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'You Can't Give In': Monty Williams On Life After Tragedy

The death of Monty Williams's wife has taught the former NBA coach two lessons: the beauty of forgiveness and the need to move on, no matter how painful that might be.

The low point came last March. Or maybe it was April. Monty Williams isn’t sure. Time blurs. 

For two weeks Micah and Elijah passed the stomach flu back and forth, as five- and eight-year-olds do. They threw up on the carpet, in the bed, on the bathroom floor. Everywhere but in the toilet and the trash can. Finally one night, well after midnight, they combined for a particularly messy episode. As his three teenage daughters slept in nearby rooms, Monty—who’d spent a lifetime in basketball, first as a player and then as a coach, most recently as an assistant for the Thunder—stumbled out of bed and herded the boys into the shower, then into clean pajamas and back to sleep. Next he cleaned the rug, scrubbed the tile floor and disinfected the toilet. He longed to go back to bed but knew Ingrid never would have left the sheets to sit overnight in the laundry room, clumped with all that sickness. Which meant he couldn’t either. He’d promised the kids nothing in their day-to-day lives would change. If anyone’s life was going to change, he’d said, it would be his.

So at 2:30 a.m., Monty trudged downstairs and out the back door into the cold Oklahoma night, where he hung the sheets over the fence. As he hosed them down he shivered and stared up at the sky, feeling lost. He was supposed to be sleeping next to his wife, or watching film, or on the road with his team. 

Instead he was here, alone and overwhelmed.How in the world is this my life? he wondered.

The morning of Feb. 9, 2016, began like so many others. Monty awoke at 7:00, still groggy from the previous night’s flight back from Phoenix, where the Thunder had beaten the Suns. Ingrid was already downstairs, conquering the morning. They’d been together 26 years, through five kids and eight cities, and he remained in awe of her. While many NBA wives contracted out the more mundane duties of parenting, Ingrid would not consider hiring a cook, a cleaner or a nanny. On game nights she bundled up the kids and brought them to the arena, but only after their homework was done. Then, at the end of the first quarter—sharp—they’d file out, because Dad may be an NBA coach, but nothing overrules bedtime. 

On this morning Ingrid was out the door by 7:15, trailing five clean, neatly attired Williams children between the ages of five and 18, all of whom unfailingly addressed adults as Sir and Ma’am. She spent the rest of the day driving from this day care to that high school to this basketball practice to that doctor’s appointment, in addition to making her regular stops at the church and the center for inner-city kids, where she volunteered. 

So when Monty didn’t hear from her that evening, as she returned from Faith’s basketball game, it didn’t strike him as strange. He was preoccupied anyway, at home preparing for the next Thunder opponent as Lael, his eldest, watched TV on the couch with Elijah. 

Then, around 8:30, Lael’s cellphone rang. It was Faith, calling her sister. Monty saw Lael’s face fall. 

This is what the police know: A little after 8 p.m., Ingrid was driving north on a four-lane road in downtown Oklahoma City in the family’s SUV with Faith, then 15; Janna, 13; and Micah. 

A sedan driven by a 52-year-old woman named Susannah Donaldson approached from the opposite direction. During the preceding hours, toxicology reports would show, Donaldson had taken a substantial amount of methamphetamine. Police also believe she may have been cradling a dog on her lap. By the time she approached the 1400 block of South Western Avenue, she was in the left lane, going more than twice the posted limit of 40. She swerved to avoid the car in front of her, sending her vehicle across the center line. Impact with Ingrid’s SUV was head-on. Donaldson and the dog died at the scene. The Williams family was rushed to a hospital.

With Lael away at school, Monty and (from left) Janna, Elijah, Micah and Faith are doing their best to cope without Ingrid.

With Lael away at school, Monty and (from left) Janna, Elijah, Micah and Faith are doing their best to cope without Ingrid.

In the days that followed, local TV reporters stood by the road, grim-faced, noting the dark burn marks staining the asphalt, the spray of glass, debris lying on the side of the road. The newscasts showed photos of Ingrid and Monty together, her face frozen in that familiar smile, and her at a Thunder game. Interviews rolled with NBA coaches and players. They are difficult to watch, warned a reporter.

Monty clung to the fact that the children all survived, and without life-threatening injuries. For a while it seemed Ingrid might too, but the following afternoon she slipped away, at the age of 44. 

Friends and family descended. Ingrid’s parents drove through the night from their home in San Antonio. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who’d played with and later coached Monty, canceled his vacation to fly in. Monty’s pastors from Portland and New Orleans arrived. Gregg Popovich, his longtime mentor, reached out immediately. Charlie Ward, Billy Donovan, Sam Presti, Avery Johnson, Tim Duncan: They visited, called, texted. Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson, players he was close to on the Pelicans, in town to play the Thunder, came to the house to sit with him. So many people sent flowers that Ayana Lawson, the Thunder’s director of player services and appearances, finally contacted local florists and requested they send the gifts to one of Ingrid’s charitable causes. Even so, Shaquille O’Neal managed to have a white orchid the size of a small tree delivered.