Thad: Roy's Moving Reminder

By the end of 2009, it is estimated that nearly 47,000 households in North Carolina and over 2 million nationally will lose their homes due to foreclosure. That's a staggering level of human pain to contemplate. And it's pain that Roy Williams can identify with.

At one point during his elementary school years, Williams, his mother, and his sister were forced out of their house in Asheville after his often-absent and eventually separated father failed to keep up with the mortgage payments. To this day, Williams says he dreads people in dark sportcoats like the kind the men who informed his family they would have to leave within three days.

Much media attention to Roy Williams' autobiography, Hard Work, has focused on relatively current events — the period since about 1998 — and the specifics of what Roy has to say about various people and events during that time period. Fans who have not read the book may assume this is just another self-serving memoir by a coach who wants a neat recruiting tool, or that Williams is setting himself up as a paragon of virtue.

All biographies are representations of the self, all books by coaches are recruiting tools, and any book called "Hard Work" makes the implicit claim that the author is a good exemplar of that virtue. But the essential purpose of the book, as Williams says in his preface, is to help readers understand him a little better.

In that task, the book succeeds spectacularly — not because of what Williams has to say about his success and tenure as a big-time basketball coach, but because of the remarkable opening 50 pages where he describes his childhood, teen years, and early adulthood.

Getting kicked out of his house as a kid was just one of the stresses Williams faced. His father was an alcoholic who was often absent , and when present and drunk, often unpleasant. His mother struggled to get by with less than a high school education, supporting the family through factory work supplemented by rare child support payments. Roy's older sister started work at an early age too, meaning that by age 11 or 12 Williams often was an unsupervised child.

How did an 11-year-old boy from a broken, poor family who had never even heard of the idea of college until high school grow up to become the outstanding college basketball coach in America?

Five factors explaining that remarkable arc emerge from Williams' narrative, each building upon one another. The first is Williams' love of basketball, the activity that freed his mind from other worries and provided a badly needed outlet and a way to spend the time alone.

The second was unquestionably his mother along with his sister. Williams was fully indulged in his love for the game by his mother, who never complained about his bouncing the ball at home and later recorded Roy's scoring statistics during all his high school games. And, famously, she always left a dime for young Roy to get a Coke after his daily pickup basketball games.

Third, and perhaps least well known by Tar Heel fans, is the role of the local Asheville community, particularly high school coach Buddy Baldwin. Williams gives many large and small examples of the way people in the community looked after him, but Baldwin played the key role, starting with words of encouragement he offered to Roy after his 9th grade season on the junior varsity, suggesting he could be a varsity player.

That inspired Williams to bust his butt all summer so he could make that team (and indeed be a starter). More importantly, it inspired Williams to want to be a coach. It felt good to be appreciated as a player and to be motivated to succeed by the words from Baldwin. Williams recognized (unusually early in life) how great it must feel to be able to make that kind of difference in someone else's life.

Fourth, there is the University of North Carolina and everything that comes with it. Williams turned down basketball scholarships and numerous small schools to come to Chapel Hill, knowing he would only ever be a junior varsity player for Carolina — if he made that team. But, encouraged by Baldwin, he reasoned that his best chance of becoming a basketball coach was to hook on to the Carolina program and learn from Dean Smith. Through a series of events whose common thread is Williams' own persistence and passion for the game, he did get that opportunity in Chapel Hill despite never being a varsity player. But it was the existence of a large scale public university committed to providing opportunities to talented students from all over the state that made Williams' career trajectory possible.

This brings us to the fifth factor explaining how Williams eventually become a magnificently successful head coach at Kansas and North Carolina: Williams himself. Williams does not blow his horn too much in this department, but one thing that comes through in the book is what a good student he was in high school — he was even offered an academic scholarship to Georgia Tech. The second obvious thing that comes out is just how driven Williams was from a very early age, and his capacity for, yes, "hard work," a drive that is inseparable from his love of competition.

Intelligence, passion and work ethic are generally a powerful combination. But they are more powerful still when connected to particular sense about what one wants to do with one's life. Roy Williams recognized that it was basketball and a basketball coach that kept his difficult and stressful childhood from translating into an aimless life marked by no goals and no serious aspirations.

Williams coaches now to win games and satisfy his own competitive drive, no doubt. But he also recognizes that the fundamental purpose of coaching is to inspire others, and that what is most important about basketball and sports in general is its capacity to shape young people's lives. Williams quotes an inscription given to him by a former UNC JV player stating, "The true measure of a man's greatness is not in the number of his accomplishments, but in the number of people's lives he inspired while achieving those accomplishments."

Corny as all get out? Maybe, but that doesn't make it wrong. That phrase sums up as well as any how Williams sees his vocation. What the first fifty pages of this book does is show exactly how and why Williams thought pursuing that vocation was the most valuable thing he could do with his life.

***

I was surprised at how moved I was by this book. As someone who's followed Williams' career every step of the way from his initial hire by Smith in 1978 — my brother attended one of the UNC faculty/staff kids clinics Williams recalls in the book — and as someone who even had Williams as a coach for one memorable week of Carolina Basketball School, I assumed I knew pretty well what Williams is about. But this book rounds out and adds to the picture in important and at times surprising ways. Yes, you will understand Roy Williams "a little better" by reading this book.

I'll go further and say that the time was right for a book like this. At a similar point in Dean Smith's career, the journalist Thad Mumau wrote an informative biography of Smith called "More Than a Coach" that recounted his Kansas childhood, drawing on interviews with Smith's family members, including his parents. The book had a lot of insight into Smith and where he got his values and aspirations from.

Williams had a very different childhood than Smith and in some respects is a very different person as well. One measure of that difference is the fact that only Williams could have told his own story: he dedicates the book to his mother, father, and sister, saying he wish they could read his words. Even if a journalist had had access to his family members before they passed away, they wouldn't have been able to convey what exactly it feels like to be an 11-year-old from a family having a difficult time, dribbling a basketball for hours and hours on a muddy court — an essential part of this story.

Another measure of that difference is that one senses that, at some level, Williams needed to tell some of these stories — some quite painful, others simply poignant. These aren't the kind of stories you casually mention in an interview. The autobiography format gives him an opportunity to share parts of his life and indeed parts of his soul that otherwise might never have found public expression.

Economic stress and borderline poverty are still difficult topics for many Americans to face or talk about. Williams' childhood was difficult in many ways, but in other ways he was quite blessed — in particular, blessed to be part of a community that cared about him and encouraged him to develop himself, and not allow himself to be constrained by his circumstances.

It is not a cliché but simply truth that millions of kids in America today, December 2009, face economic and family circumstances as tough or tougher than those young Roy Williams faced. Some of those kids, thousands and thousands, are probably still finding a measure of solace and comfort from shooting baskets, for hours and hours. I hope those kids are also lucky enough to get the kind of support and inspiration Roy Williams got from his family, his coaches, his teachers, his friends' parents, and the community at large.

And I hope that readers of Williams' book will take to heart the deepest underlying message of the book — Williams' gratitude and appreciation towards those who gave him the love, guidance and encouragement required to make great things possible. Williams' book recollects a community that didn't let him fall through the cracks. As those cracks get wider with every passing month, Roy Williams' life story serves as a quiet but moving reminder of the need to restore those kinds of communities again, in North Carolina and everywhere else.


"Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court," by Roy Williams with Tim Crothers was officially released on November 3, 2009 by Algonquin Books. It has spent the last 70 days in the Amazon.com Sports Top 100 bestseller list.

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