Williams Embraces Adversity, Underdog Status
By: Jim Eichenhofer,
June 10, 2010

Mention to Monty Williams that his latest challenge taking over a non-playoff team as the NBAs youngest head coach seems daunting, and hell probably grin. You see, over the past two decades, very little Williams has achieved during his basketball career has come easily.

In 1990, the then-Notre Dame star small forward was told by a physician that Williams needed to end his playing career due to a heart ailment. After overcoming that obstacle and being chosen as a first-round pick by New York in 1994, it took Williams several years to establish a permanent role in the NBA. When Williams was hired by Portland as an assistant coach in 2005, the Trail Blazers were one of the worst franchises in the league, on and off the court, but have since transformed into a formidable Western Conference team.

By comparison, the task of becoming an NBA head coach at age 38 and being handed the reins of a Chris Paul-led Hornets squad doesnt appear to be nearly as problematic. From Williams standpoint, there were a number of basketball-related reasons behind why he believed New Orleans was an ideal destination to begin his head-coaching career, but he also draws a parallel between his background and the citys recent history.

I just look at my life and my career a lot like New Orleans, said Williams, whos spent a combined 15 seasons in the NBA as a player or assistant coach. Ive been kicked around a little bit, had some storms, and am still here. I never quit; I kept fighting. I had to sit at a table and have a doctor tell me I may die. Ive also had doctors tell me my career was over before I wanted it to be over. It never stopped me from having the passion to play this game and coach this game.

God healed me
Its a topic that probably could be analyzed and debated long enough to fill an entire hour or two on one of those ESPN Outside the Lines shows: What role should religion play in sports?

Professional athletes and coaches who reference spiritual beliefs during interviews often wonder why their mentions of God never make it into written newspaper or website stories about them. The fact is, whether you agree with it or not, writers usually omit allusions to religion in sports articles. In the case of Williams, that means you may have little idea of how significant a role Christianity plays in his life until you hear him do a TV or radio interview, where there is no way to filter out how frequently he says he is grateful to God for a multitude of blessings in his life.

After an excellent freshman season at Notre Dame, Williams was diagnosed in 1990 with an irregular heartbeat and an ailment known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), causing doctors to fear Williams might die on the court if he continued to play basketball. Williams sat out the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons, but underwent testing of his heart in 1992 that produced a more favorable outlook. A differing medical opinion enabled him to resume his basketball career for the Fighting Irish. Combined with the fact that Williams has never suffered any of the symptoms of HCM, he now believes that prayer and his faith produced a miracle.

Most people dont like to talk about religion, or stuff that includes God. Im not ashamed to tell you that God healed my heart, said the native of Fredericksburg, Va. To this day, doctors cant figure out why my heart changed. I tell them all the time, You can try to figure it out any way you want to, but God healed my heart.

Im just a simple country boy. Ive kept saying, God healed my heart. Im going to roll with that.

While sitting out the two college seasons and realizing that his career seemed to be over at an extremely young age, Williams gained a new perspective that still impacts his view of life.

It made me appreciate that much more how much I wanted to be out there (playing). I try not to lose sight of that.

Although Williams frequently stresses the importance of religion to him, he also sounds a bit uncomfortable being singled out for his emphasis on that aspect of his life.

Ive gotten a lot of recognition for being a Christian, but being a Christian has very little to do with me, he said. Ive done a bad job talking about it, because if the focus is on me and not on Christ, then Ive done a bad job. Im just like anybody else. I just try to work hard. Im fairly boring, with average intelligence. I just love the Lord and am thankful for what hes done in my life.

Carving out a pro career
Williams went on to average a combined 20.5 points per game during the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons at Notre Dame, making him one of the brightest prospects as the 1994 NBA Draft approached. However, after believing that his heart condition was finally no longer an issue, Williams draft stock dropped significantly due to NBA teams fears about it. He fell to the 24th overall selection of the first round, by New York.

At that time, being chosen by the Knicks was a classic good-news, bad-news scenario for a rookie like Williams. The upside was that New York was one of the best teams in the league, coming off an appearance in the 1994 NBA Finals. The bad news? As an established, veteran team, the Knicks did not have many openings in their lineup for rookies or any unproven newcomer. Williams appeared in just 41 regular season games as a rookie and only played in one of New Yorks 11 postseason contests.

Midway through his second NBA season, the Knicks traded Williams to San Antonio in a four-player deal. By 1998-99, Williams was released by Denver after appearing in only one game for the Nuggets. He was essentially out of the NBA during the latter portion of that lockout-shortened season.

In 1999-2000, five years into his NBA career, Williams found an ideal fit by signing with Orlando. Williams played in a career-high 75 games. With Doc Rivers leading the Magic in Rivers first stint as an NBA head coach, Williams appeared in 82 games during the 2000-01 campaign and 68 in his third and final season with Orlando.

While the chance he was given by Rivers to contribute significantly to the Magic was genuinely appreciated at the time by Williams, the current Boston head coachs long-term impact was even greater. Rivers was the first basketball man to tell Williams that he might someday make a good coach, a prospect that Williams had never considered.

I dont think I thought about (coaching) at any stage of my (playing) career, because I took such good care of my body that I thought Id play another five or six years, Williams said. Then I had a freak accident with my knee and began to think about my future a little bit. I loved the game. I wanted to play forever.

He ended up being forced to retire in 2002-2003 after playing one season with Philadelphia, the fifth team he suited up for over his nine NBA seasons.

Trail Blazer turnaround
Williams fortune improved drastically during the 2004-05 NBA season. In his first year as a full-time assistant coach for San Antonio, the Spurs won the league championship (incidentally, one of the players Williams coached that season was Sean Marks, who appeared in 23 regular season games for San Antonio).

Following that title run, Williams joined Nate McMillans coaching staff in Portland in 2005-06. The circumstances were far from ideal at the time, with the Trail Blazers coming off a 29-win season.

Combined with a string of off-the-court incidents involving Blazers players in the Portland community, fans had begun to turn on the once-beloved franchise. Williams tells the story of how when he initially moved to Oregon, upon being asked what he did for a living by new acquaintances, hed respond Im a coach for the Blazers. Williams association with the Blazers often drew negative comments, due to the teams diminished reputation in Portland. To say the least, fan support of the team was not good. In fact, during the 2005-06 season with McMillan making his debut as Portland head coach, the Blazers finished last in the league in attendance.

However, after an extensive rebuilding project centered around All-Star guard Brandon Roy and a cast of talented young players, tickets are now extremely difficult to come by at the Rose Garden. While winning 50-plus games in back-to-back seasons, Portland finished third in the NBA in attendance in 2008-09 and 2009-10.

With one of the youngest rosters in the league, player development became a critical element during the Blazers rise to relevance. Williams nine years of playing experience in the NBA as a small forward helped him during extensive work he did with wing players such as Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster. All three players improved dramatically, perhaps best illustrated in 2009-10 by the transformation of Batum, who nearly doubled his scoring average in Year 2 of his NBA career. The native of France was regarded primarily as a defensive-minded role player as a rookie, but compiled five games of 20-plus points after the 2010 All-Star break.

During his debut as Hornets head coach, Williams believes individual improvement will be crucial to New Orleans hopes to make a return to the playoffs in 2011. He points out second-year players Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton will no longer be able to perform under the radar, after the league took notice of their outstanding rookie seasons.

This summer is going to be very important for them, Williams said. If we are to get to the level we want, those guys are going to have to bring it more than they did last year.

We have some young guys who will have a target on their back. Theyre not going to sneak up on anybody. Are we going to improve? I believe we will. Matter of fact, I know we will. But its going to take a team effort.

The second option
During Williams introductory press conference at the New Orleans Arena, he was asked several times by reporters for his outlook on being the Hornets second choice as head coach. For several days in early June, Williams believed New Orleans might hire Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau instead of him, based on the reports Williams was reading. Demonstrating the class and poise he exudes that seem to belie his relative youth, Williams responded that he is grateful to be an NBA head coach, regardless of the circumstances.

That never bothered me, because these jobs are hard to come by, he said. To get one of them is a privilege. I never try to compare myself to anybody else. I know my ability I have as a coach. (The interview) process taught me a lot about myself, on how prideful and selfish I can be, to think that I deserve this job. There were times where I thought I wasnt going to get this job. Ive been in this league long enough to know that here today, gone tomorrow is just part of our existence. But it was a job that I targeted when they first called.

All of these jobs are tough. Im trying to figure out what people think is an easy job. Guys pick and choose where they want to go thats just not my style. Did I feel like I was in limbo? Not really, because I didnt think I deserved the job in the first place. I dont think anyone deserves a job. A team makes a commitment to you, and you try to do the best you can.

Williams interviewed for the Minnesota head-coaching position in the summer of 2009 and received interest from other NBA teams again after Portlands 2010 postseason run ended. But one of the things that piqued Williams interest in the Hornets was a phone call he received from general manager Jeff Bower, less than 24 hours after the Trail Blazers were eliminated by Phoenix.

I was excited about this job from the start, Williams said. They were the first team to call. When our season (in Portland) was over on a Friday, Jeff called on Saturday morning. There was something about that call that got me excited. I just wanted to be a part of it here. Other teams called and wanted to learn things, but this seemed to be the most serious interest in me.

On May 11, Williams traveled to New Orleans and spoke with Bower and Hornets team president Hugh Weber for 2 1/2 hours.

We talked about basketball, values, family, players, what I believed in, Williams said. It snowballed from there.

Early in the search for a Hornets head coach, several more well-known NBA names were mentioned as the leading candidates, with the media believing Williams had little chance of actually landing the job.

At the time you probably didnt hear Montys name bantered around much, Weber told the New Orleans media. But as we spent more time learning who he was, and his character, how he was a leader amongst leaders, how he was an excellent coach, he became the obvious candidate.

Motivated to succeed
Williams has already heard skepticism about his ability to step in at such a relatively young age and make an immediate impact on the Hornets next season. However, given the way his basketball career has played out over the past decade-plus, hes eager to accept the challenge of reversing the teams recent decline of 56, 49 and 37 victories over the past three seasons.

It always starts with the guy in the mirror, Williams said. For this team it starts with me. Its my job to keep the pressure off the players. If people want to criticize me and my age and lack of experience, bring it on. That means theyre not messing with Chris (Paul), David (West), Emeka (Okafor) or any of our players.

My motivation comes from my faith. The Bible says that every good and perfect gift comes from God. I know that Ive been giving a gift and privilege from God to coach. At worst, Im going to get fired and criticized. We know that going into this job. My motivation also comes from seeing guys succeed, seeing guys get paid and being able to take care of their families, and seeing guys win.

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