Old friends, old values are behind Terps coach

March 20, 2001|By Michael Olesker

FOR THREE years, they were the backcourt duo at the University of Maryland: one, the lanky kid with the Prince Valiant haircut named Neil Brayton; the other, a basketball pipsqueak out of Collingswood, N.J., who couldn't shoot much, couldn't rebound much, and couldn't be kept out of the starting lineup. His name was Gary Williams.

Thursday night in Anaheim, Calif., Williams will coach his Maryland basketball team against Georgetown in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament. Brayton will put down his dental instruments in Chestertown and watch his old teammate, and remember how it was nearly four decades ago.

"I think Gary's the same guy he was back then," Brayton said. "Still very intense, very honest, still trying as hard as he can, still taking the game very seriously. Always got the most out of what he had. You know, we played Miami back in the mid-'60s, and Gary guarded Rick Barry, who was the top scorer in the whole country. Gary was a great defensive player. Held Barry to 48 points that night."

Brayton laughed ruefully at the memory. "You know," he said, "I brought that story up at a basketball banquet a few years ago in College Park. Gary hasn't had me back since."

That's a little joke. Williams projects an assassin's intensity at courtside, but Brayton says he's inordinately loyal to his old teammates. "He wants us to be a part of his success," Brayton said.

Three weeks ago, some of them gathered in College Park to honor their old coach, H.A. "Bud" Millikan, who spent 17 seasons in College Park. What was remarkable wasn't just the roster of old Millikan players, but how marvelously so many of them turned out after their playing days ended.

Jay McMillen (All-American Tom's older brother) is now a doctor in Missouri, and Gary Ward's a prosecuting attorney in Bowie. Junius "Pete" Johnson's a minister in the D.C. suburbs, and Billy Jones has become chief of personnel for the Walt Disney World operation in Florida after coaching at UMBC. Mike "Waxie" DeCosmo's a dermatologist in New Jersey, and Joe Harrington's had several basketball coaching jobs.

And Brayton's been in Chestertown, "fighting Mr. Tooth Decay," for the last 30 years. He and his wife have three kids: one son's an engineer; a daughter's at Princeton, and another son's at the Naval Academy.

"Yeah," Brayton laughed now, "even Terry Truax came to that reunion." Truax coached basketball at Towson University for a while, but at the Millikan banquet, he remembered his old coach's emphasis on academics.

"I had one semester," Truax told the Millikan gathering, "where I got 4 F's and a D. And coach told me, `Son, I think you're spending too much time on one subject.'"

When he departed, under pressure, some said the game had passed Millikan by. Everybody was running fast-break basketball by then, and Millikan had them playing control-tempo offenses. But he was Gary Williams' great teacher -- not only of basketball strategy, but discipline, handling swirling pressure, and working with kids who are between high school and adulthood.

"I see some of the things Millikan taught us," Brayton said, "and Gary's still stressing them. I mean, he's got really decent kids playing for him. He's got 'em working for their degrees, too, it's not a sham."

What's also astonishing to Brayton is the level of play. In his era, Brayton was considered a big guard at 6 feet 3 inches. Williams was 6 feet on his tiptoes. Today, there are 6-foot-6-inch kids routinely playing guard. Also, Brayton occasionally had a hot scoring hand, but generally averaged single digits; and Williams, even though he once shot 8-for-8 from the floor (a school record) generally averaged less than 5 points a game. He had a tendency to twist his wrist when he shot.

"Today," Brayton said, "we'd probably have trouble beating the Maryland women's team. That's how much the game has changed."

But the fundamentals still apply. When Gary Williams took over the Maryland basketball program, it was still suffering from the Len Bias scandal, which involved not only a gifted young man's death from a cocaine overdose but later revelations that many Maryland ballplayers had simply stopped attending classes.

"What Gary learned from Bud Millikan," Brayton said, "is what he still stresses. Foremost, honesty. And hard work. You know, people see Gary on the sidelines, and he's so intense. But that's him working things out. And I think he's learned to cool that down. He's learned to try easier. He's heard the criticism. He listens."

His intensity has driven referees, and some critical fans, to distraction. Some say it's hurt his teams, too. Ballplayers sometimes mirror their coach's composure. For all Williams' success, his teams seem to hit a wall at tournament time.

Thursday night, they'll try to tear it down. A lot of Williams' old teammates will be watching.

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