Between my mother and father there was a lot of physical abuse. He would come home drunk and push her around, and my sister Frances and I would try to stop it. I'd try to separate them, but I was too small and my dad, Babe, would just push me away.
(Read Grant Wahl's interview with Roy Williams)
My mother and father split for the first time just after I'd finished first grade. My mother took us away and the three of us lived all summer in a single room at the Shamrock Court Motel, which my aunt Doris owned. My mother would go off to work and Frances was off doing odd jobs for somebody, so I would go around with another of my aunts, Leona, who was a maid at the motel. She paid me 25 cents a day to take off the dirty pillowcases and put on clean ones. At lunch Aunt Doris would fix me a sandwich, and then I'd go and work some more in the afternoon. That was it. There was no ballplaying. Nothing that kids do. It was just survival.
When the school year started, we moved in with another aunt. We lived in her trailer because she had an empty bedroom. I slept on the couch and my mother and sister shared the back bedroom. We lived there for four or five months, and then Dad started coming by and my parents got back together again. That lasted a little while before they broke up again. We left again and lived with another aunt. All of these aunts that put us up were my dad's sisters. They were all mad at Babe because they knew that his drinking and carousing was ruining my family. It was difficult for me to understand why my father was doing this to us. My mom and dad got together and broke up, got together and broke up, and the last time we moved out I was 11 years old.
Frances was four years older than me. I know Frances was also upset by our family situation, but she didn't seem to be as bothered by it as I was. She was older, more mature, and just handled it better. During the tough times, she was keeping an eye on me more than I knew she was, but I just wasn't willing to talk about our mom and dad splitting up. I never really talked to anybody about it. I pretended it wasn't there.
During one of the times when my mother and dad got back together, we lived in a house on Warren Avenue in Asheville. That was the first and only house we ever owned. My mother, Frances, and I left and came back, and left and came back, and then one day when we were staying with one of my aunts, my dad said, "Why don't you guys come back and stay at the house, and I'll leave and let you guys live there?"
We'd only been back living in that house for two weeks when these two guys pulled up in the driveway. They were wearing dark sportcoats, white shirts, and ties. I was on the porch, but I ran in the house to tell my mom as they came walking up the steps. I remember latching the screen door, and I wouldn't unlatch it to let them in. It turned out that during that seven-month time period that we'd been gone, my dad hadn't paid the mortgage. So they came and foreclosed on the house. They told us we had three days to get out. I went and packed up my stuff, and we moved back to the motel. To this day I still have a negative feeling about people in dark sportcoats, white shirts, and ties.
Every time my parents got back together, there was a lot of fighting. My dad never hit my mother with his fist, but he went as far as he could go without doing that. I tried to run away from home one time because I just wanted to get away. I didn't get very far; I don't know if I wanted to get very far. I just wanted to shock my dad into stopping. I was always feeling like I needed to escape.
Growing up I always knew my dad was wrong. I hated the drinking. I wanted my mom and dad to be together, but I didn't want them to be together if it was going to be that way.
The summer I turned 14, my parents had been apart for a couple of years. My dad hardly ever paid the child support. He'd pay one month and skip seven, then pay another month and skip nine. My mom talked to a lawyer and they served a warrant for my dad's arrest and said he had to catch up on child support. My dad came by the house. He was drunk and angry. It was the worst time I can ever remember. He went after my mom. I pulled him off of her, pushed him down, and grabbed a bottle and put it under his chin. "Get out of here or I'll bust this over your head," I said. "I'll kill you!"
The whole scene was very nasty, but I didn't care. When he got up to leave, I said, "I never want to see you again. I never want you to set foot in my house again for the rest of my life."
My dad never, ever came back to our house again. After that, I rarely saw him, only a couple of times when my sister made me go with her to visit him. Frances was more forgiving, but I was not. I was mad that he'd torn our family apart.
In my first season as an assistant coach at North Carolina in 1978, I didn't say 10 words. I was scared to death. The only sound that came out of my mouth was a whistle. I would referee in practice because I felt that was a way I could contribute.
During games, I kept a chart on the bench of what offenses and defenses we called, the quality of shots taken, and the results of each possession. At halftime I'd give Coach Smith that statistical analysis. I could tell him, for example, that every time our offense ran "Fist," we wound up with a layup, or that we got four turnovers in the six times we called our "Scramble" defense, so our double-teaming was effective. It was the first time Coach Smith had ever had that kind of information and he really liked it. I did it to keep myself busy because I'd get upset at some of the foul calls, but I didn't want to say anything to the referees. I would have had a heart attack if an official had ever called a technical foul on me.
In my third year we were playing at N.C. State and for some reason I turned to Coach Smith on our bench and said, "Coach, what do you think about running 'Biggie'?"
He stood up right away and yelled, "Jimmy, run Biggie!"
My heart jumped into my throat. We ran the play and scored.
The next time we got the ball, Coach Smith asked me, "You want to try Biggie again?"
"Yeah, maybe to the other side," I said.
So we ran it to the other side and we scored again.
After the game, while we were waiting in the parking lot to ride the bus home, I said, "Coach, you really made me nervous. I just threw out that play as a suggestion."
He said, "Let me tell you something. The other coaches throw plays out to me all the time. If you throw one out at me, I know you have thought it through so much that I don't have any worries about going ahead and calling it. I want you to stay that way. If you suggest something, I'm going to do it."
That made me feel really good. In three years, that was the first suggestion of any play I had ever made. I was starting to feel like a real coach.
At the end of the following season, in 1982, we were the best team in the country. Coach Smith had taken a lot of criticism from the press about coaching in six Final Fours and never winning a national championship, but I felt there was no way we were not going to win this one. We had reached the NCAA tournament final the year before and gotten a taste, and in '82 I was sure we were going to win the whole thing.
We were playing Georgetown for the championship and it was a close game throughout. We were down by one point with 32 seconds to play. Coach Smith called timeout and the guys came over to the bench. The negative look on all of their faces scared me to death. It was the first time that night I ever had the thought, "My gosh, we could lose this game."
The players sat down in chairs and the coaches knelt down in front of them, and I can remember it like it was last night. Coach Smith said, "Okay, we're in great shape. We're exactly where we want to be because we're going to determine the outcome of this game."
I pretended to cough so I could look up at the scoreboard just to make sure I had the score right, because he was making me feel like we were ahead.
Then he said, "I'm serious. We're exactly where we want to be. This basketball game is ours. We'll run 'Lineup' in case they're pressing, but I don't think they will be. We'll get it in and let's see what they're doing. I believe they'll stick in a zone. If they are, let's run "2" and look for the lob, but I don't think it will be there. If it's not, don't worry about it, penetrate and then try to pitch on the backside. If we get the shot and it's open, take the shot. James, when you go for the lob, go ahead and get inside position on the weak side. Sam, you get inside position in the middle, so even if we miss the shot, we'll get the rebound and put it back in. If they get the rebound, don't worry about it. Just foul them. There's no way they can make a free throw in this situation. We're going to determine the outcome of this game."
When the team left the huddle, I felt so much better. The look on everybody's face had changed 180 degrees. I saw Coach Smith pat Michael on the back and say, "Michael, if you get it, knock it in."
We went out on the court, ran "Lineup" and they didn't press, so we threw it in; they did stay in a zone, so we looked for the lob, but we didn't get it. We threw it on the backside to Michael and he took the shot and knocked it in and we won the national championship.
I was thrilled, but it was also a moment of relief for me because I was tired of everybody saying Coach Smith couldn't win the big one. I had tears rolling down my face and that was why.
I also learned a little bit about coaching that night.
In our locker room after losing at Wake Forest on January 11, 2009 to drop to 0-2 in the ACC, I did what I have always done. I drew from my past.
I turned to Coach Robinson and said, "Coach, do you remember the 1991 season at Kansas?"
Coach Robinson's eyes got real big because he didn't know what I was doing, but he said, "Yes."
"Do you remember how our Kansas team started out that '91 season in the conference?"
"Isn't that the year we started out 0-2?"
"Exactly right, Coach. That's very good. Do you remember how we finished in the conference that year?"
"We finished first."
"Do you remember how we ended that season?"
"We played for the national championship."
"That's right. So, guys, we've been through this before. I've been through this before. Coach Robinson has been through this before. We've been 0-2 before and played for the national title. The season is not over. This is just a little bit of a challenge. So just follow along. Just do what we tell you to do and things will be fine. Guys, this game was extremely disappointing and we've got to play better, but my gosh we stunk it up and we still had a chance to win the dadgum game. This is just as much my fault as it is yours. I apologize and I've got to get better. But we're going to be all right, you've got to trust that. You've got to believe that. Do you believe that?
"What were our goals? Was our goal to beat Wake Forest? No. Our goal is to win the regular season championship and then our goal is to win the national championship. We haven't lost those opportunities. We can still reach our dreams."
I got a sense from each player that they were thinking, "Okay, huh, I guess we are all right."
Then I told them, "Let's keep this conversation in our locker room. Let's keep this to ourselves. But if you do what we ask you to do, I promise you we'll have a chance to be there at the end."
Pacing around the coaches' locker room a few minutes earlier, I had remembered how I felt when my 1991 Kansas team lost to Oklahoma State to fall to 0-2 in the Big 8. I remembered how at our coaches' meeting after that game I'd thrown a clipboard up against the wall in my hotel room in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and told my staff, "You guys get the hell out of here, I'll figure it out myself." But I also remembered how I'd decided that with the players I was going to be extremely positive and how well they'd reacted to that.
So that's what I did with my North Carolina team. I was going to do everything I could to make sure that they didn't fall off the cliff. Showing confidence in them was more important to that team than any team I have ever coached because of the high expectations they were facing. I didn't want panic to be an option. I had to keep saying we were going to be fine.
A coach can sometimes manipulate what his players think. I think we all try to convince our teams of something that isn't exactly right when we need to. But that night I believed everything I said and I wanted to help frame their opinion. Walking out of the arena that night, I said a little prayer to myself, "Lord, please let these kids realize that their dreams and goals are realistic. Amen."
On the bus ride home I watched the game tape. It reinforced for me that we had played very poorly and made a lot of silly mistakes. It gave me hope because I thought our mistakes were easy to correct. I was ticked off, as I always am, about losing, ticked off that we didn't show Wake Forest that we could stand up to them at their best. But I also felt pretty doggone good because I really didn't feel that anybody else would make us play as badly as Wake did that night.
Before practice the next day, I asked myself, "As a player, what would I be thinking?" I can sense when my team is expecting to get hammered by me and sometimes I will fulfill their expectations, but I think that resorting to screaming and yelling at them shows a lack of confidence, not only in them but in myself. How can I expect players to be as good as I want them to be if I'm not doing the best that I can? I treated that practice as "get better," not "get even." I sensed they were going to have a great practice and they did. They were very attentive to doing things the right way and they saw better results when they took better shots. We showed them two hours of tape from the Wake Forest game. I kept asking them, "Isn't it easy to change that? All right, then let's change it."
We won 12 of our next 13 games before our Senior Day game against Duke. Two days before the game, Ty Lawson jammed his toe in practice. It was swollen, so our doctors gave him a cortisone shot to relieve the pain.
We didn't know whether Ty was going to play until right before the game, and then he really struggled in the first half. At the end of halftime, as we were walking back out to the court, I grabbed Ty and I said, "Hey, put that half behind you and play your tail off in this half." Ty finished the game with 13 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists, and he made a key three-point play down the stretch, and we won the game and the ACC regular season championship. Ty would be voted the conference Player of the Year.
After the game the cortisone shot began to wear off and Ty told me he was really hurting. He left the gym with his dad and his dad suggested he try some Epsom salt and hot water. That was about the worst idea you could have. Ty's toe swelled up the size of a lemon.
I wanted to win a national championship more than I wanted to breathe, but I was not going to let Ty Lawson have another cortisone shot. I worried about Ty every day at practice and I decided to sit him out of the ACC Tournament. We played Florida State in the semifinals and we got beat. I tried to reassure everybody in the locker room after that loss by telling them I'd been to the Final Four six times in my career and five of those six times my team had lost in the conference tournament.
President Obama picked us to win the NCAA tournament again and it was broadcast everywhere. That was fine with me, because I couldn't possibly have felt more pressure than I already did going into the tournament.
I decided we could afford to sit Ty in our NCAA opener against Radford, but we played him in the next game against LSU. At one point in the first half, though, Ty's foot got bumped and he felt something pop in his toe. He limped to our bench and said, "Coach, you've got to get me out."
I thought he was done for the game, but he went back in a few minutes later. I could tell he was struggling to trust what he could do on the court. It was the same scenario as on Senior Day, because as we were walking back out after halftime, I grabbed Ty and said, "Remember, against Duke you didn't do too much in the first half, but you were great in the second half. Put that first half behind you. Son, we need you to be great this half."
We quickly fell behind by four points early in the second half, and at a timeout I walked into our huddle and barked at our seniors, "Is this how you want your careers to end? Then keep playing like this."
From that moment on, Ty had one of the best performances of any point guard I have ever coached. The very next possession, Ty made an unbelievable layup and there was a lot of chest bumping going on, and all of a sudden our team was feeling confident again. Ty attacked the rim every possession, and we were running and pushing the ball and LSU was having trouble getting back in time to keep Ty in front of them. Ty loaded everybody up on his back and won the game for us.
We normally don't like to make major changes in the middle of the NCAA tournament, because in the past if we changed anything it really screwed things up. But against Gonzaga in the round of 16 game I thought we needed to make a change from how we had played ball screens all season. Their attack was to set a screen with one of their big guys, who would look for a pass cutting to the basket. We normally have our big guy step out and hedge, but that game, we decided to squeeze and go under, and our guys adapted to that idea very well. We shut down their favorite option and Ty scored 17 points in the first half. We won easily, 98-77.
Then we were playing Oklahoma and Blake Griffin, the guy who had the best season of anybody in the country. Again we made a major defensive adjustment. I decided to double-down on Griffin as soon as it was passed to him in the post. We had about 15 minutes during our one day of practice before the Oklahoma game to teach our guys when to double-team Griffin and then how to rotate to the open man. Our players did a great job of it. For much of the game, Griffin passed the ball out of the double-team and Oklahoma missed its first 15 shots from three-point range. We won 72-60. After the game I told our guys that I'd never seen a bad defensive team win a national title, and I thought we'd won our last two games with our defense. In the locker room that day the guys were so excited, but right before I walked out, I said, "Remember, we were here last year."
I said it again right before the NCAA semifinal against Villanova. I never mentioned the word Kansas because I thought that could bring back bad memories, but I repeated, "Remember, we were here last year." I also told them we should win the game because we were bigger and better than them. Reversing what had happened a year earlier, we jumped out to a 40-23 lead with Tyler Hansbrough outmuscling their smaller post players inside and then passing the ball out to open shooters when he got double-teamed. Tyler finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, while Ty scored 22 points and Wayne Ellington had 20, and we won the game pretty easily.
After our game, I watched a tape of the other semifinal three different times, and I was surprised by how easily Michigan State beat Connecticut. I was happy, because I thought playing Michigan State would be great for us psychologically. I was thinking, "Hey, we beat the crap out of them earlier in the season, we can beat the crap out of them again."
In our locker room before the game I said, "We're going to attack. We're not going to back down. We're going to attack and attack and attack. They're saying we can't beat them again because we beat them by 35. Hey, we can beat them worse. We can beat them by 45. We're better than they are. They say that Michigan State winning is going to fix the nation's economy, well then, I say, hell, let's stay poor a while longer. All of that stuff is B.S. This is a basketball game. That's all it is. We are better than they are. Now let's go play. Tonight somebody is going to win the national championship. Why not let it be us?"
The last time I ever saw my dad was on a Wednesday in May 2004. I was going to St. Louis for a meeting, and I got a charter plane to fly me from Chapel Hill and stop over in Asheville so I could visit with him. Over the years, we'd seen each other on Christmas a few times. He came to watch me coach two games. He had never come to my house. By the time I came back to North Carolina in 2003, my dad had late-stage cancer. We saw each other about a dozen times during that first year I was back.
When I arrived at his house on that May afternoon, he said, "Well, good God, look what the dogs drug in."
Later, he said to me, "You know, I really didn't do a good job with you as a father."
I said, "I was all right."
"No, I could've taught you so many things."
"What the hell did I ever teach you?"
"Daddy, I just looked at what you did and I tried to do the opposite."
"That's the only goddamn way I could ever have taught you anything."
Then I said, "Daddy, you did something else, too. When you came to Mom's visitation I appreciate you saying what you did."
He looked at me and said, "It's still the only goddamn thing I've ever regretted in my entire life."
As I was leaving, I said, "I'll be back on Sunday."
I will never forget that he said, "Well, maybe I'll be here, maybe I won't."
That next Sunday, as I drove to Asheville, I was heading toward my dad's house when I decided I needed to stop at a golf course right near the airport because I wanted to work on my putting. So I putted for about 30 minutes. Then I thought to myself, "It's time to go now."
I got back in the car and drove over to my dad's house, and my half brother, Danny, came out of the house. "He's passed," he said. "He's been gone for about 30 minutes."
I said, "I know." I knew because I didn't want to see my dad like that anymore. The last thing he had said to me was, "Well, maybe I'll be here, maybe I won't." That was right somehow."
At my mom's funeral when I delivered the eulogy, I said, "Life was never easy for my mother, but she never belabored that point. She never made me feel like she was feeling sorry for herself, and that made me feel how strong she was. Very seldom did we ever tell each other, 'I love you.' But there was never a moment in my life that she didn't make me feel like I was the most important person in her world. I thought she was an angel, but she treated me like one."
My dad had heard about the eulogy. He asked one of my cousins, "Do you think Roy will talk at my funeral like he did at his mom's?"
That was my dad's way of asking me. Because he wouldn't actually ask me. He had too much pride. But he knew my cousin would tell me.
So I spoke at my dad's funeral, too. I said, "The song that came to my mind when my mom died was "Wind Beneath My Wings," because that's what she was. The song that reminds me of my dad every time I hear it is "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," because he was married five times and the only thing he ever left us was alone, where he laid his hat was his home, and he spent all his time chasing women and drinking. That was my dad.
"He didn't always do a great job living, but my dad was really good at dying. He had three grandsons and he had three shotguns and before he died, he gave each grandson a shotgun. He had two sons, my half brother Danny and me, and he tried to mend fences with both of us. Before my dad died, he cleared everything off his chest and all of us in this room should hope to be able to do that. I know Daddy would want everybody to say I love you more than he and I ever did, and so I would hope that all of you would take the time to tell people that you love them. My dad would like that. My dad made some mistakes while he was alive, but he tried to make amends before he died, so I believe he died a contented man.
"Some of you may be upset about the bad things I'm saying about my dad at his funeral. You know what? It doesn't bother me, because my dad told me one time that he didn't give a damn what other people thought. Well, I'm Babe's son."