Very Marvelous Marvin

June 27, 2005
June 27, 2005

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June 27, 2005

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Very Marvelous Marvin

In 19-year-old former Tar Heel Marvin Williams, the draft has a top pick who seems too good to be true--both on the court and off

The A.C. at the Dean Smith Center is going full blast, but Marvin Williams Jr. drips with sweat, glistening as if he's being basted. From the right wing, he takes a dribble, grunts loudly and launches a jumper. It is a pretty shot, the release all wrist, and the ball snaps through the net. Taking feeds from North Carolina assistant C.B. McGrath, Williams pounds one dribble and fires again and again. Thump, grunt, swish! Thump, grunt, swish! Nine in a row. As the ball rims out on the 10th shot of the drill, he grimaces and shouts, "Noooo!"

This is an article from the June 27, 2005 issue Original Layout

At the other end of the court, Williams's workout partner, Sean May, is doing the same drill, only far less audibly. It is three weeks before the NBA draft, and both May, a Tar Heels junior, and Williams, a freshman, are likely lottery picks. May was the star on this year's title team; Williams averaged 11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds in 22.2 minutes as a reserve. Yet Williams is expected to go higher than May (chart, page 54). This is the prevailing logic of the NBA: What you might be is more important than what you are.

When the shooting drill is over, the two go one-on-one. At 6'8" and 228 pounds, Williams gives up an inch and 31 pounds to May. No matter. Williams sinks midrange jumpers and fadeaways and furiously bodies May on defense, blocking one of his jump hooks and stripping him as he goes up for another shot. Were it not for an uncontested dunk missed by Williams, the kid would have beaten the vet 8-3 instead of 7-4. Afterward, Williams is irked that he blew the dunk.

His reaction is telling because if NBA executives have one question about the 19-year-old Williams, it's whether he has the competitive fire to dominate as a pro. The concerns began last year when he arrived at Chapel Hill as a top recruit--the caliber, some said, of a young Michael Jordan--and quietly accepted a reserve role. NBA scouts were stunned. How could a major talent actually embrace riding the pine? Their doubts were misguided but understandable. For Williams regularly does something unusual for a celebrated young athlete: He puts the team before himself.

Take the story of Marvin as a 10-year-old peewee player. With his team losing late in the championship game, Williams noticed one of his friends crying on the bench. "He hadn't been in all game," recalls Williams. "So I said, 'Coach, take me out so he can play.'" As soon as the substitution was made, parents started chanting, Put Marvin in! It wasn't until the year-end banquet, when the coach explained his move, that they knew why Williams had been pulled. The parents gave Marvin a standing ovation; none of them much cared that their kids had lost.

So last fall, when Tar Heels coach Roy Williams told him he would be playing behind senior Jawad Williams, Marvin didn't gripe. "We discussed it for two minutes," says Roy. "He said, 'Coach, I only want to win. You tell me what to do and I'll do it.'" Roy Williams takes a deep breath. "I spoke to 10 of the top 14 teams [in the draft], and at least three of them questioned whether he had the desire you need, implying he should have demanded to start." His voice rises. "That infuriates me. Would they think more of him if he were a jerk? They're asking, Does he want it badly enough? I'm thinking, You guys are fricking crazy. All of basketball would be better off if every kid wanted to win the way he did."

Actually, to hear those who know him tell it, all of basketball might be better off if every kid had Marvin's combination of skill, desire and character. Here is an Eastern Conference executive whose team does not have a lottery pick: "His naysayers are primarily guys who watched him only at North Carolina. His believers are those of us who saw him play in the summer between his junior and senior year of high school, when he was playing against guys like [Orlando Magic forward] Dwight Howard and [Atlanta Hawks swingman] Josh Smith. He wiped the floor with Josh Smith." The executive goes on to praise Williams's understanding of time and score, the care he takes with the ball, and his ability to feed the post, read defenses and make others better.

And here is McGrath, who followed Roy Williams to North Carolina from Kansas: "With apologies to [former Jayhawks and NBA second-year men] Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, Marvin's the best total package I've ever seen. I bet he never missed a class or an academic tutor all year. For a guy going that high in the draft to be that low-maintenance is very unusual. Whoever raised him did a heck of a job."

That would be Williams's parents, Andrea Gittens and Marvin Sr. They split up when Marvin was an infant, after which he and his two younger brothers, J-Tonn and Demetrius, lived with their mom. Andrea worked as a bookkeeper from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., then did a second shift as a cashier at a Payless ShoeSource. While she was out, Marvin watched over and cooked for his brothers in a three-bedroom apartment in a rundown area of Bremerton, Wash., which is an hour west of Seattle. By age 12, Marvin was telling his mother that he was going to make the NBA. "I'd be crying over bills, and he'd say, 'Just hold on a little longer, Mom,'" she says, pausing to suck in her breath. "That touches me deep. I'm about to start crying now, just thinking about it."

At Bremerton Junior High, Williams made such an impression on English teacher Donna Keough-Downum that she wrote to him after he moved to Chapel Hill. In a letter published in the Bremerton Sun, she noted that Williams volunteered for classroom chores, helped keep track of his classmates on field trips and even persuaded her to let him read the part of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet after pointing out that in Shakespeare's day, men played the women's roles.

It was Marvin Sr. who fostered his son's love for the game, which took hold in the basement of Senior's apartment building. While he loaded the washer, four-year-old Junior dribbled circles around him. As he got older, Junior kept dribbling. To the park. Across town. To school. Marvin Sr. had been a 5'11" guard in Wallace, N.C.; he played pickup against Jordan, and suited up for two years at Warner Pacific in Portland. Since he didn't expect his son to grow especially tall, he taught him to play like a guard. The two worked together two hours a day, seven days a week, while Marvin Jr. was in high school. Not once did his son complain. "Oh, sometimes he looked tired," says Marvin Sr., "but I always told him that if he was sitting on his butt playing video games, someone else out there was working on his game."

The two dueled one-on-one until a 12-year-old Marvin Jr. skunked his dad 11-0; after that, Senior wanted no part of playing his son. The younger Williams also proved to be too much for most college defenders--his length and athleticism allowed him to make a crucial tip-in late in the Tar Heels' 75-70 win over Illinois in the title game--just as he may be too much for most NBA forwards in a couple of seasons. "There are two things about him people don't know," says Roy Williams. "One is his ability to shoot, and two is his ability to slide his feet defensively. He'll be an All-Star for years."

But will Marvin develop a post game, learn to pass out of the double team and be able to make plays off the dribble--the three areas McGrath identifies as "unknowns"? And what about the NBA life, will it change his humble nature? Williams has a strong support group: His dad will move with him to help with the transition, and his agent, Jim Tanner, represents such noted hooligans as Tim Duncan, Ray Allen, Grant Hill and Shane Battier. (When Williams recently showed up for a meeting with Tanner, he did so in a suit, something the agent remembered a player doing only once before.) Instead of clubbing, Williams prefers watching a movie or reading a Harry Potter book. The Goblet of Fire is his favorite, he says, because it has "the most action."

The one thing no one should question is Williams's attitude. "It's a privilege to play basketball," Williams says after his workout. "Some days you don't want to do it, but you have to be grateful because some people can't even walk. To play at the highest level, that'd be a dream for everybody. That's how I look at it every day. I'm thankful that I can play." Provided he's as good as he seems, the rest of us may soon feel that way as well. --Chris Ballard

Of NBA executives who question whether Marvin is competitive enough, Roy Williams says, "That infuriates me. Would they think more of him IF HE WERE A JERK?"
COLOR PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHYWELL-HEELED Williams thrived as a backup at Carolina, where his main goal was to help the team.COLOR PHOTOBOB ROSATOPERSUASIVE STUFF Scouts who rave about Williams value his athleticism and character.