Gary Williams is a private person. The Maryland coach is most comfortable in the world of gym shorts, bouncing basketballs and the sound of sneakers echoing around practice gyms. He considers himself not a sports celebrity, but a teacher.
But, Thursday night, Williams, not ordinarily chatty, was happy to step out of character — perhaps even out of his comfort zone — to receive a gift.
The treat for Williams was not only to be inducted into the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards' newly-created "Hall of Legends" in an evening ceremony at the Hippodrome, but to be reunited with about a dozen of his former players and to be acknowledged by coaching peers such as Villanova's Jay Wright, Temple's Fran Dunphy, Minnesota's Tubby Smith and College of Charleston's Bobby Cremins.
"This is different," Williams, 65, entering his 22nd season at Maryland, said before taking the stage in the darkened theater. "But it's good. You do stop and think about some things you haven't thought about in 20 years, 30 years, even 40 years."
With the Maryland cheerleaders present, the evening had the feel of a pep rally or a college reunion for tall people. Williams, wearing a dark suit and red tie, mingled in a ballroom at a pre-ceremony reception with Juan Dixon, Steve Francis, Walt Williams, Dave Neal, Rodney Elliott, Evers Burns, Duane Simpkins and a half-dozen others — players from different eras who talked among themselves about Williams' basketball acumen and well-known intensity. Even some of Williams' former players from Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J. — where he was an assistant in the 1970s — traveled by bus to the event.
"Me, I thought I was the best basketball player in the world. He was like, 'Steve, slow down,' " Francis, a former NBA star now living in Houston, said in an interview.
"I feel like a Terp again," said Francis, as he swapped basketball stories with Wright in a lobby before the reception. "I feel like I'm going to practice."
Wright — whose Wildcats play the Terps again this season — was asked by a reporter the secret to Williams' motivational skills. "I really think he has a combination of knowledge and passion that kids respect," Wright said. "It's not fear, it's respect. He's genuine and kids sense that."
When the program began, a video set to a Bruce Springsteen song ("Growing Up") featured photos of Williams as a toddler in New Jersey. Williams sat in a chair on the stage in front of the red-clad Maryland pep band with his hands clasped in front of him. The coach stood and shook hands or embraced his former players and others as they were introduced by Terps radio broadcaster Johnny Holliday and crossed the stage to greet him.
Williams addressed the crowd shortly after his daughter, Kristin, and his three grandchildren were introduced.
"I buttoned my jacket, I don't usually do that. But I wanted to feel what it feels like to be Jay Wright," Williams said. "You don't always get the chance to thank people. That's a big part of tonight."
Williams paused to compose himself when he talked about his daughter and grandchildren. "It makes you realize what's important," he said.
Steve Bisciotti presented Williams with his hall of legends plaque. "There's something about him. He loves people to hate him," the Ravens owner said.
Then Bisciotti said: seriously "You're one of the best."
Also at the VIP reception were U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and U.S. Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md.
Williams, whose Terps won the 2002 national championship, was the headliner on a night when others — the late Babe Ruth and the late Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, former Ravens owner Art Modell, former Oriole Brooks Robinson and the late broadcaster Jim McKay — were also inducted as the first class into the hall. Among those attending on their behalf were Ruth's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, and Sandy Unitas, the quarterback's widow.
Loyola coach and former Maryland assistant Jimmy Patsos told the crowd that he looked forward to the day when the basketball court at Comcast Center was named for Williams.
About 1,000 people attended the event, which was open to the public.