable. He is 6 feet 8, able to move smoothly between positions. He showed he could play the point, but enthusiastically agreed to move to a forward position when asked by head coach Gene Keady.
"I surprised a lot of people that I made this team," Williams said. "But I never had a doubt."
A string of international disappointments actually provided Williams with a chance to compete at the Pan Am Games. Losses at the 1987 Pan Am Games, the 1988 Summer Olympics, the 1990 Goodwill Games and the 1990 World Championships forced Team USA officials to rethink their strategy. Instead of assembling a team that was top-heavy inside and weak-shooting outside, the U.S. team went for quicker, leaner players who could sink three-point baskets.
"We wanted three guards for the point and three centers, and we wanted to surround them with shooters," Keady said.
The pros may be taking their bows at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, but the college players are doing just fine shuttling from their training base in Miami to their games in Havana. They're bringing more than junk food and an attitude back from America -- they're unloading the raw parts of a still-developing style. The United States is relying on finesse to win the gold, using the extraordinary offensive talents of Ohio State's James Jackson and Duke's Christian Laettner to win five straight games.
Williams has averaged nine points, and his frantic style of defense provides a charge for a team that is fighting the inevitable burnout that follows a long college season. He is constantly tugging at his opponents' jerseys, displaying a previously untapped resource in his game.
"I can only improve with the competition," he said. "Defensively, I've gotten a lot better. I'm a more well-rounded player. When I'm at Maryland, I'm at the point and I'm getting my shots. Here, I have to move around the picks and I have to free myself for shots."
The shots are likely to come his way tonight against Puerto Rico, a team that is led by Edgar Leon, Jerome Mincy and Ramon Rivas. Strong and fearless inside, Puerto Rico could be vulnerable on the perimeter, the place where Williams performs best.
The mist is lifting. College basketball's best-kept secret is playing before the lights and the cameras of a world audience.
"I'm not out there to get publicity," he said. "I'm out there to work hard and to help us win."