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COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE
FIRST PLACE: ENTERPRISE
SWANNANOA – Porky Spencer was sitting behind North Carolina's bench when he glanced at Roy Williams, spied the bulging vein in his forehead and yelled "duck!" – just before the coach's blazer flew into the stands.
"I played for him in high school," he remembers explaining to the astonished strangers sitting around him. "And leopards don't change their spots."
Before Williams won 524 college basketball games at Kansas and North Carolina, coached the Tar Heels to the 2005 national title and was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – where this weekend he will become the eighth Tar Heel coach or player enshrined – he was throwing menswear, preaching defense and building the beginnings of his basketball family at Swannanoa's Charles D. Owen High School.
UNC, where he began his college career as an assistant coach under fellow Hall of Famer Dean Smith, has long been considered the place where the 57-year-old developed his coaching mind. But it was at Owen, where he logged a 45-64 record, perfected his sideline foot-stomp routine and groomed a group of mountain kids into winners, that he developed his coaching personality.
"We were Roy's boys, the first generation," said Bobby Stafford, who played center for Williams for three seasons at Owen. "We went through all the running drills, saw him cry after tough losses, saw how passionate he was about his team, and about winning. His players today don't get anything we haven't already tasted.
"He was our Hall of Famer, even back then."
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., honors all-time great players, coaches, referees and contributors to the game. As one of seven new members, he will join the likes of Smith (who will introduce him), former UNC coach Frank McGuire and star forward James Worthy in the hallowed hall.
Williams, however, said he didn't even know there was a hoops shrine when he was hired in the spring of 1973 at Owen, now a 700-student middle school.
Fresh off his master's degree at UNC, where he played on the freshman team and fanatically studied Smith's tactics, Williams turned down a Ph.D. spot in Carolina's physical education department because he wanted to coach. Back then, a position on a college bench never entered his mind. He just wanted to emulate Buddy Baldwin, his own coach at T.C. Roberson High School in Asheville.
"I didn't know anything about shoe contracts, TV shows," said Williams, who also served as a football coach, golf coach, athletics director and physical education and health teacher during his five years at Owen. "I just really wanted to be like Buddy Baldwin, and that's all it was."
In shades of what would happen when Kansas hired Williams 15 years later, teachers and coaches thought Principal Charles Lytle was crazy when he chose the 24-year-old, who grew up 10 miles down U.S. 70 in Biltmore. The Warhorses hadn't posted a winning boys basketball record in at least a decade, "and we thought this time the administration would go for a big name," said Bill Mott, who coached with Williams on the football team. "And basically, they hired Carolina's statistician."
Williams, newly married and barely older than his new players, said his early strategy was simple: "Work really hard ... try to be really unselfish, and take good shots."
He arrived at his first workout holding a minute-by-minute practice schedule, a la Carolina and Smith, and set about teaching UNC's offense and defense.
"I can still watch his teams on TV and know exactly where each pass is going," said Byron Bailey, a sophomore on Williams' first team who works as a real estate agent in Black Mountain. "We did everything the Tar Heels did. They just did it a whole lot better."
Williams constantly drilled his players on basketball concepts, and they still perspire at the memory. "He wanted you to be in shape," Spencer said, "and he ran us so long one day that we sweated – and then the sweat dried, and we were still running."
The vintage Warhorses say that he also drilled into them a sense of self-worth.
Williams mandated coats and ties on the road, something never before required. He helped establish the first area elementary and middle school basketball programs, ensuring that a pipeline of younger talent – including a future Tar Heel and NBA star named Brad Daugherty – would eventually play at Owen.
He put together weekend bottle collections to help raise summer basketball camp money for the girls and boys teams. He often wrote individual encouraging notes to each player. A passage from one, written to girls point guard Mary Ann Myers, whom he has called one of the three most competitive people he has every known:
"I've told the fellows before that the greatest compliment I can give a young man is to say 'I wouldn't mind if my son were to grow up to be like you. Well, Mary Ann ... 'I wouldn't mind if my daughter were to grow up to be like you.' Your competitiveness and desire will never be forgotten."
Said Williams, who insisted he would not be the coach he is today without that first job: "Those five years I coached in high school were so important to me in realizing how important each individual kid was, in building relationships. ... It did shape my attitude towards my players, in not just being concerned about points and rebounds."
His first season, Owen finished 2-19. As Williams attended three practices a day, there were mutterings that he should be fired. But he ignored the whispers and focused on building a winner; one night, they even scrunched into his roughly 400-square-foot garage apartment for a pregame meal.
"There were 15, 18 of us packed in there, crawling over each other to grab pieces of chicken," Spencer remembers. "He thought we needed to get closer, know what one another smelled like."
Like today, Williams was tough on his players. He threw trash cans at halftime and once kicked a spring-loaded stall door so hard that it missed recoiling into his face by millimeters.
"If you were going to play, you had to run a mile in under seven minutes, and the quickest I had ever done it in PE was 7:06," said Stafford, now a school bus driver, choking up. "And my last time around [the track], I was dying, I didn't know if I was going to make it in time. But even today, I can hear him yelling, 'Come on, Bobby! Come on, Bobby!' And whatever was in me, he brought out of me – I made it in 6:58, sure did.
"He made me believe in me."
Williams' third season, 1975-76, he finally led the Warhorses to a winning, 14-6 record, and to the playoffs – where they lost on a buzzer-beating half-court shot.
The school, so used to losing in basketball, rejoiced, but "that one ate at him," Mott said. "Probably still does."
It was only after his fifth year – just before Smith offered him a graduate assistant coaching job at UNC, for $2,700 a year – that Williams started pondering a future beyond high school.
He enjoyed his job, he said, and loved his players but thought he was more concerned about his basketball team than the students he was trying to instruct.
"That's when I decided that maybe I should try to get into college coaching," he said. "Because there, that's all I would have to worry about, instead of teach and certify everybody in the first-aid course by the American Red Cross like we did every year."
Mott, still good friends with Williams, admits he thought the coach was crazy to leave. He had just built a house. His wife, Wanda, had recently had their first child. His program was on the rise.
Williams, meanwhile, hated the thought of leaving his players, many of whom considered him a father figure. But in many ways, he took those first teams with him.
He still receives calls, letters and visits from his "first generation," hasn't forgotten the times he had to help sweep the gym floors and wipe down the basketballs and often wonders aloud what happened to that winless coach at Drexel, the only team he beat his first season at Owen.
Spencer even works at his basketball camps, where he earns the same paychecks as Williams' former college stars, proving again how far the family ties reach.
"We were watching a game on TV a couple years back, and we saw one of his players make a bad pass or something," said Spencer, a retired high school football coach. "And I looked at [Bobby] and said, 'Watch, that guy's coming out.' And sure enough, out he came, sitting on the bench by coach Williams, getting an earful, just like we did.
"A lot of guys ask, 'What was he like back then?' And he hasn't changed at all ... except for the gray hair."
•A private partnership
Robbi Pickeral, Raleigh News & Observer
CHAPEL HILL – Wanda Williams abhors the limelight. She shuns cameras. Avoids reporters. And she has been known to have her husband threaten media relations directors before they even think about telling television networks where she sits at games. The protective, quick-witted, ivory-haired mom isn't shy – just private – which is one of the many reasons she has been so important to North Carolina men's basketball coach Roy Williams' rise to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where he will be enshrined this weekend.
"As far as the basketball, I give myself absolutely no credit," Wanda Williams, 57, said in a rare interview last month. "But I guess I always thought my job was to try to keep things at home as calm as I could keep them so that when he left the office or left the gym floor, he didn't have to come home and deal with a whole other set of problems."
Roy Williams credits that calm – as well as her homemade Sunday breakfasts for recruits and her unwavering belief in his ability – for helping him to 524 victories, five Final Fours and this weekend's ceremonies in Springfield, Mass.
They met during freshman algebra at Asheville's T.C. Roberson High, started dating during their freshman year at UNC and married five years later.
From the beginning, their personalities balanced each other. Highly energetic and personable, Roy Williams has never met a stranger; warm but reserved, Wanda Williams is more of a homebody.
"He's very type-A," said their daughter, Kimberly, now a dance instructor in Charlotte. "Even now, I know that if he wants to leave for dinner at 6:35, I'd better be downstairs by 6:30. But Mom, she's much more laid back ... which creates a good balance."
Wanda Williams, for instance, was only slightly nonplussed the day in 1978 when her husband came home from basketball camp and told her he'd been offered a part-time assistant coaching job. Under Dean Smith at their alma mater.
For $2,700 a year.
Comfortable being a teacher and the anonymous wife of a high school coach, Wanda Williams never dreamed they'd move to the college ranks.
"I said, 'That is absolutely the dumbest thing I've ever heard of. We've got a new house, a new child, I'm getting ready to go back to work, we're going to be making decent money.'
"And then I looked at him and said, 'When do we leave?' "
It was that trust in his ability to provide, Roy Williams said, that enabled him to do what he had to do to succeed – selling calendars statewide before he became a full-time assistant, hitting the road for recruiting trips before he became a head coach at Kansas.
One of his greatest regrets, he says, is the time he missed with Kimberly, now 27, and his firstborn, Scott, 30. But his greatest consolation is that Wanda Williams is "the greatest mom that I could have ever been associated with."
"She's been the person that's handled life while I've been in basketball," said the coach, who has written only three checks in the past two decades – even then only filling in the amount. " ... I don't think I would have been able to be in the stress, be in the pressure, if I didn't have that confidence that things were all right at home."
"Wicked Wanda," as he calls her, has been his haven, his sounding board – and sometimes his backbone.
When Roy Williams used to bring home tapes after games to study the details, she watched, too.
"I think that helped wind him down," she said.
When he asks for her postgame opinion – even though she pays attention to players' emotions, rather than X's and O's – she gives it.
"He figures whatever I think about the game is what any other dumb fan is going to think about the game," she said, laughing.
Because she has worried about his health and stress level over the years, she has sometimes insisted he say "no," to things that interrupt their rare free time, such as the deluge of requests after UNC won the the national championship in 2005.
"He's such a nice guy that sometimes I'm a real you-know-what, just to balance him out," said Wanda Williams, who began traveling with the team full-time after the children graduated from high school. "Because he would spend his whole life being nice to people, and I don't think that's right that everybody should always have a piece of him."
Wanda Williams' family members aren't the only ones who have benefited from her mothering nature, either.
On Sunday mornings for 19 seasons, prospects have dined at the Williams house during official visits, eating everything from biscuits and gravy ("Roy's favorite, even though it's bad for him") to French toast.
A Kansas recruit once ate a Wanda-record eight waffles, after feeding on bacon and eggs first.
"It was the most impressive thing I've ever seen," she said, grinning. "And we did get the kid."
She also cooks Thanksgiving dinner for the team – even if it isn't exactly on Thanksgiving every year – and often takes responsibility for tailgate feeds before football games (although she's given that up for this football season).
"I always tell people that Pop's not a great offensive coach, not a great defensive coach – he runs a program," said Scott Williams, who works for Wachovia Securities International in London. "She fits into running that program. When you have 16, 17, 18 years of high school kids that eat breakfast she cooks, when she prepares the tailgates for football games, that's part of program.
"All of that stuff is never going to make headlines, 'Wanda Williams Fixes Brisket for Basketball Team, Second to None.' But in her own way, she has been every bit involved in building that basketball family at Kansas and UNC, those programs, as he has."
Not that she wants the credit. Or the attention.
In 1995, Wanda Williams' autoimmune system inexplicably attacked her right ear, leaving her with only about 35 percent of her hearing on that side. Three years later, the same thing happened to her left ear, where she lost about 50 percent of her hearing.
She wears hearing aids and has few problems unless she is in large, loud crowds. But it has only added to her tendency to avoid the spotlight.
After the Tar Heels won the title, for instance – answering the constant will-he-ever-win-the-big-one question left from four previous trips to the Final Four – she didn't walk down to the floor until the coach specifically requested that she join him. And when her husband makes his induction speech at the Hall of Fame tonight she'll be content to sit proudly in the crowd with her children and basketball family, hoping she doesn't have to go up on stage.
"My personality is that I have no interest in getting in the middle of it," she said. "When I see wives out there, helping their husbands cut down the nets, I think, 'You have got to be kidding me.' I don't want to be interviewed, I don't want to be on TV, I don't want to have my picture taken.
"That's just me."
A mom. A protector. For Roy Williams, the perfect Hall of Fame partner.
"When I heard about the Hall of Fame, I said, 'You know, I would have given up the Hall of Fame for another year or so for one jump shot to go in against Georgetown [last March]. In fact, I'm not so sure I wouldn't have given it up for the rest of my life,'" the coach remembered.
"And she said, 'That's so stupid. How can you even talk about that?' So I just said, 'Pass me the salt,' and I got off of that discussion."
He laughed and said: "The balance has been good for me."
• Second place: Grant Wahl, Sports Illustrated
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