Hornets coach Williams weathering basketball storm with faith
Monty Williams walks where no NBA coach has walked before. He leads a New Orleans team that is owned by the league and shaped by the commissioner. He guides a club that began training camp with only five players under contract and today boasts nine new faces. He coaches a squad that endured seven days of near trades, a vetoed deal and collapsed proposals before All-Star point guard Chris Paul was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers.
In exchange, Williams received a new team: Extreme Makeover, Hornets Edition. With the departure of Paul and leading scorer David West to Indiana, the franchise lacks star power. With the arrival of new bodies and spare parts, the Hornets have gained lottery power. The Paul trade allowed the team to clear cap space, secure an unconditional first-round pick in June, add young shooting guard Eric Gordon and build for the future.
But Williams doesn't intend to wait. "We don't feel like we are starting over," he said after Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu arrived from the Clippers. "We plan on winning and we plan on winning big."
If the Hornets win big with their current roster, Williams will be in Coach of the Year contention. New Orleans has lost 11 of its first 14 games, hobbling. Gordon has missed 12 games with a bruised knee; Trevor Ariza missed eight with a strained groin before returning Wednesday against Memphis. He led the Hornets with 18 points, but New Orleans lost its fifth straight. Through Wednesday, the Hornets rank 28th in three-point shooting (27.5 percent) and 28th in scoring (86.7 points per game).
Williams faces challenges beyond shooting and scoring. There's no playbook for a team without a human owner. There's no manual for moving forward after a trade saga like Paul's. "I've never seen anything like this," Williams said.
No one else has either. The Hornets proposed to deal Paul to the Lakers on Dec. 8 as part of a six-player, three-team swap involving the Houston Rockets. Within an hour, commissioner David Stern rejected the trade. The Hornets appealed. Stern stood firm. Discussions commenced with the Clippers. The team said the league wanted too much. Talks broke off. Talks resumed.
The chaotic uncertainty wore on New Orleans. Even Williams admitted the crazy back-and-forth became a distraction. But he refused to complain. "I am never going to allow people to start feeling sorry for me and talk about what's unfair," he said before the trade was completed. "It doesn't make sense. We still get to play basketball."
Perspective keeps Williams grounded. Faith keeps him strong. He doesn't just pray and study his Bible. He's written a book, "Look Again 52," which takes readers through one scripture a week for 52 weeks. There are no verses that explain how to coach a rebuilding team. But there are passages about trials and principles about peace. And Williams has used them to find calm in the turbulence around him.
As the Paul saga twisted and turned, there were moments Williams seemed on edge. Faced with pressing questions about his team's future, that was understandable. There also were moments he showed uncommon poise. "We are not at war," Williams said one afternoon as trade rumors swirled. "We are not on the front lines, defending our country. Nobody is dying. It's not dire straits. We play basketball."
No Chris Paul? For the first two regular-season games, no problem. In the Hornets' first outing without Paul, Gordon dropped 20 points on Phoenix and sank a 20-foot jumper with 4.2 seconds to beat the Suns. After serving a one-game suspension for a drunken-driving arrest last season, Jarrett Jack started at the point, scored 21 points, had nine assists and led New Orleans past Boston.
No one knows what this under-construction roster will look like in the near future. There are no pieces in place to fill the All-Star void left by Paul and West. Ten-thousand season-ticket holders will cheer a team of unknown potential while the franchise hopes to attract a buyer. Into this new world steps Williams -- perhaps better prepared to face uncertainty and adversity than anyone in the league.
Trouble has shadowed Williams for most of his 40 years. He endured poverty and sexual abuse as a child. He faced a life-threatening heart condition at Notre Dame. He pondered suicide at a campus lake. He battled injuries as an NBA player. He mismanaged money as a young husband.
As New Orleans' rookie head coach last season, Williams faced unending conflict. Reports emerged that Paul wanted out, general manager Jeff Bower was fired and the debt-ridden Hornets were sold to the NBA. There was the season-ending knee injury to West; the car accident that killed the sister and cousin of guard Willie Green; the DUI charge against guard Jack; the abdominal injury that cost Emeka Okafor 10 games; the concussion that cost Paul two games; and the lockout that followed a first-round exit from the playoffs.
Should we stay? Williams posed the question to his wife during the madness. Williams plowed on and turned the Hornets into winners. The team improved from 37-45 in 2009-10 to 46-36 and players touted Williams' leadership. One blogger used him for a post called, "Six Ways To Handle Adversity As A First-Year Coach."
The sum of his struggles and power of his position make Williams an ideal motivational speaker. He takes the gospel to inmates in Louisiana prisons. He travels to South Africa and gives shoes and athletic equipment to the poor. In August, he addressed a gathering of men at his former church in San Antonio. The conference theme: overcoming adversity.
"I invited Monty to come," says Summit Christian Center pastor Rick Godwin, "because he's had nothing but adversity for most of his young life."
Godwin and Williams enjoy a relationship that dates to the 1990s. They met when Williams played for the Spurs. At the time, he carried unresolved anger toward relatives who molested him. "They did things to me that were less than humane," Williams said at Godwin's church in 2002. "It affected me for a long time."
With Godwin's help, Williams forgave his abusers and found release from his torment. He
went from man of horrors to minister of God. The transformation taught him how to resolve conflict and reach for others in crisis, lessons that have served him well as a coach.
"He is super grounded in two areas -- faith and family," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a friend who speaks regularly with Williams. "It doesn't matter what circumstance he might encounter. Faith and family will keep him focused. I have never ever sensed frustration or depression in him in all the times we've talked."
At the men's conference, Williams connected a seldom-read New Testament story to modern reality with an NBA twist. He shared how a first century slave named Onesimus stole money from his master, Philemon, and fled. While on the lam, Onesimus became a Christian convert under the Apostle Paul and returned to his master -- not as a slave but as a brother in the faith.
Perhaps, Williams told his audience, God allowed the theft to transform a relationship. And perhaps, Williams added, God allowed adversity in his own life to bring about a greater good.
He recalled a meeting with Knicks' management during his second season. "You are the future of this team," he was told. "The very next day," Williams said, "I got traded to San Antonio."
He went from the glitz of Madison Square Garden to an arena that looked like an upside down armadillo -- the Alamodome. The hurt ran deep. "I used to think San Antonio was a one horse town," he joked. "Now it's 1.5."
Perhaps God allowed the trade, Williams suggested, so he could join Summit Christian Center and receive a gift rarely offered to millionaire athletes: an in-your-face correction. Williams recalled how he routinely threw money at expensive toys, then quickly discarded them.
Godwin once asked about a Porsche Williams had bought. When Williams explained that he'd traded it in for a Range Rover, Godwin rebuked him. "Monty, are you going through menopause? You are bad with money!"
At the instruction of Godwin, Williams handed the checkbook to his wife Ingrid. Ingrid was there in 1990 when Williams learned from a routine medical exam that he had an irregular heartbeat. A Notre Dame sophomore at the time, Williams shuddered at the diagnosis: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of a muscle that makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood. "Monty, you can never play basketball again," a cardiologist told him. "You are dying."
He paused and looked into a sea of attentive faces, the sanctuary so quiet you could hear a prayer drop. "Perhaps," Williams said, "God allowed that so I would listen to my girlfriend."
The girlfriend he would marry led Williams back to the faith he knew as a child, a faith he gave lip service to in college. One evening, Williams walked to the edge of a campus lake and contemplated suicide. In the darkness he heard a gentle voice: "Monty. ... " It was Ingrid.
A battery of tests two years later showed no trace of the disease. Cardiologists called it "inexplicable." Williams called it "a divine healing." He played two more seasons at Notre Dame and nine in the NBA. "Perhaps," he said of the heart condition, "the Lord allowed that so I would have this message."
His story connects with people everywhere, and perhaps therein lies the miracle: Williams can at once look 6-foot-8 and 5-8, like a pillar of achievement, like a battle-scarred soldier. He can motivate millionaire athletes, he can reach common men. "Adversity," he said, "makes the world smaller."
Hardship, he has learned, can be healing in disguise. The disease he feared would kill him saved him. It turned him to Ingrid, to God and then to a world of hurting people.
In late August, Williams flew to Johannesburg, South Africa, to serve as a camp instructor for Basketball Without Borders, the NBA's global development program. He coached some of Africa's finest young talent. He helped build homes for two families living in a dirt-floor shanty of wood and scrap metal. "I learned how to lay brick and keep walls straight," he said.
The lockout ended three months later and a storm erupted. Would Paul be dealt to the Lakers or Celtics? The Warriors or Clippers? What would the Hornets get in return? Williams bulled ahead. The Hornets would move on, he said, and "pound the rock" -- a mantra of hard, unrelenting work made famous by his mentor, Gregg Popovich.
As speculation over Paul's future dominated news and local conversation, a reporter asked how Williams managed his emotions. "For the most part, sports is emotional and takes up too much of our lives," he said. "That's pretty sad. I love basketball and yet I still think it is out of place."
In the next breath, he acknowledged the good living he's made off the game. And he expressed gratitude for opportunities he never imagined. Who gets to play in the NBA after receiving a fatal diagnosis in college? Coach in the NBA after being suicidal? Travel and share the gospel after a childhood of abuse and molestation?
In the basketball storm that pounded The Big Easy, Williams could not forget. "I'm blessed," he said.