EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: To count down the days before the UI's latest alumni basketball game, we'll focus on former stars who might make it back. Today: Frank Williams, the magical point guard from Peoria.
Date: March 3, 2002
Headline: Williams maturing as a player, man
By BRETT DAWSON
It hasn't been a fairy-tale career. It is not like something out of a Hollywood script.
When it comes to Frank Williams' college basketball career, throw out your Camelot cliches. There's been drama, but it's been grounded in reality.
And maybe that's what's made things so interesting.
"Some guys cruise through college like it's nothing, and some guys have to struggle and sacrifice and go through some good times and some bad times," Williams said Saturday, relaxing on a chartered flight 30,000 feet above Wisconsin. ÒI'm in that second group."
Today, Williams' final regular season in an Illinois uniform draws to a close. There still is basketball to be played. The Big Ten tournament looms, and Williams has designs on a deep run in the NCAA tournament after that.
But his days as a college basketball player are numbered. And more and more these days, Williams is in a reflective mood.
"Sometimes, especially lately, I sit back and think about the whole thing and how much time I've spent here and how I've changed," Williams said. "It's hard to believe it's almost over, but it also seems like it's been a long time."
It hasn't always been the smoothest of rides.
When Williams looks back on it all one day, though, he figures he'll be glad for the bumps, especially the ones in this, his final season at Illinois.
Heretofore a fan darling, he has taken his share of heat, both in the press and from the Illinois faithful.
He's been accused of giving less than his best, of coasting through games, even important ones like Illinois' 67-61 homecourt loss to Michigan State last month. CBS analyst Billy Packer — who will call today's game — said during that loss to the Spartans that Williams was "playing like a dog."
And despite all of that, Williams said, this last go-round at Illinois has been as much fun as the last two — and certainly more than the first, when he sat out as a partial qualifier.
"Of course, it's been fun," Williams said. "It's basketball. You go through some ups and downs, but there's nothing better than just going out there and playing every day. Hopefully that's always going to be fun."
Next season, it's about more than fun. It's about money. It's about the rest of his life.
There is a part of Williams, he admits, that wants to stay at Illinois for as long as he can. He's comfortable in Champaign. He's developed an on-campus family, and the flesh-and-blood one in Peoria is a short drive away.
But Williams, tempted by the financial security the NBA could have afforded his family, flirted with leaving school after last season. This season, there will be no flirtation.
He's married to the notion of entering the draft, a decision he announced at the start of practice in October.
"There's a time for everything," Williams said, "and it's time for me to go."
Others aren't so certain.
Pros and cons
Marty Blake makes a point of not discussing underclassmen.
The NBA's director of scouting will speak on the record about Williams only because the junior already has declared his intentions.
So he'll talk, but he won't say what Williams wants to hear.
"Frank Williams is not ready to play in the NBA," Blake said. "He should stay in school. You can quote me on that. In fact, please do."
Blake has been saying that about underclassmen for as long as underclassmen have been entering the draft. But his is not an entirely unpopular opinion. Williams, whom many analysts thought might be a lottery pick had he entered the draft last season, hasn't captured the imagination of scouts so entirely this season.
Though Williams' scoring average is up, and though his assists are in line with where they were last season, his play has more critics now than ever before.
"There are more questions about him right now than there were last year, but mainly because I don't think that last year his weaknesses were as magnified," said Chris Monter, publisher of Monter Draft News. "Now he's already declared himself eligible for the draft, and when you do that, people are going to start picking your game apart."
When they pick it apart, this is what they say: that Williams drifts in and out of games; that he hasn't shown the consistency of some of his counterparts at point guard; that he's a suspect shooter and an on-and-off defender.
"Everybody says they want a true point guard to run their offense," Monter said. "But what they mean is they want a guy who can score 20 points and run their offense. All the best point guards can score. Gary Payton scores points. Stephon Marbury scores points. Even Jason Kidd can score. The question on Frankie is how he's going to get 20-point games in the NBA."
That's not to say Williams has slipped off the radar. He's still widely regarded as an intriguing NBA prospect, Monter said.
A broad-shouldered 6-foot-3, Williams has NBA point guard size. And unlike other guards his size, he won't have to make the transition to the lead guard spot in the pros.
"A guy like (Maryland's) Juan Dixon has to be a point guard in the NBA, and he's never really played the position," Monter said. "The appeal of Williams is that he's played point guard since high school. You don't have to teach him the position."
That's not to say there aren't things for Williams to learn. There are. He knows it.
Away from the court, there's the travel, the NBA lifestyle. There will be money management issues. And there's the on-court adjustment to a new level of basketball.
"I think I'll pick it up pretty quickly, but it's going to be different," Williams said. "I haven't thought about it much, but once the season's over, I'm sure I'll be thinking about it a lot. I think I'll be ready to get up there and take care of my business."
There's still the question of who will take care of Williams' actual business.
There are plenty of agents who'd like to look out for Williams. Bill Self gets mail from them occasionally, though they're likely to have little success tracking down Williams, who has changed his phone number more than once to keep his privacy.
"There's some really good guys out there," Self said. "But just like in any profession, there are some bad ones, some guys who would do whatever it takes to sign a guy. Trust me, there are some guys out there who could care less whether or not Frank finishes strong. All they care about is that Frank signs with them."
Williams expects to be a spectator in the process of choosing an agent. He'll leave the bulk of that decision to his mother, Mary, who will get an assist from Self and Illinois assistant Wayne McClain, Williams' coach at Peoria Manual High School.
"No matter how big you get, you need people like that, people you trust looking out for you," Williams said.
And Williams doesn't trust just anyone.
Jerrance Howard and Cory Bradford are his closest friends on the Illini, and Williams hit it off with Luther Head right away. But Williams admits he isn't the easiest guy to get to know.
"I think I take a long time to open up to people," he said. "That's trust. Growing up, I learned that I couldn't trust everybody that was around me. I learned to watch myself."
He learned that he could trust Marcus Griffin, a friend for as long as he can remember, a relationship tied to their fathers' friendship. And from early on, he hit it off with Sergio McClain and Howard, whom he met in his pre-teen years.
But getting into that inner circle takes time.
Self has said he doesn't want to be the best of friends with his players, that too close a relationship can hinder the coach-player dynamic. But he is close with most of them. Even with his outgoing personality, it took him time to get to know Williams.
"I feel like I know him pretty well, but it didn't happen overnight," Self said. "I think Frank is a cautious person. I think it probably does take longer to get to know him than some of our other guys. Frank puts up an appearance of putting up a wall, but it's more of a fence. He'll let people in, but he's not going to let just anybody in."
The almost-universal characterization of Williams from those who know him best is that what you see isn't always what you get. The impression the public has of him isn't always entirely accurate.
"Once people get to know him, they kind of step back and say, `This is Frank Williams?' " Howard said. ÒHe's this real humble, nonchalant guy, but once you get to know him, you see how crazy he can be and how funny he is."
What might surprise you more is how serious he can be. After all, that surprised even him.
Three years ago, the last thing Frank Williams wanted to hear was that he'd fathered a child.
And who can blame him? He was 19 years old, in his first season as a college basketball player. He still was adjusting to class schedules and offensive sets when he got the news that his next rookie role would be as a father.
"For young guys, it's bad news at first," Williams said. "I wasn't up to it. But after a while, I started to think, `I'm the one that made this happen, I have to take responsibility for it.' I started to understand that, and it's been love since."
Between school and basketball, Williams often is strapped for time. But he tries to devote as many free hours as he can to DaMonte Williams, now 3 years old.
"He's changed me more than I thought he would," Williams said. "Before him, I didn't really have to worry about too much except for myself. My whole life, I always had people looking out for me. Now it's kind of flipped, and I have to look out for him."
That's a responsibility Williams takes seriously.
"Some guys off at college, they might not get to see their kids every day like I do," Williams said. "I try to see him every day, or talk to him every day, just so he knows that it's not a situation where I'm going to leave him or I'm trying to go somewhere and not have him with me."
Being a father is important to Williams. So is being a son.
DaMonte and Mary are the main reasons he considered leaving Illinois last season. They're the main reasons he won't stay this time.
"Everyone wants their kids to have something they didn't have," Williams said. "He can't have much right now because he's too young, but I still want to give him everything. He and my mother, they're my top priorities in life. Everything else falls in line behind that."
All grown up
Everything else includes basketball.
Williams loves the game, has loved playing it for Illinois. But he said he'll never lose perspective. He's lost loved ones. He's fathered a child. That's the stuff that matters.
"Basketball is not a lifelong thing," he said. "This is something to pass the time. This just eases my mind for a while. That kind of thing is what's hard to deal with."
That doesn't mean he doesn't have a passion for the game. It doesn't mean Williams didn't feel the sting when he was criticized this season. He said then that criticism goes in one ear and out the other, but at least some of it got stuck in his head for a while.
"About the only thing that could ever bother me about being criticized is when guys say I don't play hard," Williams said. "That will insult you."
Williams took some heat for saying he didn't give 100 percent on every play, but he doesn't rescind the statement.
"Nobody does that," he said. "I didn't mean it to say that there are times I don't play hard. I don't think anybody in the country goes out every play on offense and every play on defense and goes at top speed. There's no way. You couldn't play the game that way."
He didn't know that his honesty would haunt him like it did, but he doesn't mind.
Neither does Self, who has been hard on his star player from time to time.
"If he's in Chicago or New York or Boston or wherever it may be (next year) and he's making a lot of money and there are times when he's injured or whatever and he's not producing, he's going to hear about it," Self said. "He's responded like a man should respond to it."
Today, he might even respond to Packer — if the announcer seeks an audience.
Williams said Òwords might be limited" if Packer wants to speak, but he said he doesn't hold a grudge against the announcer.
The Packer chapter's just a few nasty pages in the tome that has been Williams' Illinois career. He's glad to have had some of those mixed in with the good stuff.
"I've been through a whole lot here, but this has been the perfect place for me," he said. "I would say I've grown up a lot here. I'm tougher because of everything. I wouldn't change it. I wouldn't change anything, even if I could."