Reg-gie, Reg-gie, Reg-gie."
This is an article from the Feb. 23, 1987 issue
The chant goes up for more amazing grace, even though Reggie Williams has already kept the young and green Georgetown Hoyas in the game for 39 minutes. A steal, a rebound, a pick, a great entry pass, a blocked shot, a flurry of three-pointers, some choice advice—Reggie has done whatever was necessary. Now the painted faces in the student cheering section at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., want more. They want the W. They know that there's only one man to ask.
The game comes down to the buzzer, and Williams is casually running the baseline. Some other time it could be the point. He could be in Madison Square Garden or the Spectrum or Boston Garden. He would still look quite at home. His teammates run through their patterns, wondering what on earth will become of them. Reggie knows. He knows the game will come to him in the end. And so it does. He flashes into the lane, streaks out beyond the three-point line and...you know the rest. And if you don't, you can ask John Thompson.
"A lot of players know how to play. Few know how to win," says Thompson, Williams's coach at Georgetown, where the record is 112-18 and counting since Reggie arrived four years ago. "Reggie knows how to win. He is completely comfortable on the court. He makes it a comforting place for me. A lot of players say they can do everything and are lucky if they can do one thing well. Reggie plays his position as well as anyone who ever played here. And he plays all five positions."
Williams, Georgetown's reed-thin 6'7" senior, leads the Hoyas in scoring (23.7 per game), rebounding (9.2 per game), and steals (41), and is tied for the lead in blocked shots (15) and is third in assists (65). He will finish his career among the top six in four alltime Georgetown categories. Williams is the reason opposing teams circle their Georgetown dates in red. Without him the Hoyas are not a Top 20 team. With him, who knows?
Before this season began, Williams had played in two NCAA title games in three years. In 1984, as a freshman, he was the MVP of the championship game. The year before, he was the consensus national high school Player of the Year at Baltimore's Dunbar High. The following are some nicknames Williams has inspired:
The "bleep" and "dumb bleep" were bestowed in cruel, insulting letters to the university's basketball office after Georgetown defeated Houston for the '84 NCAA title. In addition to his 19 points and 7 boards, Williams had all but assured the Hoyas of the victory by blocking Akeem Olajuwon's shot with 2:22 to play and his team ahead 74-68.
But after the game—the final score was 84-75—Reggie, on a victory and adrenaline high, tripped embarrassingly over his tongue and turned his interview with CBS's Billy Packer into what seemed an eternity of dead air. The rout was on: Had Georgetown University forsworn its lofty academic reputation and hired an athlete who couldn't speak English?
"I look back and laugh at it. I know I'll just have to live with that now," Williams, 22, says of his first national exposure. "I'm not scared of making a mistake. If I make one, I'm accountable. But I won't make too many."
It has always been a struggle for Williams, but two days this spring will prove it has all been worth it. On May 10 he will receive a degree in sociology from Georgetown. Then in early June he will become one of the top five picks in the NBA draft. It has been a struggle, but not for nothing has Williams been compared with:
Reggie Williams has also been described as a guy who'll bust your chops. He doesn't let anyone push him around. Not when the game is on the line. "Yes, he has a mean streak," says Thompson. "He needs it to survive at his size. Show me a man without a temper, and I'll show you a man not worth his salt."
The bum raps, the mean streak and the struggle have done nothing to diminish Williams. "Out of nowhere Reggie has played himself into prime consideration for Player of the Year along with Steve Alford and David Robinson," says Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt.
"In the open floor you've got no shot at defending him," says Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo.
"When Reggie gets to the NBA, when the floor opens up, it's going to be scary for somebody," says former teammate Michael Jackson, now a volunteer assistant for the Hoyas. "It will be unreal."
"Nobody can really stop him," says St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca.
"There will be questions about his size," says former NBA player and coach Billy Cunningham. "But anybody who can get 18 boards in a Big East game [as Williams did against Providence on Jan. 28] has got to be tough. Reggie Williams is a player."
"Reggie has done everything all the truly great ones did at this level," says Thompson. "In some cases he's done more. And right now he's doing more while working with a lot less."
So, Reggie, how good, or bad, are you?
"Well," says Williams, "let's talk about the greatest player who ever lived first—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar." Williams sits in an office at Georgetown, tugging nervously at his 37-inch sleeves. It is interesting to note that Abdul-Jabbar was also once thin and known for refusing to let anyone push him around. Williams then discusses half a dozen other players whose skills have been compared with his. The point is subtle but unambiguous; Reggie is humble but enormously confident of his abilities.
So, again, how does he feel about himself as a player? "Well," he says, tapping his cheeks with the fingers of those marvelous hands, "the two greatest players I've ever played with are Muggsy and Patrick."
Muggsy is 5'3" Tyrone Bogues, now the point guard at Wake Forest. formerly Williams's teammate at Dunbar High (SI, Feb. 16). Patrick, of course, is the seven-foot Ewing, Williams's former Hoya teammate. Bogues called Williams Big Fella when they went 59-0 during their last two years at Dunbar, winning a mythical high school national championship their senior year. At Georgetown, Ewing was the big fella, and Williams had to adjust accordingly. Williams won it all with both.
The Hoyas claimed one national championship and came within a basket of another, against Villanova in 1985, in one of the greatest college games of all time. Reggie played on a bad ankle that night. He also lashed out at a 'Nova player just before halftime. "They never seem to show what happens to me, but, hey, don't mention it," he says. "And don't mention the ankle. Don't even bring it up. I'm not a whiner or a crybaby, and I don't need excuses." Not when he has games left to play.
How did Williams become so versatile, accomplished and misunderstood? More important, how has he dealt so ably with the mixed blessing of his stardom? "A combination of eyes and hands, heart and mind," says Williams. "Nobody becomes anything overnight."
When the elementary school-age boys in Spring Garden Park gathered to play baseball, Reggie would pitch. When they played sandlot football, he was the quarterback. He had the touch. But when basketball season came, Reggie sat and watched his older brother Tim's pickup games. Reggie didn't want to look bad playing with the older boys: His best friend, little Tyrone Bogues, would pick him clean in their private games of one-on-one. Only when he could keep Muggsy from stealing the ball would he be good enough to handle it in public. This did not stop him from handling it at home, of course.
"Oh my, yes, off the walls, doors, between furniture, everywhere," says his mother, Mrs. Gloria Williams. "That infernal noise of Reggie and his precious basketball. He would make hoops out of coat hangers and hang them on the doors. Then he'd go to sleep with his basketball."
While other mothers might have ordered this racket outside, Mrs. Williams endured. She had been a student at Dunbar High. Her brothers had also gone there, except Russ, the one Reggie most resembled. Reggie's father, Melvin Williams (a stock clerk at a tobacco store), had also attended Dunbar. They all played basketball, but Reggie is the first member of the family to go on to college. "They were all good, but there was nobody to come and find them then," Mrs. Williams says. "When Reggie was little, I understood. I've always been around young men."
When Reggie was 12, he told his mother he was going to get an award at a sixth-grade athletic banquet. Mrs. Williams put off a bill or two and bought him a white sport coat and some brown slacks. Reggie was the sharpest boy there. "He told me, 'You didn't have to do this,' but I could see the happiness on his face," says Mrs. Williams. "That's when I knew for sure how important basketball was to him."
Williams grew from 6'2" to 6'6" in the year after he left Lombard Junior High and went to Dunbar. A kid named Rodney Coffield was injured midway through Williams's sophomore season. Coach Bob Wade made Williams a starter and Coffield, who never returned to the regular lineup, was immortalized: the Wally Pipp of East Baltimore. Over the next 2½ years the Poets of Dunbar made an eloquent on-court case for being the greatest high school basketball team of all time. And they couldn't have done it without the Big Fella.
"I had some great players, but Reggie stood tall," says Wade, now the coach at Maryland. Bogues, Reggie Lewis (Northeastern), David Wingate (Georgetown), Tim Dawson (Miami), Gary Graham and Keith James (UNLV), Herman Harried (Syracuse) and Michael Brown (Clemson) were his teammates. "The practices were better than the games," says Brown, Wade's most recruited player after Williams and Wingate. "Reggie? Very nice person. Kept to himself. Helped others. And tough."
"What struck me most," says Wade, "was his gracefulness."
People began to stop Gloria and her other kids (Tim is 27, Veronica 25, Melvin 21 and Ivan 15) on the street. "They'd say, 'That Reggie is something else, Glo,' " she says. "Well, what was I supposed to do? I couldn't be running up and down the street hollering about it. I was glad for Reggie. His brothers and uncles are tall and graceful." In fact, Mrs. Williams is a graceful 6-footer herself. "People said, 'Humph. She doesn't act like I would act if he was mine.' But Reggie doesn't belong to anyone. I love him because he's my son. But he's always been a wanderer and gone his own way."
Williams chose Georgetown when he could have gone virtually anywhere. "The key to motivation is selection," says Thompson. "Life is about competition, but a lot of high school superstars like Reggie listen when guys tell them, 'You don't want to go to a Georgetown or a Carolina. There's too much talent there. You want to have a chance to be a star.' They get spoiled. Reggie wasn't looking for the easy way out."
The premium high school player, 6'6" or taller, could have a far easier life away from Georgetown—witness 6'6" Anthony Jones, who transferred to UNLV before Williams arrived, and the 6'9" dropout Michael Graham. At Georgetown players live in dorms with the general population, and schoolwork is not optional. They must adapt their skills to the needs of the team. There is, after all, only one superstar among the Jesuits. Williams's lifetime scoring average at Georgetown is 14.6. He might have doubled that at another school.
"If you can't test yourself against the best at this level, what can you hope to do in the NBA?" says Thompson. "Or with the rest of life?"
So Reggie Williams, high school superstar, became Reggie Williams, the homesick freshman who was intimidated by the classroom load, who fought back when pushed and who went home almost every weekend for the solace of his mother's cooking and in a circuitous way, her advice. "He'd tell his sister or brothers, and it would get around to me," says Mrs. Williams. "I told Reggie that he can't be a genius at everything, but that he could make it."
Thompson doesn't make it easy. Either you give up, or you dig deep within and somehow do what you went to Georgetown to do. There is no spoiling of athletes. Arguments have and will be made against Thompson's methods, but nearly all his four-year players have left Georgetown with degrees. So far, none has ended up in drug rehabilitation.
"I needed somebody outside my family to tell me I could do it," says Williams. "Coach Thompson and Miss Fenlon [Mary, the academic coordinator] did that for me. By my sophomore year I knew I could handle the work. But it was never, ever easy."
The one thing Williams has not gained at Georgetown is a lot of weight. "Don't look at the body and miss the player," warns Thompson. Williams eschews weight training—"Who has time?" he protests—and his thin frame could be a liability. When you can shoot and rebound like Williams, smart opponents want to push you out of range. Especially if you weigh 190 pounds.
"The book on Reggie was to try to physical him, get his mind off the game, early on in his career," says Gavitt. "I'm not sure you can do that anymore."
People still try. Against St. John's on Feb. 2, Redmen forward Willie Glass threw Williams around and admitted it afterward. Center Marco Baldi relentlessly banged Reggie off the court with his backside. Once, the Redmen left Williams crumpled in a heap under the St. John's basket. He twisted a knee. But he didn't come out of the game. Later, toward crunch time, when guard Mark Jackson tried to body block Reggie out of a shot, he retaliated with a swift forearm.
"Reggie has more patience. He knows he's going to be guarded by the hatchet man—that's time-honored tradition," says Thompson. "But Reggie will also tell you, 'This far, and no farther.' "
Earlier this season, when the Hoya freshmen and sophomores had caused Thompson to lose his own temper in practice, he was visited by Williams, who thought the coach was being too hard on the youngsters. "He told me he thought they were trying to do the right things," says Thompson. "Reggie has great compassion, too. He's prepared for what's out there. He's ready to show what he can do."
"I don't care if he never makes a dime," says Gloria Williams. "He'll have a good life. I believe that."
On Feb. 7, against Villanova at the Cap Centre, Williams fouled out with 2:31 to play, with Georgetown leading by three. The young Hoyas looked at one another, dug deep, and kept Villanova at bay, with Williams coaching as furiously as Thompson on the bench. The younger Hoyas found they could play without Reggie, after all.
So Georgetown basketball will continue. The chant of "Reg-gie" will also continue. And somewhere down the road a few people will stop and marvel at the days when they watched a tough young man named Reggie Williams play the game as it was meant to be played. He played to win. John Thompson will wonder why they don't make them like that anymore.