Chaz Williams plays for past, future
UMass guard honors dad's memory while playing to provide for his own daughter
AMHERST, Mass. -- He is trapped in a trance. A grown man, reluctantly 9 years old again.
Damn that day.
Massachusetts star Chaz Williams stares at a wall while the images of a father taken too soon roll in the theater of his mind. On this breezy Friday afternoon, he is surrounded by photos of Julius Erving and other UMass greats in the team's film room at the Mullins Center.
The star point guard for an undefeated and nationally ranked UMass squad nibbles on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich but only after he meticulously removes and discards its crust.
"Too much bread," he says.
Once he has taken his snack apart, it's now his turn to unravel.
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He loathes this necessary tale, the one that helps strangers understand his makeup.
He slumps forward and his gray, baggy UMass sweatshirt inflates his slight frame. His eyes fill, and slowly, he recalls the moment when everything changed for a hopeful third-grader.
That day, he sprinted into his grandmother's house.
He'd earned a high score on one of his elementary school assignments. And he knew she'd be proud.
His father, if able, would have praised him, too.
But he was sick, she told him. So sick that he had to be transported to a hospice while Chaz was at school.
Calvin Williams always brought his son along whenever he played in his feisty Sunday pickup games at the neighborhood rec center in Brooklyn. That's where the boy fell in love with the game he'd soon hate.
"He never did anything wrong in my eyes," Chaz says.
His father had forgotten things in those final weeks, but Williams still tried to enjoy their limited time together during trips to the hospice.
Sometimes, he'd mistakenly call Chaz by his older brother's name. But Chaz refused to accept the reality that a brain tumor was rapidly stealing his father's mind and his life.
Maybe one day he'd come home and discover that his father was well again. Maybe they'd walk to the rec center together and his father would kick the door with the back of his foot three times so that the guys inside would know it was him.
And then, maybe and hope and dreams died one day, evaporating when his grandmother sat him down and told him what he'd always feared. His father was gone.
Thirteen years ago, he lost the hero who always knew his son would overcome all doubts that critics would have about him.
Williams couldn't digest the revelation.
He remembers jumping down a flight of stairs and rushing toward the door.
He had to end the nightmare.
"I just wanted to get hit by a car or something," he says.
Had that happened, however, he would've never had the chance to continue his father's legacy through a 3-year-old princess named Cheree.
Chapter 1: Smallest guy in the room
"We don't have any music?" Derek Kellogg asks a bunch of folks who respond with the same clueless stares before practice at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass.
The sound system is too complex for the young, brown-haired staffer whose responsibilities suddenly include playing DJ.
"I'm not touching that," she says moments after fidgeting with a few buttons.
It's not a necessary complement to this practice hours before the Minutemen's 105-96 rout of BYU on Dec. 7.
Williams is a 5-foot-9 soundtrack.
He's not exactly hidden with his blue and yellow high socks and the tattoos, including a large cross borne on his back. But even when you can't see him, you can always hear him.
"Ahhhhhhhh!" he screams after he botches a layup and slams the ball between his hands.
When a teammate jacks up an alley-oop, Williams goes Broadway with a theatrical performance. He throws his arms in the air. He scowls like he smells rotten eggs.
"Use two hands, yo!" he pleads in that New York street vernacular.
But he's a cheerleader, too.
"OK, Jabarie!" he shouts as junior Jabarie Hinds goes strong during a drill.
"Finish, Cady! Finish, Cady!" he tells junior Cady Lalanne.
He's an essential element in this progressive surge for a program that hasn't reached the NCAA tournament since 1998.
The Minutemen are long and athletic. It's as though Kellogg refuses to recruit anyone who isn't 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan. But they're also pushing the pace.
They're ranked 11th in adjusted tempo, per Ken Pomeroy. And it's the speedy point guard who has given UMass its burst.
Williams is averaging 16.9 points per game, 7.6 assists (tied for second in the nation), 3.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals. His turnovers are down from last season (3.5 to 3.0 this season). He's shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc, all numbers that could elevate his stock in next year's NBA draft. ESPN.com's Chad Ford projects Williams as a second-round pick or undrafted.
Williams spent his summer working out with some of the best guards in America, such as Arizona State's Jahii Carson. It helped, he says.
But he didn't have to work on his confidence during the offseason.
The smallest guy in the room certainly has the most bravado, too. Anything you can do, Williams can do better. And he'll prove it.
Today's example is 6-8 junior Maxie Esho. A two-on-two game becomes a tutorial to Williams.
He rocks to the left and bursts right to get to the rim before Esho can react. He hits an NBA 3-pointer on the next play. And finally, Williams talks a little trash before he maneuvers for an up-and-under layup.
Esho just shakes his head.
It's not uncommon. Williams has been picking on bigger guys for years.
Chapter 2: 'Big'
Calvin Williams nicknamed his son "Big" because his frame couldn't contain his oversized swagger.
Soon after his father's death, Chaz Williams popped in an old tape that featured his father's typical praise. "Go get 'em 'Big!'" It was such an inspiration that Williams eventually had the message tattooed onto his forearm.
"He was saying, 'A lot of people doubt you, a lot of people say you can't do these things,'" Williams says, "'[because] you're little, but to me, you're big because I know what the size of your heart is.'"
And that was the issue he couldn't overcome.
He didn't just like basketball before his father died. He loved it. It was their bond. His athletic achievements were opportunities to earn the props that every child wants to hear from parents.
And there's just something about a loving father's words that makes a son feel empowered.
Basketball wasn't just dribbling and jump shots for Williams. It was Sunday afternoons at the rec center with his father and his uncles arguing over nothing.
When Calvin died, everything that Chaz enjoyed about the game disappeared.
"Life wasn't the same," Williams says. "School didn't matter no more. I started fighting every day in school. My grandmother told me that I've come a long way. Nothing mattered. As a 9-year-old boy, the only thing that mattered is that his dad is not around."
As Williams talks about the crushing event that changed his world, his tears never quite fall. They just sit there, gathering on the lower ledge of his left eye.
It's the norm for Williams, who had to be strong for his mother, Diane Williams, and his older siblings. He wanted his mother to feed off his strength.
But the boy had little, especially for sports.
He returned to baseball -- "My first love," he says -- but that fizzled after a few years. He loved football, too. And he was really good.
But basketball was shelved in Williams' life until he entered a new middle school in Crown Heights. The school he'd attended in sixth and seventh grades didn't have a basketball team. But his new school had one.
And that's when Williams began to hear his father again.
"Sometime, they say some people who've passed away are talking to you and they send you messages," he says. "I just felt like one of my messages from my Dad was, 'I left you to do this. Why stop? I don't want you to stop because I'm not here.'"
He was rusty once he decided to try out for that eighth-grade team.
His best friend "Fatty" -- "Fatty is always with me," he says -- taught him how to shoot again. And he was relentless about practicing.
When his grandmother refused to let him leave the house, Williams would grab her garbage can and shoot.
As he improved, he recognized that his size could be an advantage.
When he played games in the neighborhood, he used his speed and his mouth to frustrate bigger defenders.
"I've gotten into a lot of fights playing basketball," he says.
It was that tenacity that fueled his rise at Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn, where he won a state title as a junior. He eventually signed with Hofstra, where he averaged 9.8 PPG as a freshman during the 2009-10 season. But he was unsettled about his choice.
So he left for UMass -- in part because he felt so comfortable playing with the UMass team on one of his video games, he says -- where he has a chance to guide a program to the NCAA tournament for the first time in a long time.
It's an opportunity he acknowledges as he stares at the images that surround him in the team's film room at the Mullins Center. Perhaps one day, Williams' picture will be pasted onto its walls, too.
"It's a blessing," he says often.
The prestige that might come one day soon, however, is not his top priority.
Chapter 3: 'My pride and joy'
A 22-year-old is using baby talk to describe a recent conversation he had with his 3-year-old daughter.
"I'm like, 'What you doin'?'" Williams says. "She's like, 'Nothing, watchin' TV. Daddy, what you doin'? Watchin' basketbaw? I gotta come watch basketbaw wit' you.'"
Williams clutches the smartphone in his left pocket whenever he talks about Cheree.
It's his main portal to that little girl.
Skype, Facetime and other technological connections allow him to stay as close as he can to the little girl whose name alone makes him smile.
She lives with her mother in Brooklyn, 169 miles away. The distance is not insurmountable for most. But a senior basketball player on a team that travels the country from November through March (if it's lucky, of course) has admittedly and regrettably missed chunks of her life.
She comes to some of his games. And he gets back to Brooklyn when he can. But it's still not enough.
He's suddenly reinvigorated, however, by something he wants to share. Just give him a minute to find it.
"Watch this," he says holding his phone.
It's a 6-second video clip of Cheree dunking a small basketball on a child's plastic rim. "Yay!" she says. Her neatly braided hair is as perfect as her smile.
"He struggles sometimes," his mother, Diane Williams, says. "He learned how to be a dad watching his dad. The disappointing part is that he's not on deck. Like her first steps, he missed them. But he works hard so he won't have to be away from her anymore."
Every devoted father wants to buy his daughter a pony. It's not just a cliché. But the men who truly want their daughters to have the world believe that one day, they'll position themselves to give their little girls anything and everything they want. Few achieve it.
That doesn't change the desire that they all share.
And that's where Williams wrestles with his role.
Williams had a shot at a $150,000 contract with a Turkish team -- $230,000 potentially with bonuses -- before the 2013-14 season. The squad's ownership even offered to bring his mother and daughter to Europe with him.
But he turned it all down because he wants to earn his degree and see if he can impress enough NBA minds to get drafted or signed by a pro team here.
"My Mom always told me, 'Don't holla at the first woman who walks through the door because you never know how the second one looks,'" Williams says. "I kind of try to use that logic."
Until he turns pro, however, he can't do what he desires to do for Cheree financially.
It all makes those drives up Interstate 91 into Massachusetts even more painful as he moves closer to his dreams, but further from the one who motivates him to pursue them.
It's a pride thing.
He can do whatever he wants on a basketball court. But his involvement in the life of the most important person is restricted.
"Every time, every single time I leave, there's not one time I leave her where I don't cry, even if I'm driving back to school by myself or with a teammate," he says. "No matter what. I'm not afraid to show my emotions toward my daughter because that's my weakest part right there. That's my pride and joy."
And if the NBA gives him a chance, he'll care for Cheree full time. He'll be around her "24/7," he says. He'll never leave her again.
It all sounds great. But Williams has to prove a few things first.
Chapter 4: 'Just a chance'
The pre-BYU practice ends with a half-court shot contest. Both players and coaches miss.
And then Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon nails one after everyone is finished with their original tries.
"How come someone hits one every time we're done?" Williams asks.
As the team huddles up, Williams stands in the middle. He's the heartbeat of this inspired program that has won its first nine games and faces Ohio on the road Wednesday.
Kellogg didn't hesitate to grab him after Williams decided to transfer.
"I talked to a few coaches [in the Colonial League]," Kellogg says. "They said if you can get him, that would be a no-brainer."
Williams finished with 32 points and 15 assists in the win over BYU the following day, a game that featured a brief scuffle between Williams and 6-10 Cougars freshman Eric Mika.
"He brings a lot of energy," senior Sampson Carter said. "His energy is so contagious."
There's no doubt about the player who leads this program. Williams controls the pace and the entire vibe of Minutemen basketball in 2013-14.
Players are loose because their captain isn't afraid to shut off his competitive edge and trip a teammate on the way up the stairs to the team bus.
When Lalanne brags about being the best at "NBA 2K" -- "I'm the best one out of all of them," he says -- Williams grabs his phone and plays a video of Lalanne admitting defeat.
"Look at this," Williams says while staring at Lalanne, who's fumbling through an excuse about the video only representing the one time he has actually lost to Williams.
Last year that incident might have started a real fight. The Minutemen had quick tempers in 2012-13, after they endured a bracketology-crippling three-game losing streak and eventually lost in the first round of the NIT.
There were too many stars and not enough microphones, Williams says.
"There would be games where dudes would be thinking I was looking them off because they didn't get the ball two possessions in a row," Williams says. "And it's like, 'I just missed you, bro. I got you on the third time. I just missed the first two.' I don't want y'all to be feeling like I'm missing y'all on purpose. Then, everybody was like, 'I'm not scoring, I'm not getting 15.' But we're winning. What are y'all talking about? Now it's like, we all think for each other."
But this is not where Williams wants things to end.
This trek began with a father who formed a connection to his son by introducing him to the game of basketball. And it continues through a young man who hopes the game will help him give his daughter everything she deserves.
He knows about the doubters. They're not new, just older and more influential to his future.
He's too small.
Whom can he guard at the next level?
Will he score against bigger players in the NBA?
Yes, there's Nate Robinson -- one of Williams' role models -- but name the other 5-9 standouts in the league. You won't find many.
And that's when Chaz thinks about Calvin Williams and blocks the negativity.
He already has achieved this much despite his physical disadvantages.
"Just an opportunity or a chance," he says as though NBA scouts are in the room, too. "I don't need you to think or believe what you saw. Just give me an opportunity to prove it. I'm never going to be 6-1. I'm never going to be 6-3 or 6-5. This is what God gave me."
For the first time, he's dishonest.
He has been given so much more.
And there's a 6-second video on his phone to prove it.
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