Darrell Williams was sitting in jail, thinking about unfulfilled dreams.
It was July 2012. Williams should have just finished his senior season at Oklahoma State, where the bruising forward averaged 7.1 points and 7.3 rebounds the year before. He should have been a college graduate. He should have been preparing for a career in professional basketball.
Instead, he was sitting behind bars, his life was flashing in front of his eyes. He thought about basketball, which gave him access to a college education and promised a better life for his family, including his one-year-old daughter. He thought about his older brother, who had been shot and killed in 2009. He thought about his upbringing in Chicago, surrounded by violence, and how he had chosen to pursue his education, only to find himself in a cell in Oklahoma.
Days earlier, a Stillwater, Okla., jury had convicted Williams of two counts of rape by instrumentation and recommended one year in prison for each count. The conviction stemmed from a December 2010 off-campus party, after which two female students accused Williams of thrusting his hand down their pants and penetrating them. In February 2011, he was charged with one count of sexual battery and four counts of rape by instrumentation. But Williams had always maintained he was innocent, even going against the advice of his lawyers and declining the prosecutor’s offer of no jail time in exchange for pleading guilty to misdemeanor battery.
“Oh my Jesus God,” Williams cried as the jury read the verdict, slamming his hands on the table. He looked at the jury. “I didn’t do it!”
Nearly two years later, Williams would be exonerated with help from a new team of lawyers and the Chicago Innocence Center, which investigates potential wrongful convictions. But redemption was a long way away.
Behind bars, Williams was living a nightmare. For the first few days, he would wake up every hour, nervous something would happen to him.
“This can’t be right,” Williams kept repeating to himself. “I can’t see myself spending no more time in here.”
His basketball career—the foundation for all of his dreams—appeared to be dead.
Then he called Randy Brown.
Brown, a 12–year NBA veteran who won three titles with the Bulls, was Chicago’s special assistant to the general manager when Williams was charged. Brown knew of Williams from his AAU days, when he played with Derrick Rose. One of Brown’s high school friends, Tyrone Bullock, coached Williams at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy in Chicago.
Brown had only met Williams once, in a Chicago gym during the summer of 2012, just before his conviction. But when Brown heard about Williams’s conviction, he reached out through Bullock.
On the phone, Williams told Brown he thought his basketball career was over. But Brown demurred, telling him everything would work out for the best, however unlikely it seemed.
“When you are released from prison, I’m going to be there to make sure you get that second chance,” Brown told Williams.
“I’ve got your back, D.”
An unlikely friendship was born: One man was spending his time trying to help the Chicago Bulls win a championship, while the other was worrying about his future in a Payne County Jail cell.
Reaching out to inmates wasn’t something Brown did regularly. He had helped kids through schooling and behavioral issues before, but until Williams he had never dealt with someone in jail. Brown didn’t follow Williams’s legal saga closely, but he suspected he might be innocent.
Brown could relate to Williams. They both grew up in tough conditions in Chicago; Brown hailed from the West Side, and Williams spent his youth in the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the most violent housing projects in the city’s South Side. Both took refuge in basketball.
“Some people deserve second and third chances. I felt Darrell was one of those guys,” Brown says. “I wouldn’t go to bat to give this kid a second chance and then he goes back to something that he’s not. I just knew deep down inside it wasn’t him, he doesn’t deserve to be in prison, and if he is going to make something positive about his life, he needed a second chance.”
As Williams served his sentence, scrutiny of his legal process increased. In Stillwater, advocates organized rallies, including one attended by Jesse Jackson. The Cowboys athletic department continued to support him as well; Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford had testified as a character witness at his trial.
But most importantly, a series of Huffington Post articles written by Chicago Innocence Project president David Protess started to raise new questions about Williams’s case.
The Innocence Project and Protess identified a number of serious issues with Williams’s legal process. Williams had passed two polygraph tests before he was charged. Authorities asked the accusers to identify suspects based on an Oklahoma State team photo rather than separate pictures of individuals, a choice that would increase the likelihood of misidentification. The prosecutor presented no physical evidence, and there was no witness that corroborated the accusers’ account of what took place at the party. A potentially significant witness, teammate Jarred Shaw, did not testify, problematic because one of the accusers had confused Shaw with Williams at the party, Protess reported. Shaw had transferred to Utah State before the trial and was not legally obligated to return to Oklahoma despite a subpoena. The jury consisted of 11 whites and one Asian. Major elements of the alleged victims’ stories simply didn’t make sense.
At Williams’s sentencing in October 2012, he again maintained his innocence. Despite the jury’s recommendation that Williams should serve two years, the judge decided against further jail time, giving him a one-year suspended sentence and releasing him. But despite mounting questions about the fairness of Williams’s trial, the judge ruled against a new trial.
Following his prison stint, Williams returned home to Chicago. He was no longer behind bars, but he wasn’t free: He had to be registered as a convicted sex offender. Public parks were off-limits, meaning he couldn’t even take his daughter to the park. He had to register with police.
But perhaps more than anything, Williams worried that his sex offender label would end his basketball career.
In early November, Williams attended a Bulls home game against the Thunder with friends, including Bullock. Williams was ecstatic to be back in Chicago, watching his hometown team. But he couldn’t help but think about what could have been.
“The whole atmosphere, the vibe, just hearing people scream and everything. Damn, I could have been out there,” he says. “People cheering for me. Crowd making noise, the oohs and ahhs. It was bittersweet.”
Watching the Bulls tantalized Williams, but it also motivated him. He met up with Brown at the arena that night, and Brown pushed him not to let go of his NBA dreams. He reminded Williams that he thought he deserved another shot at professional basketball, if he showed he was worthy. There were restrictions on how much Brown could help Williams, of course—Williams still wanted to claim college eligibility and Brown had to adhere to NBA regulations—but at the very least Williams had a friend in an NBA front office.
“I just wanted to let Darrell know that everyone wasn’t giving up on him,” Brown says.
Adds Williams: “It meant a lot coming from a person that actually played in the NBA.”
Williams had a renewed sense of confidence, but the road back to basketball wasn’t easy. Even though Williams had only played three college seasons, his five-year eligibility clock had expired. Without a special ruling from the NCAA, he wouldn’t be able to play Division I basketball. He also had to deal with skepticism from potential destinations for a final semester of eligibility in Division II. Charles Harris II, a Chicago lawyer who helped Williams pro bono, recalls that coaches were eager to recruit a Division I talent, but that college administrators sometimes thought Williams would be too much of a risk.
It was a difficult time for Williams. As he struggled to return to college basketball, police arrested him for public urination outside a friend’s home. He was forced to serve a month in jail in Chicago for not properly registering his sex offender status, which Williams says was a misunderstanding of protocol.
Through all of the uncertainty and setbacks, Williams somehow remained positive. Those close to him recall his capacity for forgiveness as well as his perseverance.
“I was really amazed at how mature he was and how he had kept his head up,” Harris says. “Just kind of how he kept his eyes focused on what he wanted to do long-term.”
There was good news, too: In April 2014, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Williams’s convictions, ruling that he had not received a fair trial due to jury misconduct. Multiple jurors had made unauthorized visits to the crime scene, a violation of procedure. Williams was stripped of his sex offender label. A few weeks later, the district attorney announced there would not be a new trial.
Williams ultimately made his way to Texas A&M–Commerce, where he averaged 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds in 32 games, including 29 starts, in 2014–15. The exoneree shined off the court as well: He graduated from Oklahoma State last spring after completing some coursework in jail and finishing his credits at Texas A&M–Commerce.
Brown had helped Williams regain confidence in his basketball potential. But Williams’s connection to Brown continued to pay off.
Brown had always told Williams that if he stayed out of trouble and excelled on the court, he would try to give him a look with the Bulls. Suiting up for the Chicago Bulls might have seemed unlikely—preposterous, even—to Williams when he sat helpless behind bars, labeled a sex offender. But in the two and a half years after his release, his resolve would not be denied.
Last summer, Williams put on a Chicago Bulls jersey in Las Vegas Summer League. Williams, who also worked out for the Mavericks, averaged 3.6 points and 4.8 rebounds in 9.4 minutes, including nine points and 13 rebounds in 28 minutes in Chicago’s final contest. It was nearly exactly three years after he had been charged.
At Summer League, Williams felt a sense of gratitude for the little things: Walking out of the tunnel, riding in a van with teammates, coming out of the huddle, listening to coaches discuss a scouting report, hearing the PA announcer call his name as a substitute. Losing everything made him grateful for the game’s minutiae.
Now 26, Williams is playing professionally in Europe. In 11 games this season for Belgian club Verviers-Pepinster, he averaged 17.2 points and 10.7 rebounds. Last week, Williams joined Belgrade–based KK Partizan NIS, the most successful club in Serbia, on a transfer. He’s playing well, and he enjoyed experiencing a new culture in Belgium for a few months, despite knowing only a few words of French. His goal is still to make it in the NBA.
“He got a chance to play on an NBA team in the Summer League and got a professional job in Europe, which was gratifying for me,” Brown says.
When Williams took the floor in his first Summer League game as a member of Brown’s team, there were no nerves. He had waited for that opportunity for too long to be nervous.
“That was a moment that I was really proud of myself, and I kept thanking God for the opportunity that He gave me,” Williams says. “I was just seeing myself in a cell, and then just two years later playing on an NBA floor, putting on an NBA jersey. I just never really thought that was possible.”