COLLEGE PARK -- The crowd was small and quiet, the play a bit sloppy, the nice Towson run inevitably a little shy, and yet any Maryland basketball game is a game worth seeing simply because Walt Williams is there.
You can't take your eyes off him.
If you love a certain brand of high-risk basketball, where even the turnovers have entertainment value, Williams is your man.
He brings something a little different to the game.
"Sometimes," Williams said, "I even surprise myself."
There was the one play yesterday, the play of the game. To understand, you have to picture this 6-foot-8 point guard, whose size makes him a rarity even today. You can't really play him one-on-one. He's too clever with the ball, his feet too quick, his eye too keen.
He has the gift of seeing the entire floor. You don't teach that -- you hone it, you perfect it, but it's something that's either yours or it isn't. Magic Johnson had it, if you're looking for a framework. Of course, Magic had it like no one ever had it.
Anyway, it's early in the game, and Williams has the ball in the middle of the floor. He beats his man left, and the Towson defense converges. The Tigers had practiced for this moment, of course. As two players surround him, Williams, in moving the ball from his left hand to his right, starts to slip. But just then, even as he's falling, he sees Garfield Smith break to the basket. Here's where it gets good: As he tumbles to the floor, Williams hooks the ball behind his head -- that's right, his head -- into Smith's hands for a layup. Which is why they call him Wizard.
"I didn't know I could do that," he would say later.
That's the point of Williams. OK, it's not the entire point. It's just that the natural beauty of Williams' game is based in his creativity. That's why whenever he touches the ball, the crowd gathers its collective breath, as if in anticipation of an explosion.
It is high risk. There are turnovers. There were nine yesterday.
"I don't worry about turnovers," he said. "They're just a statistic, like points scored. I don't worry about that either. I just play my game."
We saw that game emerge early in his sophomore season when Gary Williams, then new to Maryland, switched Williams from forward to guard. The move transformed Maryland's season, as well as Williams' career. The skinny forward became the monster guard. Now he makes the Pan Am team, the preseason All-ACC team, some preseason All-America teams and is being suggested as a possible NBA lottery pick. But, for the fan, all that is still secondary to the excitement.
"I like the crowd response," Williams was saying. "It's not why I make a particular move. I don't do anything just to please the crowd, but I like it when the noise gets loud and people get excited."
The smallish crowd never got too loud yesterday, but that wasn't Williams' fault. With 29 points, seven assists, seven rebounds and a pair of rim-hanging dunks, he drove the middle, he drove the baseline, he beat his defenders so easily that it seemed he should be playing in his own league.
But, in fact, he's playing in the right one. As a rising junior, Williams had faced an important decision -- should I go or should I stay? Maryland was on probation and would be for the remainder of his career. Teammate Jerrod Mustaf made the poor choice of going to the NBA, where he is now in the process of being buried. Williams, now a senior, stayed.
"People questioned my decision then," Williams said, "but I knew it was right from the beginning. Now, everyone else does, too."
His coach, Gary Williams, is thankful every night for that decision. Nobody has enjoyed Walt Williams' game more than Gary Williams.
Not that there aren't flaws in it. He's shooting only 46 percent. And sometimes, he is too clever with the ball, leading to turnovers.
"Sometimes," Gary Williams was saying, "he wants to take that ** extra dribble, make that extra move. What he needs to do more is just take the ball strong to the basket. Sometimes, the best fake is no fake."
As for shooting, the coach thinks the player needs one flurry of shots falling to improve his confidence.
If you're not a coach, you don't even mind the misses. Not when the moves to get open are so fluid. Not when the misses encourage the passes, because it's Williams' passing that is, well, surpassing. It's what makes every Maryland game fun.
"It's all fun this year," Williams said. "Last year, it seemed like every day there was something new that was bad. This year, when somebody asks you a question, it's about basketball."
PD And the question usually asked of Williams: "How'd you do that?"