Unlike the candidates with prior head coaching experience and those with clearly defined assistant roles, Monty Williams can't be analyzed in such a clear-cut and straight forward manner. He's the youngest of the Hornets' prospective head coaches, having retired from the NBA in 2003 after a nine year career.
Still, we can track his ascension into the NBA's coaching ranks, the mentors he's learned from, and the most probable influences to his eventual head coaching style. And while that won't paint as lucid a picture as cold, hard numbers, perhaps stories and anecdotes are just as important in the evaluation of a 38 year old without a track record.
Williams (full name: Tavares Montgomery Williams, Jr.) was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1971. At the age of 8, his parents divorced, and Williams moved with his mother, Joyce, to Oxon Hill, Virgina. At Oxon Hill, Williams took up basketball, excelling almost immediately. He experienced success at every level, eventually moving on to Potomac High School in Virginia. There, Williams led his basketball team to a state championship and posted a 4.0 GPA. As a 1994 Sports Illustrated profile noted, "[Williams] was considered... the equal of future Duke All-America and No. 3 NBA draftee Grant Hill, then a player at South Lakes High in [Virginia]."
In 1989, Williams joined the University of Notre Dame. Though he didn't post the most impressive stats, his future certainly looked bright. Notre Dame had some good, young talent, and a respected coach in Digger Phelps. But at the beginning of his sophomore season, Williams learned that he wouldn't be able to continue his basketball career. A routine physical revealed that he had a heart disease known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged left ventricle. Williams was devastated.
From that same SI profile:
Williams remained in South Bend, quietly attending classes, spending all of his free time with his girlfriend, Ingrid Lacy, a classmate from Paw Paw, Mich., and loosing his anger in those forbidden pickup games at Rockne Memorial Gym. The slightest foul would set him off. "A couple of times I just flat knocked guys out," he says. "I felt like some of the players were trying to hurt me because I wasn't a commodity anymore." He played imaginary games of one-on-one against Hill and Michigan star Jalen Rose.
He sat out two straight seasons, though still playing a good deal of basketball, at one point saying, "If there's a place I want to die, it's on the basketball court."
In 1992, his commitment to the sport paid off; Lameh Fananapazir, a cardiologist at the National Institute of Health proposed methods for athletes to continue playing sports despite heart conditions. Fananapazir tested Williams in July 1992, inducing irregular beating in Williams' heart, a process that could have killed him. But following three days of tests, Fananapazir determined that Williams could be cleared to play basketball. Despite Reggie Lewis' death of the exact same heart condition a year later, Williams remained undeterred. Blazers Edge had a terrific interview with him in 2008. The entire thing is absolutely worth a read, and this section offers particular insight into his character:
Blazersedge: I understand you had a heart condition in college that sat you down for a couple of years. Who made the call to sit you down?
Well I went in for a physical and they said I had HCM and they just told me I couldn't play anymore. I was devastated. My wife and I had grown up Christian, in a Christian home, and believed that God can heal any disease, any sickness. My wife reminded me that God can heal my heart. We prayed, went to Church and prayed, and the elders laid hands on me but it didn't manifest until two years later. So that two year process was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life. Basketball was over; all the pats on the back were finished. And I really had to evaluate what I was going to do with my life because I had planned on playing basketball forever. I happened to be at a great institution at Notre Dame where I could get a good education.
When you've played basketball since you were 10 years old, and then all of a sudden you have to stop, you have to reassess how you look at life, how you look at your job, how you look at your relationships and you figure out what's more important: my life and being with my family, but, most importantly, my faith, which strengthens through that time. I wasn't the Christian that I should have been at the time. It was almost like a reality check for me. God was like, pull your chain a little bit. God didn't give me a disease but he allowed it and it was the best thing that happened to me and it helped me reevaluate what I was doing in my life.
Blazersedge: Was there any fear stepping back on the basketball court?
Never. Never had any fear.
Blazersedge: Did you think about it at all?
Never. Never had a symptom. Never had any of that. I just believe God healed my heart. Even today, the doctors can't explain why it reversed. I have doctors now say that you don't have any trace of any disease.
Blazersedge: Would you call it a miracle or...?
It's a miracle. I mean that's the only way I can explain it. I know people don't like to talk about religion in sports and all that. But it doesn't matter. Experience will conquer a theory any day. People can talk about what they want to talk about but I'm "Exhibit A." I know what God did in my life. If that makes me un-cool or if that makes me weird, it doesn't bother me.
He played another year at Notre Dame before being drafted 24th overall by the New York Knicks. And though Williams never really made the impact he would have liked at the NBA level, to say he was a player of tremendous heart would be an understatement.
As Williams would later recall, he never saw himself going into coaching. As this 2005 NY Daily News profile tells it, Williams' goals were to "start a family, save enough money to live a comfortable life and open a dog kennel." But when he finished his playing career, Williams received a call from Gregg Popovich, who invited him to sit in on Spurs' practices to see if he wanted to pursue a coaching career.
Williams worked his way up in the Spurs' organization, moving from that temporary note-taking period to a team internship to a full time staff job in 2004. As Gregg Popovich said of Williams during the Spurs' championship season of '05, "He watches film, he meets with players, he's involved in player development and he puts practice plans together... He's doing it the right way."
A telling quote from Williams during the 2004-2005 season:
"It's important for me to see things from the ground up. I came in as an intern and spent a lot of time with the video guys. I've had the chance to see everything. I'm not saying it's going to make me Naismith. But this is the avenue that I'm taking. And if I ever get the chance to coach I'll try to do what Pop always says. 'Don't mess it up.' That's what he always preaches."
The quote lends itself to two observations. Firstly, that's Gregg Popovich's motto? "Don't mess it up"? Really? Really? But on a more serious note, Williams' ground up mentality could be extremely useful to a team that has very limited organizational infrastructure. Few coaches gain knowledge and experience of scouting, video analysis, and other player development tools the way Williams did in San Antonio.
After Williams coached the Spurs' summer league team at the Rocky Mountain Revue in the summer, Portland hired him as a full-time assistant coach under Nate McMillan for the 2005-2006 season where Williams has served since. He's been noted for his player development ability, and particularly for his work with Martell Webster, Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw. From on OregonLive.com profile in 2008:
His contributions have been small (overhauling Joel Przybilla's free throw shooting) and large (he's the catalyst behind Travis Outlaw's emergence). And through it all, Williams, who predominantly works with the Blazers' small forwards, has become a mentor to players on one of the youngest teams in the NBA.
"He gives great positive energy and we feed off that," Martell Webster said. "And that's something that I really admire, especially coming in my rookie year, having somebody I can relate to that's kind of like a brother, but like a dad at the same time. Because he's drilling you, he's drilling you, he's drilling you, and then he's complimenting you and rewarding you. That's how you build a player."
McMillan said Williams' greatest strength is communication and he has developed the ability to relate to players in a variety of ways. They immediately identify with him, in part, because he's 37 years old and played in the NBA just five years ago. But even more, they appreciate his even-keeled demeanor, candor and openness. Players know his hotel room is always open on the road and his West Linn home is theirs to visit should they want to eat, watch film or simply talk.
The idea of Williams being very easy to relate to jibes well with a lengthy, detailed email Benjamin Golliver from Blazers Edge sent me about Williams' candidacy as a H.C. A snippet from Ben: "Another role Monty plays is as a go-between for the players and for Nate. This is a pretty low-maintenance group of guys right now but the occasional complaint over playing time and the like comes up. I think Monty is able to act as a buffer between the players and Nate in those situations, sort of a "good cop, bad cop" role where guys might confide something to Monty that they might not to Nate, and then Monty can approach Nate with the issue. Nate is seen as a pretty demanding, no-nonsense guy and he has intimidated players in the past into internalizing their problems and venting elsewhere (Sergio Rodriguez, Rudy Fernandez, to a lesser extent, Jerryd Bayless). Monty surely has helped mitigate other similar situations."
It's clear that Williams is the type of coach that will command respect in the locker room, whilst simultaneously remaining approachable. How many current NBA coaches can claim that? The division between the "player's coach" and the "hard-ass coach" has long been a distinct one. Byron Scott seemed to find that line with Chris Paul though, and that duality could prove to be a key element the Hornets seek in CP's next coach. Williams undoubtedly has it.
Just as with Thibodeau, tales of Williams sacrificing his time and energy for the sake of his players are aplenty. He reportedly worked early mornings and late nights with Greg Oden to help him with his shot. As Ben pointed out in his email to me, he's worked with a player that came straight out of Mississippi and into the "Jail Blazer" locker room (Outlaw) and a player from France who spoke limited English (Batum). Perhaps what impresses me most is the markedly different approach he took with each. Ben: "Monty has had that "older brother" ability to guide those guys along as they developed in their first few years. With Travis, a guy who is maybe a little more sensitive and took a lot of criticism, Monty always was careful to defend him. With Nicolas, a player with huge upside, he's been more confrontational and challenging Nic to improve on poor performances."
The ability to not only understand a player's issues but also to empathize and efficiently offer constructive help is valuable on any roster. If Monty is an ace at one thing, it's working with and for his players.
To talk only of his player development skills and make no mention of Williams' x's and o's pedigree would be a disservice to his experience. Williams has worked directly under McMillan for four years now, and while there are those that have their gripes with McMillan's offensive and defensive strategies, he's still among the league's most respected coaches.
Williams broke into the league as a player for Pat Riley, whose influence he cited earlier this year: "Pat Riley set the tone for me in terms of working. Riles was the kinda coach that if you were in the fire with him he had your back. To this day I respect that because he built something in me that nobody can take away." In addition to Riley, Williams has played or worked under Jeff Van Gundy, Don Nelson, Doc Rivers, and Larry Brown. That's the sort of list that gives considerable punch to quotes like this one from Portland assistant Bill Bayno: ""Monty is a future star head coach. "He's the total package. He understands the NBA, he understands players. He's a great offensive and defensive mind."
And of course, there's the Gregg Popovich connection. That Popovich hand selected Williams to come and attend his practices, promoted him step-by-step through the Spurs' organization, and encouraged Williams to go to Portland to experience other sides of the NBA is remarkable. I consider Popovich to be the greatest coach of his generation; the things he's done from a roster construction and management perspective (bereft of the services of Jordan/Pippen, Shaq/Kobe, Kobe/Gasol, it should be noted) are really unmatched- impeccable international scouting, appreciation of +/- and its application to bench strategy, recognizing the value of reducing defensive eFG%, and on and on. Popovich's endorsement of Williams carries tremendous weight, and "endorsement" isn't really even the correct word for me to be using here. Ben further pointed out in his email: "I've always kind of assumed that when San Antonio finally decides to blow things up in the Post-Duncan era, it will be Monty who is brought in to do the rebuilding." And while he did indicate that was more a hunch than anything else, it seems to make perfect sense to me.
Ultimately, questions about Monty Williams as a teacher of offense and defense can never be answered in black and white. Evaluation of Williams as a strategist simply won't produce the lucid answers provided by the study of an established coach like Tom Thibodeau. But that's included in the package, that's part of the deal. What makes the hire of a fresh, new coach so special- Riley in the late 70's, Jackson in the late 80's, Popovich in the late 90's- is precisely that uncertainty.
Monty Williams will take his player skills, his x's and o's, and his endorsements to an enormously expectant and apprehensive city, this summer or next. The case for New Orleans being that city is quite clear.