Has there ever been a woman more fabulously talented in two collegiate sports than Natalie Williams of UCLA? In volleyball, Williams was an NCAA first-team All-America for the last three years and Player of the Year last season. She is all but assured of a place on the 1996 Olympic team after leading the Bruins to national championships in 1990 and '91 and narrowly missing a third straight when UCLA was upset by Stanford in the '92 championship match on Dec. 19, the final volleyball game of her collegiate career. Most athletes would consider that accomplishment enough, but three days after that-final championship match, Williams suited up for the Bruin basketball team, which was five games into its season. A center/forward in her junior season of basketball eligibility, she now leads the nation in rebounding, with 14 per game, and the Pac-10 conference in scoring, at a 22-point pace. Perhaps not even Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a star heptathlete and basketball player for the Bruins in her undergraduate days in the early '80s, showed such Olympic promise in two sports at once. "Not at such an elite level," says UCLA women's basketball coach Billie Moore.
Williams's 6'1", 190-pound body seems to lend itself to virtually any sport. UCLA's track, tennis and softball coaches have all tried to enlist her. She has a vertical leap of 31 inches, and in the weight room she can squat 330 pounds. On a good day at the golf course, she shoots in the low 80's.
Williams is one of those rare athletes who broaden perspectives and raise standards by their very presence. "The good thing about me being in this world is that I change the way people think," she says. She was eight years old and playing outdoors one day in her hometown of Taylorsville, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, when she noticed that her palm was a lighter shade than the rest of her skin. She turned her hand over with something like wonderment. Palm, light. Hand, dark. She did it again, delighted. Palm, light. Hand, dark. "I realized I had two colors," she said. "I thought it was cool."
That was the beginning of Natalie's growing awareness that her circumstances were different from everyone else's in Taylorsville. Natalie is the daughter of Robyn Barker, a single, white, Mormon-raised woman, and Nate Williams, a black man who played for four teams in a nine-year NBA career. Her parents were sophomores at Utah State in 1970 when they conducted a romance that was the talk of the campus. The romance ended when Robyn got pregnant. Williams, himself the product of a single-parent home, had no way of supporting a family.
February 22, 1993
Unbeknownst to Barker, her father, Vaughn, met with Utah State men's basketball coach Ladell Andersen and Williams's lawyer, and the three drew up a legal agreement prohibiting Williams from contacting his daughter until she was an adult. For that reason, Natalie did not meet her father until she was 16, though she periodically heard about him because of his pro career. "Everyone knew my father but me," she says.
Nate went on to declare hardship and enter the pro draft, while Barker went home to Taylorsville, where she moved in with her grandmother, Jessie Smith, and went to work as a secretary for $75 a week to support herself and her baby.
According to Barker, the only financial help she ever got from Nate came after she sued him for child support in 1974. She says she received a lump-sum payment, which was only $8,000 after her lawyers took their cut. She has never regretted having her baby, though. "Natalie was such a beautiful little girl," says Barker. "And there are a lot of one-parent homes these days. It's not that uncommon."
A white woman raising the child of a black father in a small Mormon town was definitely uncommon, though. Neither Barker nor Natalie recall any instances of racism, but the demographics of Utah were enough to make them self-conscious. Of the 2,400 students in her high school, Natalie recalls maybe five blacks. Yet she never felt singled out, thanks in large part to Barker's three sisters and two brothers, who took turns caring for her while her mother worked. "We told Natalie how beautiful she was a lot," Barker says. "I don't remember her ever realizing she was a different color from the rest of her family."
"I thought I was like everybody else," says Williams. "I guess I knew I was black, but I didn't feel like I was. I didn't know how to act black. I don't talk black. I have a Utah twang." In fact, basketball teammate Nicole Anderson teases Natalie about being unable to keep time with rap music. "She's a white girl," Anderson says, with a smile.
While Natalie was in high school, a former Utah State teammate of her father's, Jeff Tebbs, kept Nate informed about his daughter's growing athletic prowess. Eventually, Tebbs asked Barker if she would object to Williams's visiting his daughter. After a series of conciliatory phone calls between Nate and Robyn, Nate went to Taylorsville. Natalie, returning from a basketball camp, got off the plane to find a 6'5" black man standing behind her mother. "I almost turned around and got back on the plane," she says. "He dwarfed me. He was huge."
Nate greeted Natalie as if he had always known her. But Natalie shrank away, intimidated. "I was afraid of him," she says. "I didn't know any blacks." It took nearly a year for her to become comfortable with him and even longer to become affectionate. Natalie has since overcome her reserve. She now spends some holidays and vacations in Vallejo, Calif., with Nate and his wife, Florence. Nate often takes breaks from his job driving a gasoline tanker truck to watch Natalie play.
Natalie is endlessly intrigued by the process of discovering which parts of her personality came from Nate—like her easy laugh and her instinct for the right cut to the basket. But she is careful to keep her talents separate from her father's, and she resists any suggestion that he has played a role in her development as an athlete. They have only played ball together once. "I went up, and I saw this hand" she says. Her mother, she takes pains to point out, is the one who paid for all of the basketball camps and sneakers. "I love my father, but I don't think he had a lot to do with who I am," Natalie says.
When she toured Europe last summer with a Pac-10 all-star team, a French club team offered her a $300,000 contract on the spot after she scored 37 points and hauled down 18 rebounds against it. On returning to UCLA last fall, Natalie made what is presumed to be women's collegiate athletic history when she played two sports in one night: On Nov. 24, in Pauley Pavilion, she put in four minutes in the first half of a UCLA exhibition basketball game against Belgium. She returned to the floor an hour later to lead the Bruins to a volleyball victory over archrival USC.
It's that sort of feat that makes her goal of winning an Olympic gold medal in volleyball in 1996 and another in basketball in 2000 seem attainable. It's an ambition that is strictly her own. "I think I had the most to do with who I am as an athlete," she says.