People Whispered of death and thought he didn't hear. They talked about how Monty Williams was too young and top foolishly brave to understand that heart disease might someday kill him the way it killed Boston Celtic star Reggie Lewis in 1993 and Loyola-Marymount All-America Hank Gathers in '90. They talked about how young athletes deny their mortality for the love of a game, in this case basketball, and for the dream of what that game can someday bring them. In silent rage, he listened.
Williams was about to start his sophomore season at Notre Dame when he was told after a routine physical that he had an irregular heartbeat. He was then sent to a cardiologist who determined that Williams suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the left ventricle of the heart, and that he should never play basketball again because intense physical activity could lead to a heart attack, perhaps a fatal one. He sat idle for two angry years but then rejoiced in a very controversial new view of HCM that allowed him to resume his career in 1992.
Then, despite having played so well his last two seasons with the Fighting Irish that he was ranked third among the small forwards available in June's NBA draft, he wasn't chosen until late in the first round, largely because some teams feared he would suffer the same fate Lewis did. Finally, the New York Knicks risked the 24th pick on him.
Williams is just 23 years old, but he's already close friends with mortality. "I've always been around the reality of death," he says, standing in the foyer of his modest rented house in a wooded suburb north of New York City. "A lot of people in my family have passed away. I've always hated death. But to say I don't respect death, that's wrong."
Tears form in his strong eyes when he talks about his cousin Raymond Robinson Jr., who was three years older than Williams and lived just down the street in the Washington suburb of Oxon Hill, Md. "He got involved with drugs and with people selling drugs," Williams says. "Then he tried to get out of that life, but they wouldn't let him." Robinson died in 1989 when Williams was a senior in high school; the official cause of death was an asthma attack, but Robinson's family is certain he was poisoned by dealers. Williams walks to a wall near the front window and points to a laminated newspaper clipping hanging there, an obituary for his paternal grandmother, Josie Mae Williams, who died in February 1993 at the age of 58 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Williams says he can remember the moment, in June 1986, when he heard that former Maryland star Len Bias, idol to a generation of D.C.-area kids, was found dead of a cocaine overdose. "Two of my high school buddies and I had spent the night together," he says. "I was 14 years old. We were all lounging across the bed in the morning when we heard it. We couldn't move."
Once, during Williams's two years of imposed sabbatical from organized basketball, an old coach at Potomac High, Todd Bozeman, who is now the coach at Cal, was dogging Williams for playing pickup games.
"What the hell are you doing playing ball?" Bozeman asked.
Williams replied, "If there's a place I want to die, it's on the basketball court."
In recalling that conversation with Bozeman, Williams says, "Believe me, all of that has changed. I do realize the importance of life."
Williams was raised in Fredericksburg, Va., until he was eight years old, when he moved to Oxon Hill with his mother, Joyce, shortly after she and his father, Tavares Montgomery Williams (Monty is a junior), were divorced. He took up basketball at the Oxon Hill Boys' club—"He was a little superstar there," says Joyce—and soared through the adolescent ranks in customary fashion. At the time of his graduation from Potomac, where he earned a 4.0 average in the classroom and a state Class AAA championship on the court, Williams was considered locally the equal of future Duke All-America and No. 3 NBA draftee Grant Hill, then a player at South Lakes High in Reston, Va.
As a freshman at Notre Dame, Williams started 18 of 29 games and averaged 7.7 points and 3.7 rebounds, and he was best against the toughest competition: He scored 14 points in a nationally televised game against Missouri, then ranked No. 3. But before the start of his sophomore season, he was told he had HCM. He was stoic at a press conference where he announced his withdrawal from the game. "I can't sit around and weep about something I can't control," he said. But inside, he was crushed. "Devastated," Williams says now. "I'm up there at a podium telling people not to worry about me, and in the back of the room I can see Phonz [teammate LaPhonso Ellis, who's now with the Denver Nuggets] crying."
Williams remained in South Bend, quietly attending classes, spending all of his free time with his girlfriend, Ingrid Lacy, a classmate from Paw Paw, Mich., and loosing his anger in those forbidden pickup games at Rockne Memorial Gym. The slightest foul would set him off. "A couple of times I just flat knocked guys out," he says. "I felt like some of the players were trying to hurt me because I wasn't a commodity anymore." He played imaginary games of one-on-one against Hill and Michigan star Jalen Rose.
Williams's mother says, "Those two years, I had a different child. I'm his mother and he had all these tears, and I just couldn't dry them for him."
"He was bitter and frustrated," says Lacy, who works in South Bend as a counselor for dysfunctional children and remains Williams's girlfriend. "We were broke, so we ate a lot of pizza, took a lot of walks around the lake and got real involved in our church."
Even as Williams tried to adjust to life without basketball, Lameh Fananapazir, an electrophysiologist-cardiologist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., was studying the risks posed to athletes by various degrees of HCM. One of his first patients in the study was Steve Larkin, the younger brother of the Cincinnati Reds' All-Star shortstop, Barry. Steve wanted to play baseball at the University of Texas despite suffering from HCM. Fananapazir cleared Larkin to play—after he had a pacemaker implanted in his chest.
Williams, who is asymptomatic—he has had none of the fainting spells or chest pains some HCM sufferers get—and takes no heart medication, learned of Fananapazir's study through doctors at Notre Dame, and in July '92 he went to the NIH for three days of strenuous testing, culminating in an electrophysiological test in which Fananapazir induced arrhythmia (irregular beating) in Williams's heart. "The scariest——you've ever been through in your life," Williams says. When the testing was done, Fananapazir told Williams it was safe for him to resume his career. "I dropped to my knees and started praying and crying," Williams says. "I was crying, my mother was crying."
But Williams's condition is not as clear-cut as Fananapazir's go-ahead would make it seem. Fananapazir characterizes his work with Williams and 29 other athletes who have HCM as "an ongoing study. It is a preliminary study. Someday we would like to have 100 or 200 athletes and study them for 10 years." He never told Williams he was not at any risk of sudden death. "I told him that, based on our previous experience, he fell into a very low-risk category," says Fananapazir. Notre Dame allowed Williams to resume his career only after he signed a waiver absolving the school from liability relating to his heart condition.
Yet in a medical and sports environment charged with fear by the deaths of Lewis and Gathers, both of whom had a heart disease other than HCM, there is scant respect for Fananapazir's study.
"Lameh is in the vast minority of cardiologists," says Mark Josephson, a cardiologist who is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard-Thorndike Electrophysiology Institute and Arrhythmia Service at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. "People playing competitive sports with HCM, that's like playing Russian roulette. We don't know what the level of risk is, except that it's higher than in a person without HCM."
In early October a paper, first discussed some months before at the Bethesda Conference of the American College of Cardiology, was published. It said, in part, "Athletes with the unequivocal diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy should not participate in most competitive sports...." Barry Maron, a cardiologist who is director of cardiovascular research for the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation and one of the authors of the paper, consulted on Williams's case when Williams was first disqualified at Notre Dame. "[His] participation in professional sports does not conform to the recommendations of the Bethesda conference," says Maron.
"My risk is this much," says Williams, holding his thumb and forefinger millimeters apart. "I've never had a single symptom. If I was passing out, I wouldn't jeopardize my life."
But the medical controversy, coming less than a year after Lewis's death, badly muddled Williams's NBA draft status. Last year at Notre Dame, Williams averaged 22.4 points and 8.2 rebounds as the only star on a mediocre team. Says Irish coach John MacLeod, who coached for 18 seasons in the NBA, "Take away his heart condition, and he would have gone much higher in the draft."
Williams could have played another season at Notre Dame, but having graduated a year earlier with a 2.9 average in communications, he declared himself eligible for last spring's NBA draft.
The 11 lottery picks passed without Williams's name being called. The Indiana Pacers, who had shown great interest in him, took swingman Eric Piatkowski of Nebraska at No. 15 and traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers. Williams, who was sitting in his mother's house with a friend and adviser, Washington lawyer Rob Ades, rose and stormed from the room. "Screw them," he said to Ades. "They're all going to regret not taking me." He climbed into his Pathfinder and drove around for half an hour.
"We liked him a lot," says Pacer president Donnie Walsh, "but we were definitely afraid of his physical condition."
Finally, New York ended Williams's misery. But the crudest moment lay ahead. On the day after the draft the Knicks brought Williams and their other top draft choice, Charlie Ward, to New York for a press conference at the Doral Hotel. Afterward Williams met with Knick president Dave Checketts and general manager Ernie Grunfeld, who told him that he would have to submit to one more round of cardiological tests. "We sat down and said, 'Look, we drafted you, but we need our own set of data,' " Checketts says. "We knew there were risks, and we wanted to insure every possibility. We knew what had happened in Boston."
Williams was overwhelmed by the request. "I felt like giving it up right there," he says. "I thought, My god, this is never going to end." He talked with his mother, Lacy and Ades, and they virtually pushed him on the plane back to New York a few weeks later. He passed the tests to the Knicks' satisfaction, although they have placed a cardiologist on call and will have a defibrillator on the premises for all practices and games.
And while the Knicks took great pains to explain publicly that Williams's contract is fully guaranteed in the event that heart trouble ends his career, Williams signed a separate document that prohibits him or his estate from suing the Knicks in the event of a cardiological episode. "All I'll say," says Checketts, "is that we consulted competent legal counsel and reached an agreement regarding language in the contract." Williams also says that the contract calls for periodic testing of his condition.
Williams's own negotiation reflects his unblinking belief in his health and his talent. The Knicks offered him a five-year, $5.2 million guaranteed deal, with an escape option after four years. Williams instead asked for a shorter deal, $3.78 million over four years, with an escape option after three years—in essence tossing away $1.42 million in guaranteed money for the chance at freedom after three years. His reason? He told Ades, "After three years, I'm going to have proved to people that my heart isn't an issue, and I'm going to get the same money that those other guys [at the top of the draft] are getting." He got off to a slow start in that pursuit, playing in only two of the Knicks' first four games.
Williams acquired a tattoo two summers ago, a pit bull next to the nipple on the left side of his chest. "No significance," says the man with the NBA's most famous heart. Still, the metaphorical significance is inescapable.
Williams is in his house, autumn sunlight streaming through the windows onto the varnished floors. He's stroking the neck of his 17-month-old rottweiler, G.Q. He remembers how he was touring Europe with a junior team in the summer of 1993 when Reggie Lewis fell dead and how a reporter called him, wondering if he wished to talk about it. "Talk about it?" he said. "The man is dead. What about his family?" He remembers last January when he hung 34 points on Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and-how writers flooded into the dressing room after the game and asked him about his heart condition. He was crestfallen that the subject had been raised again. "Can I please play basketball and just get recognition for my talent?" he asks, searching the ceiling for an answer.
But as long as the world remembers Lewis and Gathers, Williams will never be just a small forward or an X on a chalkboard. He knows it best of all. "Death," says Williams, "is something that's going to be with me until I grow very old."