Seeing Through Adversity

March 21, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

Gary Williams just had finished dinner with some friends late Saturday night. It was a couple of hours after his team's 82-68 victory over Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

The Maryland basketball coach was sitting in the lobby of the team's hotel in Salt Lake City, talking about survival. His Terrapins, the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, had made it through the first two rounds to advance into this week's Sweet 16 against second-seeded Connecticut on Thursday night in Oakland, Calif.

But Williams also had made it through, having returned from a two-week bout with pneumonia during which the 50-year-old coach was hospitalized for nine days, raising doubts whether he would be ready to coach in this year's tournament.

"The first night back was the difficult part," said Williams, recalling an 87-63 victory over 14th seed Gonzaga on Thursday night. "I was really feeling my way. I wasn't sure if I could come back and coach the way I wanted to. Tonight, I felt like I always do. It was a good feeling."

He had trepidations Thursday not only because he was returning from his first absence of any kind during a 27-year coaching career. He also was uncertain about how hard he could push himself, given what he had been through and the city's high altitude.

That combination left Williams, one of the most animated and, at times, agitated coaches in college basketball, strangely silent on the sidelines. He knelt on one leg in front of the bench, hoarsely yelling instructions, catching his breath on occasion. Only once, when there was no call made after Gonzaga center Paul Rogers drove over Duane Simpkins trying to dunk, did Williams jump in the air and do one of his flails.

"I went into that game trying to control myself so I wouldn't get tired," he said. "As the game went on, you forget about your situation and you become yourself. There was probably some reasoning not to [coach the first two rounds], but you've got to live your life. If I felt like I did when I got out of the hospital, I wouldn't have done it. It was a gradual process."

The process began within a couple of days after he had been released from Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Md. With his team in Greensboro, N.C., for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Williams walked for about 20 minutes. A couple of days later, Williams walked a little longer. He could feel his strength slowly returning.

But when he showed up at Cole Field House the night the NCAA tournament selections were announced, Williams looked like a ghost. He was pale and gaunt, his eyes were as hollow as a raccoon's and the 15 pounds he had lost from not eating or drinking for the first few days after being taken to the hospital by ambulance made him look painfully thin.

"I guess I won't have to have liposuction," Williams said jokingly.

Williams talked that day about his illness, about his doctors warning him that if he waited another 18 hours, it would have been even more serious. And Williams, who was diagnosed with an atypical and high-grade strain of what is normally called "walking pneumonia," was in pretty bad shape as it was.

"I was in a situation where I waited too long to go to the doctor," said Williams. "I couldn't eat or drink because of the fluid in my lungs."

The first few days in the hospital are still a blur. Though the hospital wasn't wired for cable, Williams couldn't have watched Maryland's thrilling 94-92 victory over Duke -- won on a last-second tip by Joe Smith -- the night after he was admitted. "I was sleeping," he said. "I didn't find out about Joe's tip-in until I saw it a couple of days later."

He was able to watch his team's 25-point, regular-season-ending loss at Virginia on March 5.

"I wasn't paying attention to it as if I were scouting a game," said Williams, who had turned 50 the previous day. "I was still very tired, and I was sleeping a lot. It was very hard, because I didn't know anyone who had been in this situation."

Even when he received clearance from his doctors two days later to resume coaching, many questioned his decision. His friends feared a relapse and the possibility of a more serious infection. But Williams had built Maryland back into a Top 10 team and resurrected his own reputation as well.

He wasn't going to miss the NCAA tournament.

"It might not have been the smartest decision," he said the day before the opening game, "but nobody has ever accused me of being smart."

But in the four days here at the Huntsman Center, Williams showed that his sense of humor was back, if not his strength and his weight. He joked about how his team "was going to kill me" with the way it had blown leads against Gonzaga and Texas before putting both teams away down the stretch.

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