Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog - Herb Williams firmly entrenched in New York
Williams firmly entrenched in New York
Indianapolis (Nov. 24, 2011) -- When Herb Williams entered the NBA as a first-round pick of the Pacers in 1981, he had what he thought was a long-range vision.
"I was just hoping I could play for 10 years and maybe retire and live life," he said. "But 10 years went kind of quick."
Playing nearly two decades instead of one wasn't his only change of plan. A leading man for the Pacers for nearly 10 years, little could Williams know he would up as one of the most beloved members of the New York Knicks organization.
So how, exactly, did a guy that made his mark with in Indiana wind up making his life in New York?
"I have no idea," Williams said with a laugh. "None at all."
After 18 seasons as a player, including seven with the Knicks -- three as one of the team captains -- Williams moved into coaching as an assistant to Don Chaney in 2001. He's been there ever since, with 10 seasons on the Knicks' bench, primarily as an assistant but occasionally as an interim boss.
In a decade that can conservatively be described as tumultuous in New York, Williams has survived five coaching changes to become one of the most firmly entrenched assistants in the league. And so an NBA career that was planned to last one decade has now stretched to three, with no end in sight.
"Later on in my career I kind of started to get the itch about what I would do after basketball," Williams said. "I always wanted to coach so if I could slide right in, it would be great and that's what ended up happening because Coach Chaney gave me the opportunity and he put me right on the bench which doesn't happen to a lot of people so I'm thankful to him for giving me the opportunity."
Chaney was replaced by Lenny Wilkens. When Wilkens resigned in 2005, Williams stepped in and guided the team to a 16-27 record the rest of the season. Larry Brown then took over, followed by Isiah Thomas and finally current coach Mike D'Antoni.
Through all the change, Williams has been a constant.
"I guess the luck of the draw moreso than anything else," Williams said. "Being loyal to a franchise. It's a place I really enjoy working at. I love the city, I love the people involved and I've just been lucky enough that when changes have been made there was always a spot for me."
In the 1981 and '82 NBA Drafts, the Pacers thought they'd drafted their frontcourt cornerstones. First came Williams, a 6-11 post player who at the time was Ohio State's all-time leading scorer (he still ranks second, behind Dennis Hopson) and second-leading rebounder and shot-blocker. The next year came Williams' Ohio State teammate, Clark Kellogg.
Both players were double-double machines but when Kellogg's knee problems brought a premature end to his career, the Pacers' plans went awry and the team struggled.
Williams persevered, averaging 15.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 7½ seasons in Indiana. He still ranks third on the franchise's blocked-shots list (1,094) and is in the top 10 in games, minutes, field goals made, field goals attempted and rebounds.
"One of the things that really stands out in my mind about the Pacers is I remember when Herb and Mel Simon bought the team (in 1983) because they wanted to keep it in Indianapolis," Williams said. "I was talking to Herb and he said, 'I really don't know a whole heck of a lot about basketball but I can tell you this: we're going to be one of the best teams in the league.'
"That always stood out in my mind because that's what they worked on and they have a lot of pride and they're good at what they do. If they don't know about it, they'll learn about it and get it done. Donnie (Walsh) was running the show and things just started turning around."
Williams was traded to Dallas in 1989 in exchange for Detlef Schrempf (and a future second-round pick that turned out to be Antonio Davis), one of the most lopsided deals in club history. Williams was heading into the leaner seasons of his career while Schrempf was entering his prime. And Davis turned out to be a key player as the Pacers made five trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in six years.
Of course, their biggest rivals in that era were the Knicks, a team Williams joined as a free agent in 1992. When New York beat the Pacers to reach the NBA Finals in 1994 and '99, Williams was Patrick Ewing's backup for the Knicks. One of nine players in NBA history to appear in a game at age 41, Williams retired after the '99 season, and thus missed the Pacers' conquest of the Knicks in the 2000 conference finals.
Through those years of heated rivalry, Williams' Indiana background never was an issue with Knicks fans.
"They knew I was a Knick," he said. "The people here, once you're on the team, you're a Knick and that's it -- regardless of where you came from or what you did before you got here."
Having performed a variety of duties for an array of head coaches, not to mention spending a half-season in the interim role, Williams has developed both the experience and the ambition to take the next step to the first seat on the bench.
"That's what I'm striving for," he said. "I've been under some pretty good guys -- definitely two Hall of Fame coaches. A lot of different ideas, a lot of different approaches to the game, about how to prepare, different styles or different theories on how certain situations should be played. I just think I have a lot of different opinions and theories from some guys that have been very successful in this league."
That 10-year career has grown to 30, with no end in sight.