Death, birth and the unsubdued pride of UMass' Chaz Williams
The Minutemen are surely headed to their first NCAA Tournament in 16 years. Chaz Williams, the tiny but compelling point guard is the biggest reason why.
There's an energy and bombast to Chaz Williams, the basketball player, that can't be depicted to its true spirit in words alone. You have to see it to absorb it. You have to be around him to try to understand the message and ebullience he gives off.
There's a persistent commitment to humbleness for Chaz Williams, the father, younger brother, mother's son and human being, that he's intent on showing you whenever he's off the court. It strikes a contrast to what you'll see between the playing lines. Athletes often embody this two-sided existence. With Williams it seems exaggerated, it's like there's an ON/OFF lever embedded somewhere on his body.
He wants to entertain you but also hopes you take him seriously. Williams has learned how to control that switch over the past 10 years of his life. It's been critical to getting him to becoming the man-plus-basketball-player that grown alongside the proud-father-plus-memorable-star at UMass.
He's of two minds, and one gives to the other, both necessary to rouse and reel in the body that's just 5 feet, 7 inches and weighs approximately 175 pounds. Williams, who played football for many years, has the human equivalent build to the rig of a panzer. And there's also a 41-inch vertical. This package has allowed the senior point guard to play with speed and relentless aggression. It has been the driving force to a revitalization in Amherst, a rebirth for a program that's about to culminate a true comeback season with the school's first NCAA Tournament bid in 16 years.
Massachusetts' program was mired in mediocrity for way too long. Those in the area were vexed. How could this school have fallen so far and hard after John Calipari left? Apathy grew around the town, and even with the hire of alumnus Derek Kellogg in 2008, the man was 14 games under .500 after three seasons. Rebuilds take time, but the fourth year was critical.
That's when Williams stepped on campus.
It's now 68 wins and counting since the headband-donning dynamo began dishing, diving and creating big things for Kellogg. Williams is the all-time assist leader in school history and averaging 15.1 points, 7.1 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals this season. Massachusetts takes its next turn toward greater achievement this week in Brooklyn. The 23-7 Minutmen play Thursday night Rhode Island at the Barclays Center. Williams will be playing less than four miles from where he grew up, in Bushwick, and even closer to where the love of his life, his 3-year-old daughter, currently lives.
Williams started his college career at Hofstra, agreeing to play for then-Pride coach Tom Pecora. But Pecora surprised some back in the spring of 2010 when he left for the Fordham job. Had Hofstra been able to keep its first choice to succeed Pecora (Tim Welsh), Williams said he probably would have stayed. But less than a month after taking the job, Welsh was arrested for DWI. The school cut ties with its new hire less than a week after.
Despite being 19 years old, and with a child on the way, Williams wanted out of an uncertain situation. Mom did, too.
"I have what you would call a very involved mother," Williams said.
Diane Williams is a protector, publicist and, most of all, realist about her son. She's as frank and forthcoming about him as you'll find with any basketball mother these days. Chaz has played in organized sports since he was 5. Mom has been there from the first game. There were many days when they'd leave the house at 6 a.m. and not get home until 10 p.m. Teammates slept over in hordes, so many times they had to sleep on the floor. They would wake up to the smell of her pancakes.
"I said, 'The whole season can’t collapse because of a coach. We’re not going to do this,'" Diane Williams recalls saying at the time of the Hofstra mess.
So that led to the search. It didn't take long for Chaz to decide on UMass. It was close enough to home to see his daughter, Cheree, and that mattered most. (The unusual name comes from a blend of Chaz's name and the name of Cheree's mother. "There's a little of me in her," he says.)
Kellogg knew Williams could come in and play immediately. After taking the requisite redshirt transfer season, Kellogg told Williams he was likely to be running the team from the point.
"It's all there above the shoulders," Kellogg said. "He has intangibles a lot of guards don't."
Kellogg said Williams reminds him of Derrick Rose in terms of "that killer attitude." Kellogg spent years under John Calipari, first as a player -- during the best days at UMass, in the '90s -- and then as an assistant during Calipari's days at Memphis. Kellogg was part of the staff that recruited Rose, so he'd know if the comparison was apt.
"Derrick rose to a certain level, and some guys -- in the way they can feel the game and mentally play the game -- do it in the biggest spots," Kellogg said. "Chaz, one of his best attributes is his mind for the game. He’s been questioned every step of the way. They'll say, 'There’s no way this guy can be the guy who’s doing with what we saw on tape.' ... But the challenges he faces every day are what drives him.”
The future was certainly bright in Kellogg's eyes on Nov. 11, 2011. It was opening night. The team was playing at home against Elon in front of a pretty thirsty crowd. At one point, Williams dove for a loose ball. He saved it, then came down the court and buried a 3. He turned, flexed, and "gave a Hulk sign to the crowd," according to Kellogg.
“I like to think he’s pretty smart and pretty intelligent guy," Kellogg said. "He understands how to play the crowd. At that point I knew I had an ultra-competitive player, someone we needed."
Calvin Williams died at 47 of a brain tumor in 2000, when his son was 9, the disease growing bigger than a golf ball inside his skull. He was in hospice for a time before giving way. Chaz was able to see him almost daily, until things got pretty grim near the end.
The family lived in Bushwick, a smaller Brooklyn neighborhood that prides itself on daily work ethic and positive community influence. Chaz grew up on his father's knees, watching sports on television on the weekends. Dad knew about all the sports, and his son would know about them too.
“A walking almanac,” Diane Williams said of her late husband. “Hockey, boxing, basketball, doesn’t matter. And as they were watching, he’d talk to Chaz. His interest in sports would start almost before he could walk.”
Calvin Williams started to show signs of something being amiss about three years prior to his death, when he couldn't remember where his own mother lived. He'd lose his balance walking in hallways. He resisted seeing a doctor, despite the headaches increasing in pain and frequency. Eventually, Diane and Calvin's sister forced him to get a thorough checkout.
The tumor was discovered.
“How do you explain a tumor to a 9 year old? You can’t," Diane Williams said.
Calvin started referring to Chaz as though he was his own little brother, a brother of his who'd long since died. Chaz asked his mother why his father was calling him someone ele's name.
"Chaz was protected from the information," Diane Williams said. "We didn’t want him to see his dad go through the changes."
Sparingly, he did. And on the day Calvin Williams died, Chaz called his older half-brother, Kareen Moon, who at the time was 15 years old.
"He said it so calmly, but he was crying, but he said it calmly," Moon said. "And then I dropped to my knees and started crying. I didn't know how he was going to take it."
Chaz showed no signs of despair until the wake, when he finally had to burst and break down. Moon knew then and there he'd have to play the father figure. Williams who, out of playful stubbornness, doesn't like when Moon calls him "little brother," learned what growing up was about soon thereafter. To this day it's Moon -- who holds down three jobs and plays semi-pro football for no money in addition to having a child of his own -- that serves as a support system and model of work ethic for Williams.
"When you see how he plays the game, you see and know it's for his father, every step of the way," Moon said.
Losing his father was one part of turning Williams into the confident-but-careful man he is today. You couldn't blame him for what followed, as some anger and confusion that brewed in the boy. He used to be brash and cocky when he was younger. Quite that. He was good at sports and knew it. It would lead to fights on the playground. But eventually that became too painful and was affecting his ability to be the person he wanted to be. By the end of his middle school days, Williams didn't want to be in fights anymore. He didn't want anything to do with being a bully/being bullied.
“I could be out here fighting all day, or I can make something of my life,” Williams said.
The irony is Williams used to be big for his size. Then he stopped growing, and the world around him started to go beyond his shoulders.
“My cockiness when I was younger was just part of my personality, but now it’s just part of my personality on the court," Williams said. "Sometimes you have to learn how to separate the two. You have to know when to turn it on. You can’t be a jerk-off.”
He's thankful now for altering his attitude at a young enough age that it didn't shake him when he learned in late 2009 that he'd soon become a father. He kept it from his mother at first, uncertain of how she'd respond to it. (He'd come to learn she was anything but angry and/or disappointed. It was more motivation to continue toward finishing school.)
"I see it as a happy accident," Williams said. "Losing my dad when I was young, maybe it was a sign and a blessing. ... You get to actually see how you were when you was a child. It’s weird, because my mom tells me, 'Those were the things you used to do when you were a child. On your worst days you could look at the child and be happy again."
He does talk with Cheree every single day, whether it's morning, afternoon or evening. He does not miss a phone call with her. "Ever." Being attached to her, and wanting to live up to not letting his own parents -- both, alive and dead -- down is why Williams bypassed an offer to play overseas, in Turkey, last summer. It was an odd piece of news to come down, when people learned Williams might have an opportunity so late in the offseason to go pro.
“The offer was very legitimate," Diane Williams said. "They were going to fly, and house, me and my granddaughter so Chaz wouldn’t have to be other there without his family. The team pushed back date to arrive."
Chaz called “in the ninth hour, down to the deadline,” to tell the team he was going to have to pass. Diane asked her son why.
"You always told me how important a piece of paper was,” Williams said of getting a degree. "If something could go wrong, I'd have nothing to fall back on. People like me, and people have whispered in my ear. They say, 'Contact me' in terms of coaching down the road. But I can’t be a coach without my degree.”
"I’ve matured," Williams said. "Not being able to be home, being a father, you grow up faster. I'm much more mature in a lot of ways. I’m happy with the decision I made. I give a testament to my brothers and teammates. Most them here understand and knew. They embraced me."
It was toward the end of the summer when Williams committed to a senior year at UMass. The team convened and made certain this year would not and could not end without reaching the NCAA Tournament.
The players on UMass will tell you they had myriad goals in mind. Getting nationally ranked was one of them, and on Nov. 25, 2013, they achieved that for the first time since 1998. From there, they wanted to be nationally known, to be considered among the best. That, to a certain degree, was certainly achieved.
But the team did not win the Atlantic 10 regular-season title. In fact, because of a logjam in the standings, UMass wound up taking sixth. A few hiccups along the way prevented the team from having its dream season of domination in a very good league. Williams admitted earlier this season saw a typical reaction to too much exposure and winning from a team that expected it: inflated egos and a little entitlement in terms of expecting to win easy in the league.
"Nobody had experienced that. It’s a trial and error of for the group," Williams said. "It was our first time being nationally ranked as a team. It was kind of different. We didn’t know how to approach, how serious to take it. Some practices we slacked off."
The team's taken on a motto this year that might as well read as a personality profile for Williams' on-court demanor: P.A.I.N., which stands for Pressure, Agitate, Interrupt, Neutralize. This team works hard but loves to entertain. Raphiael Putney is one of the best dunkers in college hoops. Cady Lalanne is an insurance policy in the paint. It's an athletic group that gets out and runs -- and actually plays better on defense than offense.
Bottom line is, no matter what happens over the next one, two or three days, UMass is headed back to its first NCAA Tournament since 1998. Chaz Williams, this entertaining-as-hell small guy, is as big a reason for that as any.
And yet, Williams cannot believe it still happens. He says plenty of opponents still do not respect him and will bark insults at his game. He's no longer angered by it. As anyone his size who's managed to find success in college will attest, that sort of instigation usually serves the smaller player better.
“They’ll talk junk to get under my skin, little do they know that is exactly what brings the best out of me,” Williams said.
He let in on a secret: When you see him smile during a game, it's almost definitely for one reason. A grin signals someone's been jawing at him -- and he's winning. The teeth flash. He can't control it. Bigger the smile, the more they're talking. And now the team is left to prove itself at the most important stretch of his playing career.
"We think with one mind, we beat with one heart, we walk with two feet," Williams said. "It ain’t 50 or 40. It’s just one machine, we’re all in it. It's been good, but there's more. Day by day, nothing is promised."
He'd smile at that, too.
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