SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The most awkward part of being here for someone like Gary Williams or Alonzo Mourning can be accepting the sustained outpouring of love and universal acceptance that comes from being properly acknowledged as one of the greatest of all time.
Induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on the same night as David Stern, Mitch Richmond and the glitziest class in at least five years, after all, kills the ethos of both existences — really, how a Maryland coach and a Georgetown center got to Springfield:
No one believes in me, so I need to scrap and fight to win. I need to build up as many protective layers as possible and not let anyone get close or else they’ll sense weakness.
That was Gary for much of 22 must-see, magnificent, maddening and always memorable years in College Park. That was ’Zo on the Hilltop and many more years in the NBA.
This was Mourning on Thursday afternoon after he got his Hall of Fame jacket: “I’m finally letting this sink in. I’m finally enjoying what it was all about.”
This was Gary on Friday morning during a private reception in the museum put on by the university:
“David, stand up for a second,” he asked the oldest of his three grandchildren, growing like a bean stalk. “That’s the little sucker that was running around in Atlanta. He’s about a half-inch shorter than I am now.”
Gary smiled. He cried. He watched a video of his life as a basketball lifer. He did what Gary has been doing since he retired in 2011, letting go of every piece of distorted reality that told him others didn’t think he was good enough.
“Gary, as a friend, it’s good to see you happy,” Mark Turgeon said. “It’s good to see you getting the kind of recognition you always deserved. I know you’re a little bit nervous with all these great people walking around. But you’re one of the all-time greats.”
Earlier, the current Maryland coach turned to Gary’s daughter, Kristin Scott. Choking up, he said, “Congratulations to you. I know how hard it is on kids as a head coach. . . . This day is about you, too.”
Kristin got up later and smudged tears from her eyes as she spoke to a room of maybe 75, hours before the official induction ceremony. She told of her father teaching her how to be brave, leaving a state champion high school team in Camden, N.J., for less money to join Tom Davis at Lafayette as an assistant but only if he coached soccer, too.
“That sounds glamorous and romantic now — ‘This is my dream. I can do this,’ ” she recalled. “But my father had never seen an organized soccer game. Eastern Pennsylvania was very dark and gray during the winters. Two full-time jobs. For six years, he stuck with it.”
She spoke of the multiple times she told her father he had ruined her life at 16, when they packed up and left Boston College for Ohio State, and all the magic at Maryland that brought the life and career of the former Terrapins point guard full circle.
Many will point to that surreal run by the Terrapins between 1994 and 2004 — five Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA tournament, two Final Fours and the school’s first national title in 2002, still the only team to win it all without a single McDonald’s all-American. (“But we had Burger King all-Americans,” he quipped to a young writer Thursday. “You can use that. I might have used it before once or twice.”)
Maybe because I really didn’t start writing about him until 2004, I was more taken in by his defiance while his very job hung in the balance. How, beyond several of the Friends-of-Gary loyalists in the room Friday morning and his players at the time, Gary wasn’t being paranoid for a change: Indeed, many people were out to get him. Some on high.
That’s when the wounded kid from Collingswood, N.J., would go into bunker-mentality mode. That’s when Gary’s teams were at their best.
No disrespect to these players, but it’s still a mystery how Bambale Osby, James Gist, Cliff Tucker and Landon Milbourne were four of his five starters the night Maryland knocked off No. 1 North Carolina in 2008 in Chapel Hill — one of seven times Gary’s teams knocked off the No. 1 team in the nation. Greivis Vasquez was but a sophomore.
He became the most important figure in the history of Maryland athletics not just because he took the university community from the nadir of Len Bias’s death to the zenith of a national title; no, for all the recruiting hits he took for not doing business with the AAU sharks, the gratification a state gleaned when he won with less often surpassed anything a five-star player could produce.
Mourning was menacing with that scowl and Adonis physique. From his baritone voice to his forearm shivers, he played the intimidation game to the hilt. His voice was so gravelly and deep, sometimes you couldn’t tell if ’Zo was in the beginning stages of a bronchial infection or he was auditioning for some really cool jazz station, where he would play Miles Davis and Branford Marsalis till 4 a.m.
Beneath that veneer was a charitable intellect, whose greatest achievement happened when the bravado went away: when he somehow overcome a life-threatening kidney transplant to become an NBA champion in his final years.
Gary compressed his 43-year coaching career and life into just 25 minutes at Symphony Hall, choking up several times but never breaking down. His wry humor — “The soccer hall of fame hasn’t called yet” — had Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and other luminaries bending over laughing in their seats a few rows from the stage.
’Zo simply let it go.
Within minutes of paying homage to the ornery Heat-Knicks rivalry with a one-liner (“It’s good to be remembered for more than just dragging Jeff Van Gundy around on my leg”), he had to stop for a good 20 seconds and compose himself as he began talking about his childhood and Fannie Threet, his late foster mother who raised 48 children on her own.
He thanked his cousin in the audience, Jason Cooper, who became the donor for Mourning’s 2003 kidney transplant, and nodded often toward the men seated to his right on the stage, John Thompson, Jr., and Pat Riley, Hall of Famers who presented him.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all of you,” he said, even going so far as to thank his biological parents, with whom he has reconciled.
On the surface, if you didn’t know them, Gary and ’Zo appear to have nothing in common but being part of the same induction class — one a pushing-70 Caucasian coach from Jersey, the other an African American center, a seven-time NBA all-star from Virginia.
But they’ve always been more alike than anyone but their family knew. They both come from broken households.
Alonzo Mourning was a foster child, raised by Threet. Gary Williams was a latchkey kid whose father never saw him play in college and whose world was devastated when his parents split and his mother left for Bakersfield, Calif., when he was 14.
They didn’t have the support biological parents are supposed to give their kids. The first couple they were a part of — the bond between mother and son — was ultimately broken, and it colored their entire lives in matters of trust, of protecting themselves from trusting others, of really building up such walls that no one else could come in.
Years later, on the same night, they both realized the same thing: There is no one left to fight or beat. They won. Their contributions to the game are now immortalized. They can both let their guards down and realize the truth:
Two stubbornly proud men did such a wonderful job of protecting themselves from ever getting hurt again that for years they prevented themselves from ever being able to receive the love and admiration they’re finally accepting with open arms now.
On the night their peers saluted them, the night the Maryland coach and another Hoyas center had their portraits forever placed among the game’s greats, the moral of their respective journeys was simple: It’s never too late to believe that you were good enough.