COMMENTARY : Williams Is Back in Time for Maryland


Rest assured, Gary Williams is back. A few pounds lighter, still hoarse and congested, but back and eager to coach again. He'll supervise Maryland's practice Monday, then meet with his doctors Monday night. The doctors might not be pleased that Gary has to go all the way to Salt Lake City and coach Thursday. They might have preferred he got an extra day's rest, or an easier travel schedule--like, to Baltimore. But Gary intends on coaching no matter what they say. "I'm sure they'll tell me that I can coach," he said with a shrug. "And if they don't, it doesn't matter."

"Same old coach," Duane Simpkins said happily.

It has been a rough two weeks for Williams. He missed four games because of pneumonia, and dropped 12 pounds while in the hospital; he kept his sense of humor, though. "Look at it this way," he said, showing off his lean waistline, "I don't have to get liposuction now. You get to 50, your body starts turning to fat. So I took a different road, instead of liposuction, I got pneumonia."

The last time I'd seen Gary was the night of Feb. 25. Maryland had beaten Clemson in the afternoon to finish the home season 16-0; Gary was having dinner downtown at The Palm. "That was the last meal I had for five days; damn good meal, though." When he woke up the next day, his system had shut down. "Everything just stopped. I couldn't eat, I couldn't drink. I'd been feeling sick for about three weeks, but I'd put off seeing a doctor; I just figured I'd get better on my own. But now I was feeling terrible, getting chills and sweats.

"I thought about the fact that in 27 years of coaching--starting right here in 1968 as a grad assistant--I'd never missed a game or a practice because of sickness. So I just wanted to get through practice Monday. And I did. I thought I was OK. But later in the day I felt terrible again. The next day we were going to Duke, and I thought I'd be OK if I just spent the day in bed. But I couldn't eat or drink, and I couldn't breathe very deeply; by then my lungs were full of fluid. I called J.J. (Bush, the Maryland trainer) around 1 and said, 'You'd better take a look at me.' He took me right to the infirmary. The doctor looked at me and called an ambulance."

Gary blanched when he heard the word "ambulance," but he didn't resist. "You know what? At that point I said, 'Let's go.' I couldn't do anything." The next thing Gary knew, he was in a hospital bed. "They gave me all sorts of intravenous stuff; I looked like I was on one of those medical shows. They put an oxygen mask on me, but I got claustrophobic with it, so they hooked something else to my nose so I could get oxygen. I should have asked for one of those nose bandages Jerry Rice wears--he seems to do pretty well with it."

I asked him if he felt stupid in retrospect, waiting too long to see a doctor.

"I did exactly what I tell the players not to do," he said. "Every day at practice I tell them: 'If anything's wrong, see J.J. Not tomorrow, right now.' On the other hand I've had 27 years of knowing how to get through a season."

Ironically, just six weeks ago Gary was talking about this subject. It was during the time of that rash of coaching hospitalizations--Mike Krzyzewski, with his back; Tim Grgurich and Don Nelson with exhaustion. I asked Gary if he feared for his own health, considering how worked up he gets during games.

And he said: "I think my system is conditioned to it. For 30 games a year, those incredible two hours per game, I put my body through more stress than it should go through. I'm ready for it then." Apparently, he wasn't, since a month later he was in a hospital bed, flat on his back, with tubes in his arms, no visitors allowed, celebrating his 50th birthday, if "celebrating" is the right word.

"I thought about that," Gary said. "The difference is: I was sick. It wasn't because there were too many close games; it was because I had pneumonia. I was OK for 27 years."

Gary began feeling better a week ago Friday. He began eating and drinking again; he got a craving for cherry water ice, the kind that comes in the white paper cup. He started watching the Maryland games on TV. "It killed me, watching--not being there," he said. "Billy did a great job, but I felt like I had disrupted the team by being sick."

Gary came back to Cole Field House Sunday afternoon to meet with his coaches and players, and watch the NCAA pairings on TV. He was thin, somewhat drawn and rather raspy as he spoke with the media for 30 minutes or so. He said he felt "a little weak, physically." But he said he was "really anxious to get out there again" and coach. Gary conceded it's unlikely that he would modify his frantic style of coaching, but he said he was thinking about getting into a conditioning program, so of course I volunteered my personal trainer, Tom, thinking that if Gary started going there three times a week Tom would forget about me and I could go back to eating fried onion rings.

If Gary had his way, Maryland would be playing close to home, in Baltimore. But he seemed upbeat about traveling to Salt Lake City to play Gonzaga. He said he had been in Salt Lake City once before, to watch the classic Magic vs. Bird 1979 final. Gary had liked Salt Lake City, which is the home of the Mormon church, and he felt confident he could obtain cherry water ice there, "without caffeine, I believe."

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