LOS ANGELES — The ballad of the humble gunner involves five rappers and two girlfriends, a McDonald’s and a Friday’s. It winds through Memphis and Atlanta, Philadelphia and Toronto, but not college, never college. “The neighborhood bred me,” Lou Williams says. He could unleash 50–balls and fill composition notebooks with what he learned on the streets. Allen Iverson was one professor, Jermaine Dupri another.
Memphis is a music town and a basketball town, in that order, and it provided Williams an early education in both subjects. He grew up on the south side, playing baseball with a stick for a bat and a phone book for a plate, blasting line drives until older kids started throwing curves. Williams found refuge on the blacktop, lofting his teardrops over future pros like Thaddeus Young and Shawne Williams, as R&B and southern rap flooded his ears.
“I was raised in a musical house,” he says. “Marvin Gaye. Boyz II Men. Jodeci. My mom always played that Toni Braxton song, Un-Break My Heart. When I hear that song, it still puts me right back in the car with her.” The sound of Toni Braxton, with the taste of A&R Bar-B-Q, transports him home.
Williams is in a different ride now, a black Maybach, headed to a Clippers community event in Watts. At 31, he is compiling his finest season, averaging a career-high 23.5 points and 5.2 assists in 32.5 minutes. Fourteen times he’s hit 30 points, three times 40 and once 50, in a win over Golden State. “I was semi-proud and semi-embarrassed,” Williams says. “I didn’t need to take that last shot. But of anybody, I thought Steve Kerr would understand, because the Warriors make history all the time.”
With Blake Griffin in Detroit, Chris Paul in Houston and a week until the trading deadline, Williams is the last scorer left in Lob City. During a timeout this season, he caught a couple opposing players eyeing the Clipper bench, populated by upstarts Tyrone Wallace, Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell. “I don’t know if those guys know any of y’all’s names,” Williams said in the huddle. “I’m not sure they know who you are.”
Everybody knows Lou, the sixth man turned bucket–getter, rhyme master and folk hero. As the Maybach steers south on Interstate 405, Williams mentions that he forgot his driver’s license, left behind on the kitchen counter of his home in Westchester. But the license is not actually his. It belonged to Willie Lou Williams, who died of a heart attack when his son was 8. “He saw me play one game,” Williams recalls. “It was in a church rec league, and as I was warming up, he rolled in on his wheelchair.”
Flashbacks of his father are hazy: watching football games, hearing Army stories, the wheelchair. “But I know we had a great relationship and he was always around,” Williams says. “When he passed, it left a big void, and I didn’t do well for a while afterward. I started following a rough crowd and making trouble.” His mother moved him to Atlanta, and on the day he left Memphis, his older sister dragged him by his arm to the car. “You gotta go,” she said.
He missed the old neighborhood, and for more than two years Williams did not play organized hoops in Atlanta, declining to even try out for the team at Henderson Middle School. When he finally joined the Suwanee Players, a fledgling AAU program, he was the last kid picked. What Suwanee discovered about Williams, and Williams discovered about himself, was a supernatural ability to score. “I black out,” Williams says. “I don’t think. I don’t hear.” He just splashes.
By his freshman season at South Gwinnett High School, he was a trigger-happy prodigy, breaking 50-point thresholds and earning All-State honors. Nike reps brokered a meeting between Williams and LeBron James at the Cavaliers’ hotel, before a game against the Hawks, and conversation veered to an upcoming Jay-Z concert at Philips Arena. Maverick Carter, James’s business manager, took Williams to the show. Backstage, he met Dupri, the hip–hop mogul who later introduced him to Bow Wow. They jibed, and after school Lou-Will and Bow would play pick-up games on the court at So So Def Recordings, Dupri’s label. “Lou was incredible,” says Scooter Braun, manager of Justin Bieber among others, and vice president of So So Def at the time. “But he never bragged. He never talked.”
Williams preferred to write, scrawling his own lyrics inside a black-and-white notebook during class. He bounced them off a South Gwinnett student named Javon Depass, who furnished him with albums from Lil Wayne and Master P, Hot Boys and Juvenile. Williams loved hip–hop as much as basketball, so of course he mimicked Allen Iverson, the furious crossovers and headlong drives. Williams graduated from South Gwinnett in 2005, the last year for preps-to-pros, and though he committed to Georgia he had no intention of enrolling. “The structure of college basketball never made sense to me,” Williams explains. “The coach is the star and you get up at 5:30 a.m. to run before class. That was never appealing to me. I didn’t even care where I was drafted.”
He went No. 45, to the 76ers, where he became Iverson’s rook. Instead of waking up at 5:30 a.m., Williams was going to bed then. “A.I. didn’t ask me to do a bunch of stuff for him,” Williams remembers. “He just wanted me around. Usually we were at the Friday’s in Philly, which he should have bought, because he was there so much. But once he took me to a casino in Atlantic City even though I couldn’t get in. So I sat in the lobby while he gambled. It was fine with me. I was with my idol.”
He met Meek Mill when he was with the Sixers, Drake when he was with the Raptors, and both name-checked him in songs. Drake named “6 Man” partially in his honor. Meek let him rhyme on “I Want It All." Williams carried every second unit that employed him, typically averaging about 15 points, pump-faking his way to the free-throw line. But reserves do not normally get shout outs from Grammy winners. Williams’s persona transcended his role, without much cultivation.
The legend of Lou-Will, as it has been termed, was probably born during a holdup on Christmas Eve 2011. Williams was driving through the Philadelphia neighborhood of Manayunk when a robber approached his window at a red light with a gun drawn. Williams did not deliver some impassioned address to disarm the gunman. He simply offered to buy the guy a burger. “I didn’t do anything,” Williams insists. “The only crazy thing I did is that when he ran to the McDonald’s, I didn’t drive away, and I don’t know why. I guess I wanted to keep my word, so I walked to the register with him and ordered the food. But hell no I didn’t sit down and eat with him.”
Three years later, Drake confirmed in a verse that Williams was dating two women at the same time, and they were content with the arrangement. So not only did he attract rappers and subdue criminals, he openly juggled girlfriends, an unconventional triple-double that qualified him for NBA royalty. Life after Rece and Ashley would never be the same. “I hear about it every day,” Williams laughs. “Every single day. More players do that than you know. I was just the first person to have it mentioned on a song.” Williams is still seeing Rece, but is just friends with Ashley, dishing news that will undoubtedly level the league.
Lou’s bio can sound outrageous, but his manner is understated, a mellow charm. He is not Nick Young, another chucker building alter egos and seeking reality shows. He lives in a two-story contemporary on a modest block in Westchester, surrounded by stucco bungalows, near the Southwest Airlines flight path. After games, he ducks quickly out of the Clippers locker room, often before the cameras enter. Most nights, he listens to music he has recorded at his home studio in Atlanta, much of which he has never released and never will. “I put out an album in September on Instagram,” Williams says. “But I don’t care to promote it.”
He recently found one of his high-school composition notebooks, which brought back a mixtape of memories. His buddy Javon Depass died five years ago after fleeing police on foot and jumping into Lake Lucerne. “He couldn’t swim,” Williams says. He still writes music, often on the plane, and talks to Iverson about once a week. A.I., watching from his home in Charlotte, deconstructs plays where he thinks Williams should have been more aggressive. But Iverson is proud of his protégé, earning recognition simply for his skill. “Right now, he’s shooting into a hula hoop,” says Nuggets coach Mike Malone.
There is not a more prolific scorer since Christmas, but as his Maybach pulls into the 107th Street Elementary School in Watts for the unveiling of a new playground, Williams checks his phone and sees he did not make the All-Star team. “This is a reputation business,” he says. “I understand the pecking order. There are a lot of good guards but I don’t know how many are playing at a higher level today.” His game is no different than it was last season, or the season before. He pounds the ball and lets it fly. Defense comes and goes. Only opportunity has changed, based on the Clippers' many injuries and transactions.
“This has been the most challenging and most fun I’ve had in a long time,” Williams continues. “Guys we depend on don’t have big contracts. They aren’t going home to huge houses and fancy cars. We just compete like hell, and sometimes, we play out of our minds. That has to be my validation, more than the popularity.”
At .500, the Clippers sit on the fringe of the playoff race, but the organization is looking much farther down the road. Griffin is gone and center DeAndre Jordan remains on the market. Several clubs need second-unit scoring, and by next Friday, Williams could very well be on his fifth team in three years. Or, he could stick until summer and re–sign with the Clippers, a bedrock in a new foundation. Either way, Sweet Lou does not stress. “I’ve been in this thing a decade,” he smiles, and heads for the playground, to a rhythm all his own.