Williams' journey for success through life of struggle

Williams' journey for success through life of struggle
April 5, 2013, 12:00 pm
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If you look closely, the tattoos that cover his body will tell a story. If you ask him, Terrence Williams will tell you himself.
 
He calls the artwork a “shrine,” rolling up his sleeve to show praying hands surrounded by four names – his grandmother, his grandfather, his father, his best friend. Too many names for someone who suffered those losses before he turned 20.
 
But as he recounts the details of a life struck by tragedy and struggle, the Boston Celtics guard wants to make something clear: He isn't looking for sympathy nor does he want special treatment.
 
While his upbringing was challenging, he is not the only person who has faced obstacles. He just chose to overcome them.
 
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To say Williams had a childhood would be using the term loosely. He grew up fast, faster than he should have had to, but he faced circumstances that left him with no choice but to become the man of the house at an early age.
 
Williams uses the word “father” very specifically. He has no memories of Edgar, who served time in prison and was murdered the day he was released. Williams was only a child.
 
“I don't remember anything,” Williams said. “The only image I really have is when he was in jail and I was taking him some shoes with my mom for him to have. I can't tell you any stories of, 'Oh I remember this one time playing at the park.' I've always in the past tried to remember – it’s the hardest thing to do. You can't have a memory of something that you don't think ever happened. So to me, I didn't have a father. I had a dad, I had somebody that birthed me. But it's just blank.”
 
Williams never asked his relatives about his father. He says he doesn’t want to know.
 
“To me, I had a mother. My mother had me on her own,” he said. “I don't have one memory of my father and the only thing I know of is from pictures. I never asked stories from my mom, I never asked stories from my uncles on his side of the family. I don't want to know stories. I was forced to grow up fast, so it is what it is. I never had a father, I had a dad. I call my college coach more of my father than my real father."
 
At the head of Williams’ family was his maternal grandmother, Mary Jackson. According to Williams, “she ran everything” and called the shots. When it came time to for a family gathering, she made sure everyone was present and helping her prepare for it. She also helped raise Williams when his mother, Sherry Jackson, spent time in prison.
 
But six years after his father’s murder, Williams suffered another loss. His grandmother fell ill with cancer and passed away in his Seattle, Wa. home when he was 12.
 
“My grandma played the big role because I called her 'The Queen,’” Williams said. “She was definitely the queen of the family and the warden at the same time. She was the warden because she had no problem calling you ugly, she had no problem talking about you, then she had no problem, in the same breath, giving you her last five dollars.”
 
Williams stayed strong, assuming a large responsibility for a child his age. At 13, he began working to help financially. Whether it was cutting grass or selling shoes, he found ways to assist in supporting his family.
 
“I’ve been paying the bills for 12 years now,” Williams, 25, says.
 
While stepping into the role of man of the house, Williams was faced with another grown-up decision as a young teenager. He had spent time at the home of his friend Marcus Williams and was taken aback by it. There was a guest bedroom, a spare bedroom, and a piano room. Even their dog was friendly.

“I had never seen anything like this,” he recounted.
 
Williams didn’t want to leave. He asked his mother if he could move in – she said no. But when the seventh grader pointed out the move could help his future, she agreed. He still returned home on the weekends.

“With Terrence, unfortunately for him it was one of those situations where it was really necessary,” said Williams’ Rainier Beach High School basketball coach, Mike Bethea. “Marcus' mom was like a second mom for him and Marcus was like a brother. In order for him to make it, she was going to hold him really accountable and kind of like humble him to where, 'You're the kid and I'm the adult.' It was one of those things where if you let him, Terrence would run over you and he couldn't do it with Marcus' mom."
 
Bethea had met Williams years before he enrolled at Rainer Beach High School, but he didn’t build a relationship until he became his coach. They got to know one another very quickly.
 
The coach was familiar with Williams through previously coaching his close childhood friend, Chicago Bulls guard Nate Robinson. Besides, he had been working with teenagers long enough to pick up on different personalities. He quickly realized he had to be firm yet fair with Williams.
 
“Terrence was the type of kid, to me, I don't think he's real trusting with a lot of people,” said Bethea. “It's so funny, being around so many kids as long as I have, you know the defense mechanisms they have. People don't give kids enough credit – they can see through what the kids call 'fake people.'

"It was probably about two days into meeting me (that we clicked). By the time he got to high school, you could tell he was just an exceptional athlete. Coming up around that time, the kids that were exceptional athletes, adults put them on pedestals and let them act any way they wanted to act. When I checked him a few times and let him know what I was all about in a way where it was kind of like a father checking his kid, he knew right then and there that, 'This is somebody I can basically believe in.'”

As Williams' high school basketball career progressed, so did his bond with Bethea. His coach saw a side of the teenager that was enigmatic to others.

"One thing I think about Terrence is he was really misunderstood as far as his personality because of how reserved he was," he said. "A lot of people took that as being hard to reach. In reality, he was a kid that was wanting somebody to basically care about him, and that's what it was. Terrence really wanted someone that he could trust and somebody that wasn't going to let him down, somebody who he could tell something, and somebody you could just pour your heart out to."

When it came time for Williams to select a college, he turned to Bethea for advice. There were plenty of suitors, many of which were close to home on the west coast. Williams faced pressure to stay near the Seattle area, but he had his own opinion. It wasn't so much about where he would play basketball as it was under who he would play it.

After meeting with University of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, the decision was clear.

"He was just straightforward and honest," said Williams. "I asked him about the NBA, he said, ‘You may make the NBA, you may not. Right now I don’t think you will, but if you give me time then you can make it.’ I felt good about that. … I liked the way he told me I could be something if I listened to him. That's why I chose him."

Bethea believed Williams would need another no-nonsense coach who was invested in his best interest at the collegiate level like he had in high school. Once he learned Louisville was recruiting Williams, he felt it would be the best fit.

"I needed to hand him off to somebody that was similar to me," said Bethea, "That was going to hold him responsible but love him when he needed to be loved and be hard on him when he needed to be hard on him. He didn't need the type of coach where if Terrence gets in one of his moods, then he would just say, 'Well I'm done with you', because it's so easy to do that. I needed a coach who, when he did have those moods, could basically see him through that stuff and not basically kick him to the curb."

Williams relocated more than 2,300 miles from home to become a Louisville Cardinal. The plan had been for his best friend, Roland Akers, to move to Kentucky with him during his sophomore year. Akers had been there every step of the way and the two wanted to enjoy the next phase of Williams' career together.

Their childhood dream was gone in an instant.

"I think the people he was with were drinking and he was in a car," said Williams. "They were by his house and they got into an accident and hit a pole and he died instantly. I had just talked to him and I told him to go home. He was like alright, and I got a call four hours later and I was told that he passed."

Williams headed straight to the airport upon hearing the news. He didn't have a plan, a reservation, or even money to purchase a ticket, but he knew he had to get back to Seattle. On the west coast, his friends and family were trying to find a way to get him home. In Louisville, those around him were on the same mission.

"My college coach found out and my whole team and the other coaches came to the airport," said Williams. "They got me a flight to go home."

Two weeks later Williams received another call. His grandfather -- the man who had taken him to the park, who he turned to for words of wisdom, who he called before games -- had passed away in his sleep.

Two terrible losses in as many weeks, four by the age of 20. Williams turned the tragedy into inspiration to keep moving forward.

"It's one of those things where it's either going to make you into a stronger person or it's going to break you," said Bethea. "You could tell it had a big effect on him. Any kid losing his father and his grandparents who were close to him (is hard). The fact that Roland died tragically in a car accident, that was tough. You knew that if he made it through that, it was going to be one of those things where it was going to make him a stronger person."

Williams played four years at Louisville and became a college standout. That summer, the New Jersey Nets selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. All the way across the country, he had made it.

At 22 years old, Williams played his first NBA games under Lawrence Frank. The Nets head coach believed in the rookie -- "He had good success when I was there," said Frank -- but when the team started 0-16, Frank lost his job.

Then the road got bumpy.

The following season Avery Johnson was hired as head coach. Early into the 2010-11 campaign Williams struggled with tardiness. The Nets suspended him for tardy violations and eventually assigned him to the NBA Development League's Springfield Armor that November. A month later, he was traded to the Houston Rockets.

"I don't make excuses for anything," said Williams. "At the end of the day, I take responsibility for something I've done."

After appearing in 78 games as a rookie, he played in just 21 the following year between the Nets and the Rockets. The next season he took the court in 12 games for the Rockets before being waived on March 16, 2012. Five days later, he signed a 10-day contract with the Sacramento Kings and inked a deal for the remainder of the season.

By that point, though, he had played for three teams in three years. Bethea says Williams was hard on himself, eager to make those who supported him proud.

"I think when he went through that little period when he was bouncing around, trying to find a team, 10-day contracts, things like that, that's the time when as an individual, you feel you let all the people who are important in your life down, with Coach Pitino being right at the top," said Bethea. "'Here I am I'm supposed to be doing the things I'm supposed to do to get a nice second contract, and I'm just trying to stick on someone's team.'"

Last October the Detroit Pistons, now coached by Frank, invited Williams to training camp. Frank hadn't forgot what he saw in Williams' rookie year earlier and wanted to give him another chance to make an NBA squad.

"He's got a great heart, very very bright, an easy guy to root for," said Frank. "He was our last cut. I love Terrence. He’s a very, very talented guy. … It's not that Terrence doesn't have NBA talent -- he does. It’s just continuing to work every single day and understand now where you’re on the outside looking in, all the extra stuff that you have to do. You’re no longer the lottery pick. You’re now a fallen angel and you’ve got to keep on working to get back in the good graces of the league."

Before Williams could get back in the league he had to leave it. In November he signed with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association. Williams says he was humbled the moment he stepped on the plane to fly overseas. Just three-and-a-half years ago he was overjoyed to be drafted the ninth overall pick. On that fall day, he was left reflecting on his short NBA career and wondering how he could revive it. Averaging 17.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 4.1 assists for the Tigers was a good start.

"That’s a very humbling experience at such a young age," said Bethea. "You see people like Tracy McGrady, he had a long NBA career where he's made the big money and been an All-Star. But for a young kid who was a lottery pick … that’s when you’ve got to do a self-check and figure things out where, 'There’s no doubt about my basketball ability, I’ve got some character issues.' Sometimes it takes a humbling situation like that to wake up and realize what you had in front of you."

He continued, "What I saw work for Terrence (in China) was he got back to the kid I had at Rainier Beach that I loved being around. He got back to being the kid that was with Rick Pitino at Louisville, the kid that all the fans loved."

Early in 2012 the Celtics lost guards Rajon Rondo and Leandro Barbosa to season-ending injuries. They had invited Williams to training camp that season and called on him again to fill their shorthanded backcourt. Williams signed a 10-day contract with the Celtics on February 20, 2013 knowing this was his opportunity to turn things around.

There is no room for slacking or self promotion on the veteran-led C's. Williams quickly embraced their hustle, work ethic, and team-first mentality. He also stepped in and assumed some of the rookie responsibilities without Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo around, including picking up body soap for his teammates on game day.

Courtney Lee, who played with Williams on both the Nets and the Rockets, has noticed a change in his fellow guard.

"I’ve seen a lot of growth in him – playing on the court, maturity off the court, decision making," said Lee. "I think he’s coming into his own of what he’s going to be and what he wants to do in this league. Positioning him at the point works well for him. … Being more professional, being on time, and being in tune with everything, I would say that’s the important key right there."

While Lee knew Williams during his struggles, veteran leader and fellow Seattle native Jason Terry has known Williams since he was a teenager. Terry saw his skills more than ten years ago and believed he could help bring them out on the Celtics.

"To see where he is now and his growth and his development, he's been through a lot in his four years in the league," said Terry. "Going to China, being humbled, now coming back here on a veteran team, he's really bought into his role. I've been a big advocate of him. I've been pushing for him to get more playing time with the coaching staff, to be on the floor when I'm on the floor because I know his talent. He's a tremendous talent in this league and he's a special player."

Williams knows he has potential but also understands he has to show he can make a consistent impact in the NBA. To learn the Celtics system, he put in extra time after practice with fellow newcomers Jordan Crawford, Shavlik Randolph, and D.J. White. Following games, he heads to the team's training facility to get in extra shots late at night, pointing out, "The way you become somebody is by perfecting your craft every day."

Terry has played with countless teammates over his 14-year career and few have impressed him with their work ethic like Williams has.

"(People) don't know he's a humble kid, he's a hard worker," said Terry. "Even on nights he doesn't get a lot of playing time, he goes back after the game to the gym to shoot. It's hard to find somebody in this league who works harder than me, that goes to the gym extra, but I've got to honestly tell you I've seen it in Terrence. His work ethic is unbelievable and you wouldn't think that from his perception around the league, but he's starting to change that."

Williams is gaining the trust of head coach Doc Rivers on the court. (He is averaging 3.8 points, 1.7 rebounds, and 1.4 assists in 12.0 minutes per game.) While the Celtics are rooted in defense, Rivers has recognized Williams energy and asked him to "be a locomotive."

"Run straight down the middle of the floor as fast as you can, and if someone gets in your way then that means someone else will be open," Rivers explained following the Celtics recent win over the Atlanta Hawks. "He did it twice and went coast to coast with dunks."

This month Williams will experience the NBA playoffs for the first time in his career. While the regular season is nearing an end, his efforts on the Celtics are just getting started.

Williams, who signed a multi-year deal with the team in early March, hopes to remain in Boston. He sees many similarities between Rivers and Pitino -- "They are defensive-minded, whatever they say, that's what goes" -- and believes he can benefit greatly from Rivers' coaching expertise.

He also knows his success is resting in his own shoulders. It always has.

After overcoming a life struck by tragedy, Williams refuses to be viewed as a unique example. He does not differentiate himself from others who grew up in adversity -- "I'm not a story that's one in a million. I'm a story that's one in two, nine in ten" -- and focuses on the future instead of dwelling in the past.

Williams' tattoos, which he has lost count of by now, depict the story of his life and serve as constant reminders to keep on pushing.

"I have to prove everything," he said matter-of-factly. "What have I proved? Nothing. I just proved I can wear number 55 and some funny looking shoes. I feel like I’m starting over. I feel like I’m turning 21 again on Draft Night and just getting drafted. To me, to be honest, I feel like I have to prove everything. To me, in my mind, I’m knocking down my shot consistently but I want the world to see that. I want the world to see that he’s improved on his shot, that he can handle the ball.

"Until then, there’s a lot to prove."