When he's not translating wedding ceremonies into Spanish or roaming the Pacific coastline, the most productive big man in the country, UC Santa Barbara's ALAN WILLIAMS, patrols the paint with monstrous intensity
LONG BEFORE Alan Williams became the most productive big man in college basketball, he was the most affordable wedding translator in Phoenix. His father, the Honorable Cody Williams, justice of the peace for the city's South Mountain district, opens his downtown courtroom each day after 5 p.m. to officiate marriages. The court's fee is $80, and because this is the most enjoyable part of Cody's job—as opposed to small-claims suits, evictions or DUIs—he tries to give the happy couples their money's worth. A hulking, 6'6" former college basketball player with a booming voice and disarming manner, Cody cautions that the doors and windows have been sealed and electrified, so it's too late to get cold feet; he gives tender speeches about commitment; and when his boys, Cody and Alan, were in middle and high school, he would often have them act as assistants, with all three wearing matching black robes.
This was how the Williams boys earned their spending money. They sweated through 18 weddings in three hours on a New Year's Eve in 2009. Dad gave one son or the other a $10 cut for taking pictures or filling out the marriage license, and $40 if the wedding party wanted a Spanish translation—a common request in Phoenix, but not a duty of the court. Cody would do his lines: The two of you now embark on a journey, a journey filled with joy and wonderment and love; Alan or young Cody, standing beside him, would follow with their version: Ustedes dos embarcan en un paseo, un paseo lleno de amor, felicidad y afecto mutuo. The brothers were not native speakers but they were fluent, and in the event they forgot a word they would refer to sheets of loose-leaf notebook paper, on which they had written their Spanish script.
Cody and his wife, Jeri, both prominent African-American public servants—he the state's only elected black justice, and she, until 2011, an assistant chief of the Phoenix Police Department—saw the city's demographic trajectory and believed their sons would benefit from a language immersion school that alternated its elementary and junior high semesters between Spanish and English. Alan was a hit at his dad's weddings, but elsewhere he would sometimes find that people did not know what to make of an extra-large, bespectacled, African-American boy who was bilingual. When he was nine, on a visit to Toys "R" Us with his mother and younger brother, Alan volunteered to translate for a Hispanic man who was trying to ask an Anglo clerk where to find an item. It was a success, but afterward the clerk inquired of the Williamses, "What are you?"
December 1, 2014
MOST COLLEGE recruiters could not get the right read on Alan Williams, either. While he was an interior force at North High, coaches deemed him too pudgy and earthbound to qualify as a Pac-12 post prospect. Scout.com gave Williams one star (out of five), while Rivals.com and ESPN didn't rate him at all. And that is how UC Santa Barbara was able to persuade the nation's most productive power big man (right) to play in the 16th- or 17th-best conference, the Big West.
Williams, a 6'8", 265-pound senior who was averaging 25.5 points and 14.5 rebounds through Sunday, has proved himself at a mid-major school with high-major vistas, on cliffs beside the Pacific Ocean. The 35-year-old UCSB Events Center, nicknamed the Thunderdome, was once known for its student section's tradition of Frisbee-ing tortillas onto the court after the Gauchos' first basket, but its main attraction is now a sensation called Big Al by the P.A. announcer, Big Sauce on Twitter and Beast Warrior by his father. Williams has emerged from obscurity on the undeniable strength of his performance, such as the 22 points and 13 rebounds he had at Kansas on Nov. 14, when he outplayed projected one-and-done lottery pick Cliff Alexander, followed by his 29-and-16 at Florida Gulf Coast three days later.
To call Williams UCSB's offensive centerpiece is a disservice: He used 35.1% of their possessions last season, the third-highest rate in the nation, and is off to a similar pace as a senior. His rebounding, however, is what has earned him a cult following among advanced statheads. As a freshman he had the country's highest offensive-board percentage (22.5), and he ranked in the national top 20 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage as a sophomore and junior. Part of Williams's success is based on power—he aggressively creates space with what Cody calls his "God-given butt," and when Williams seizes the ball the leather-meeting-skin smack! reverberates off the Thunderdome's wooden ceiling—but he believes his advantage is cerebral.
"Rebounding is a science," Williams says. "It's not about who can jump the highest, or who can create the most space. It's about who knows where the ball is going to be, has the most efficient way of getting there and makes sure they're prepared to go up and get it. "
The longer you study Alan Williams when he doesn't have the ball, the more you marvel at his anticipation. There's the nimble footwork he uses, sometimes even before the ball leaves a shooter's hands, to gain leverage on an opponent or beat him to an optimal rebounding area. And then there are his intuitive reactions to a shot's trajectory, whether it's long, short or flat. On the rare possession Williams doesn't battle for position, the result is usually either a swish or a carom that would have been impossible for him to retrieve. "You don't want to waste movement and get tired, so I pick and choose my moments," he explains. "There aren't too many rebounds I don't think I can get, but the ones I don't think I can get, I just leave them alone."
Williams's early education in glass-work came from his father. Cody was on the roster for two seasons at Oklahoma, but knee injuries ended his career in 1980. When he recognized that his son would have a bigger, bulkier frame, he told him not to worry about being passed the ball. Rebound, Cody would say, and you'll be able to play forever. He helped coach Alan's youth team at the Salvation Army on 15th Street and Broadway Road in Phoenix, and when Alan was 10, they did a drill that laid the foundation for his son's success. Cody had the players stand around the three-point line and take shots, one by one. If they missed, they went to where the ball landed. "It started to give them," he says, "an idea of where rebounds came from."
Williams developed a rep for being scientific about where he was going and inadvertently ruthless about getting there. "Every player on our team felt the wrath of Alan at some point in practice," says North High coach Joseph Bustos, who saw Williams unintentionally dole out cuts, bruises and a couple of concussions—and also help the Mustangs win state titles in his sophomore and junior seasons, when he played a supporting role for Daniel Bejarano, a four-star shooting guard now at Colorado State. Williams was so physical that his AAU coach with the Arizona Stars, Ray Arvizu, invited an offensive lineman from nearby Glendale Community College to one of their spring 2010 practices, in hopes of providing Williams better sparring competition to prep him for the Nike EYBL circuit. It did not go well—for the lineman. "He was 6'2" and 300 pounds, and he started for a juco national championship team," Arvizu recalls. "I asked him to go against Alan for about an hour. About 25 minutes in, Alan takes a break to get water, and [the lineman] comes up to me and says, 'I've gotta go.' He hadn't signed up for Alan busting his lip."
Although Williams was an all-state power forward as a 6'7", 275-pound junior, averaging 12.5 points and 10.9 rebounds, he could not win over the nearby colleges. "I was working my tail off to get offers," he says, "and I thought I'd get one from Arizona State or at least Northern Arizona or Grand Canyon, but that never happened." When Arvizu would coax college coaches to watch Williams work out, the feedback tended to be deflating. He's definitely a D-I player and someday he might make money playing basketball, but he's not tall enough or explosive enough for us. Williams once did a solo audition in North High's gym specifically for a visiting Oregon State assistant, David Grace—only to suffer the indignity of Grace's cutting it off early once he'd seen Williams struggle to execute two-handed dunks. Grace gave him a handshake and a thank you, and hit the road. "I guess I'm not really a guy that's going to make you fall in love with me in an individual workout," Williams admits.
But during an AAU game in Phoenix in the summer of 2010, he impressed UCSB coach Bob Williams with a single play. Williams was ahead on a fast break when a guard fed him a seemingly uncatchable pass that skipped near his feet. He snared it in one motion and finger-rolled it over the front of the rim. "You don't see guys of that size with that kind of feet, hands and dexterity," says Bob Williams, who's now in his 17th year at UCSB. The Gauchos told Alan he was their No. 1 big-man recruit. He signed with them in November 2010, over Drake and UC Riverside, and proceeded to average 22.1 points and 16.2 rebounds as a high school senior.
Williams arrived at UCSB in the same freshman class as John Green, whom he'd played with at a University of Arizona elite camp in 2010. Green found a few things about Williams peculiar—that he insisted on wearing fogged-up rec-specs in high school rather than contacts; that his favorite player, because of his shooting prowess on old college basketball video games, is ex-Duke guard J.J. Redick. But Green has always been sold on Williams's hands. "Best in the nation," Green says. "They're like glue." They snagged so many misses that Williams forced his way into the Gauchos' starting lineup as a freshman for 19 of their final 20 games. He was the leading rebounder (at 6.5 per game) on a team with seniors Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally, both future NBA players; as soon as they left, Williams assumed a starring role. Now UCSB makes it a goal to get Williams 30 to 40 touches per game, often from 15 to 17 feet out on the wings, where he can play what Bob Williams calls "butt-ball," methodically backing down overmatched defenders and burying them with righty jump hooks.
When the Gauchos played at UCLA last December, Williams saw Grace, who is now an assistant with the Bruins. From the opposite bench Grace saw Williams go for 23 and eight, while UCLA's trio of former four-star big men, Tony Parker and twins David and Travis Wear, had a combined nine points and 12 boards. After the game, Grace told Williams that he was proud of him—and that passing on him had been a mistake. "It's all good, Coach," Williams said. "I appreciated the interest." It's a shame that Williams's vindication tour will never make a stop at Arizona State, whose indifference most miffed his parents: Not only is it just minutes from home, but it's also where Jeri got her undergraduate degree and Cody his M.B.A. The Sun Devils, who ranked 338th in offensive rebounding percentage last season, could certainly have used some Big Sauce.
EVEN ON days when the police chief of Oxnard, Calif., stays in her office, she wears a U.S. Armor--brand bulletproof vest under her uniform. It may be an unnecessary precaution for an administrative job, but for Jeri, it's a matter of keeping a promise. Long before her son was the toast of the Thunderdome, he was a five-year-old who sneaked out of his room after bedtime, and peered at the episode of COPS his father was watching. Williams realized what his mom was truly doing when she left for 9 p.m.--to--7 a.m. shifts as a Phoenix police sergeant and bawled until she made it back home. "I never shared my days with my kids—you just don't do that to your family," Jeri says. But once Alan understood her job, she tried to reassure him by showing him her vest, and he made her vow to always wear it. "I felt like that's what made her indestructible," he says.
Her career arc, like her son's, began with a slight. After graduating from ASU as a theater major, she interviewed with Pan Am to be a flight attendant, but they measured her wrists and elbows and told her she'd need to lose weight. She was a striking 5'11" woman—Cody had first seen her on a Miss Black Arizona calendar when he returned to Phoenix after college—and she rebelled by choosing a career path with a much higher ceiling. She became a police officer, then a sergeant, a lieutenant, a commander and an assistant chief. She was the highest ranking black female policewoman in Arizona before moving to Oxnard to become a police chief, a move that nearly coincided with Williams's commitment to UCSB. Alan liked the idea of having her only 40 minutes southeast of campus, for purposes of laundry and cooking. He only had second thoughts when, during his freshman year, Jeri used her investigative skills to bust Alan for not attending study halls. In a now-infamous incident she drove to UCSB and, in front of his teammates, insisted on personally supervising him while he completed his homework.
Her visits are more enjoyable now; she clears space in her schedule so she can watch Alan and young Cody play (he's a freshman at Santa Barbara City College and also Alan's roommate), and keeps stats on her iPad to send live updates to her husband. They're making a long-distance marriage work because it's the best thing, at the moment, for her police career and their kids' basketball careers. And when Cody flies up for Gauchos games, he likes to wear a custom number 15 jersey with a nameplate that says BEAST WARRIOR—a nod to his son's relentless effort around the basket. Bob Williams has talked with Alan about trying to average a "special" number of rebounds as a senior, maybe 17 or 18. That might put him on a trajectory to transcend his conference, be a first-team All-America and persuade an NBA team—if he hasn't already—to use a late draft pick on a kid who was once just a pudgy curiosity. There's a thing that NBA scouts say about rebounding: It's the skill, above all others, that translates.
Williams plays "butt ball," methodically backing down defenders and burying them with righty jump hooks.
The longer you study Alan Williams when he doesn't have the ball, the more you marvel at his anticipation.
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*D-I GAMES ONLY
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