Mixed in amongst Grant Williams’ robust childhood collection of athletic trophies and academic awards were a handful of toy space shuttles. He even once took part in a simulation at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in which he drove a shuttle itself. “It wasn’t for tourists,” he adds. “It was just for the people that worked there.”
Williams never worked at NASA and never wanted to be an astronaut. But the topic of space exploration has always been a part of the Celtics forward’s life. His mother, Teresa Johnson, is an engineer that has been employed at NASA for more than three decades. Among other roles, she was an electrical engineer and helped build the International Space Station. In 1995, she became the first African-American female GS-15 in technical at JSC, he says. When Williams is asked about her current role, he makes sure to read a text she sent to him that fully relays her current credentials. (In laymen’s terms, she’s in a more managerial position in safety and mission assurance.)
“My mom’s done some really bada-- sh--,” he says, summing up her resume. “She has done some amazing things.”
There is quite possibly no active NBA player who is as knowledgeable and connected to topics related to space than Williams. And on Saturday afternoon, he made sure to watch the SpaceX launch—a “remember-where-you-were-moment,” in his words.
Williams tuned in from the Charlotte-area home of his teammate Kemba Walker, which is where the 21-year-old rookie has been staying during the league’s hiatus. At 3:22 p.m. ET, Williams, like millions of other people, witnessed two astronauts lift off the same Florida launchpad that once served Apollo missions. The occasion marked the first-time in history that a private company launched astronauts into orbit.
“What really excites me is the way we’ve advanced,” he says. “Look at the different variations of shuttles, the different variations of launches…This is a private company and being able to be as successful as they have been, it's amazing to see and to keep up with.”
Williams was born in Houston and lived there until he was around four, when his parents separated and he moved to North Carolina. He has four brothers, including two half-brothers. His father, Gilbert, played professional basketball and went on to work a number of jobs, including as a teacher and in stage management. “He’s the most connected man I know in the world,” Grant says of his dad.
But it was also through his mom’s work that Williams says he was introduced to some of the smartest people he’s ever met. He’s visited the Johnson Space Center in Houston dozens of times, so often in fact that his mom kept his guest badge in her car. And he has childhood memories of reading her cases and trying to offer suggestions, as if he was performing her job himself. “I don’t know if she ever took any of that stuff into consideration,” he quips.
Through his mom’s work, he’s traveled much of the world, venturing to Italy, Germany and Russia. In turn, he has frequented a number of international space centers. Listen to Williams speak of his space-related travels and his worldly and inquisitive nature is apparent.
“I’ve always been interested in just exploration and seeing what there is in life right now,” he says.
But space is far from Williams’ lone off-court intrigue. Despite turning down Ivy League schools in favor of Tennessee, he built an Ivy Leaguer’s resume. Throughout his youth, he learned at least half-a-dozen instruments, including piano, violin and clarinet; became a nationally ranked chess player and once defeated the nation’s No. 1 chess champion; and performed in his high school’s musicals.
“He’s a Renaissance man,” his mom has said.
“He was just born with certain skill sets that most of us don't have,” adds Tennessee assistant coach Desmond Oliver, who first watched Williams when the forward was a ninth grader.
Williams enrolled at UT looking to major in mechanical engineering, but eventually settled on majoring in supply chain management—“think of Amazon and what they do with their culture,” he says—so that he could graduate in just three years. “I think both Grant and his mother have the ability to be super intellectual and then also blend in,” Oliver says. The 6’7’’ forward also stood out on the basketball court, where, as a junior last season, he was a unanimous All-American selection.
Williams has appeared in 62 games this year with the Celtics, averaging nearly 16 minutes per contest. While staying physically ready during the league’s suspension, he also began mentoring six underserved African-American and Hispanic teenage boys from the Boston area. “He’s always had a maturity that most young people just don’t have,” Oliver explains.
The topic of space has not yet been raised, but one of the students has expressed a demonstrated interest in technology. The Celtics forward hopes to connect the teen with his brother, Gabon, who works in cyber security.
“It means the world to me,” Williams says of his involvement in the program, “because I get to influence young minds and hopefully inspire them to be better than I was growing up.”
He’s relayed to his mentees another message passed down from his mother: “You could learn off the court and you could learn on it,” emphasizing the importance of staying both balanced and also curious.
Vast discovery isn’t bound to the cosmos. “But,” Williams says, “I was always a person that was intrigued by the limitless idea of space."