Marvin Williams Sr. on his son's career, his new book, NBA politics and more
The Milwaukee Bucks were eliminated by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, ending their season sooner than anticipated. It also closed the final chapter of Marvin Williams Jr.'s career.
On Sept. 8, Williams punched the clock for one last time, recording 11 points and eight rebounds in his final 20 minutes of NBA action. He knocked down a number of key shots and helped provide a spark for a Milwaukee bunch that fought tooth and nail to avoid elimination. Shortly after the buzzer, he announced his retirement through The Undefeated’s Marc Spears.
Just like that, it was over -- a journey that took him from Bremerton, WA to Chapel Hill, NC to four different NBA cities spanning over two decades. Williams had a tremendous career, one that he should absolutely take pride in. His father, Marvin Williams Sr., certainly is.
"He had been telling me [he was going to retire], but I ain't been listening; I think his mom took him more seriously than I did,” Williams Sr. told BasketballNews.com. “I know how he is. He'll say something one minute, then change his mind next week. I think it was last year, he had mentioned it to me, but I thought he was talking.
“But then as the year started -- when he went to the Bucks and we still continued the conversation -- and then he let me know how serious he was about it, I was fine with it. I understood."
Marvin Jr. has a number of options when it comes to his post-playing career.
“He mentioned to me that he really likes the [Basketball Without Borders] program, but because of the COVID, that whole process may have changed,” Williams Sr. said. “I think that's the avenue he would like to go down, but if not... he's a kinda laid-back guy, so he's like, 'Dad, I could be content working with North Carolina, being a film guy for the basketball team, making $60,000-$70,000 a year. I'd be content with that.'
"Larry Jordan, Michael Jordan and them guys have told him -- and sat down with me and told me -- that if he wanted to come back and work for the [Charlotte] Hornets, he was more than welcome to. So he's got some options, it's just a matter of which one he chooses to pick."
Williams Sr. has had an odyssey of his own. From the early days of his life in Brooklyn, NY to growing up in Wallace, NC to his collegiate career with the Navy and Olympic College, he loved basketball, which naturally led to Marvin Jr. gravitating toward the game.
Every aspect of Williams Sr.’s life and experiences as Marvin Jr.’s father is detailed in his novel, Secondary Break: An NBA Dad’s Story, which is available online through Amazon, Google Play and iTunes and in stores at WalMart and Barnes & Noble.
BasketballNews.com spoke with Williams Sr. about the book, his own days as a basketball player, his experiences alongside Marvin Jr. as he climbed the ranks from high-school star to college prospect to NBA veteran, and more.
ABOUT THE BOOK
The title of the novel is Secondary Break: An NBA Dad's Story. What made you choose that?
Marvin Willams Sr.: "Two reasons. One was, I'm a big [North] Carolina fan. I used to coach AAU and I ran Roy Williams' system when Marvin was at Carolina, and they used to call their offense the 'secondary break.' So when you come down on the fastbreak and you don't get a layup, then you go into your secondary offense. That's one of the reasons. And then the other reason was I felt like God gave me a second chance in my life as I was going through the things I was going through."
What was your motivation to write the book?
Williams Sr.: "It was more spiritual for me because it started out as a journal. I was just reflecting on my life and realizing how God had been in my life throughout my life, and it took me to get to this age to really sit down and think about it and realize it and look back on it and appreciate it. So it was more like a spiritual journey for me writing the book, so that's how that came out."
The description of the novel reads: “This book is about a young man who came from a dysfunctional and abusive family and fell in love with the sport of basketball. His love and passion for the game would take him on a lifelong journey—a journey of disappointments, setbacks and, finally, triumph. This book will show how, by continuing to follow your passions and dreams, anything can be possible.” Can you follow up on the family situation and how that led you and Marvin to basketball?
Williams Sr.: "My mom and dad were what you would call 'functional alcoholics,' but they had their own personal issues, so they would be fighting with each other all the time. Sometimes, as a kid, I would get involved and my brother would get involved and try to break it up, and we'd end up getting hurt or something like that. My dad, at the time, had two families. I just realized this later on in life that him and my mom had been together for about 41 years and they weren't married. I thought they was married, but they weren't because my dad wasn't divorced from his first wife.
"As far as Marvin goes, he didn't really have to deal with that because when I got out of the Navy in '87, I stayed in Seattle and -- after trying to get in the league myself for many, many years and I quit trying -- I went to John Lucas. John Lucas invited me to the USBL League, it used to be called, and he ended up inviting me there for a tryout. I went there and about 80 guys [were] trying out, and they was cutting [players] twice a day. I made the final-10 cut, and then I made the final-three cut. But then, at the end of that day, that evening, John's program was really about drug rehab -- getting these guys who had drug problems in the '80s, and the NBA would sponsor his program if he would take those guys in and get 'em back on track. And so, I wasn't a person with an alcoholic problem, but he just did it as a favor to me and to let me try out; and he had told me I had made the team. But then, I had got the call later that night saying that the league had a player they wanted him to take on the team, and he played the same position I did -- and the league was sponsoring his stuff so he had to cut me.
"After that, I stopped trying out and my girlfriend encouraged me to start coaching basketball, so I started coaching girl's basketball. Then, as Marvin got older, he'd go to practice with me and sit on the bench during the games. And so from there, I started doing individual coaching with some of the girls -- the parents would pay me to coach their girls individually -- and then I started doing it with Marvin, and that's how he developed into the player he is."
(Editor's Note: Lucas' son, John Lucas III, played with Marvin Jr. in Utah for a year.)
Do you have a specific chapter or excerpt that’s your favorite?
Williams Sr.: "I think my favorite one is probably about my high school coach [at Pender High School], Joe Clay Jones. He used to constantly stay on me. I didn't think I could go to college, and he used to constantly stay on me about believing in myself and believing that I could get into college. So, to me, that was really, really important to have somebody like him in my corner because I think had he not stayed on me... My dad wasn't very interested in sports and my mom was off doing whatever she was doing, so he would drive me back toward the practice. He stayed on me constantly to go and try to get into college."
How much did Jones' influence affect how you taught Marvin?
Williams Sr.: "Hugely, because everything I taught Marvin was based on what I learned growing up in North Carolina. I told him all the stories about the guys I played against. Also, I told him about how my coach approached the game in high school, teaching us the basic fundamentals, so that's what I taught Marvin. His whole life has been basically about basketball the old-fashioned way. You learn how to dribble, pass, shoot, do the basic stuff, and then once you master that real good, then you continue to grow. I talk to [Joe] every week, as a matter of fact, so his coaching has been a big impact on my life and my son's as well."
I understand that the late, great Dean Smith and Roy Williams mean a lot to you and Marvin Jr. as well.
Williams Sr: "I love those guys. I remember when I got out the Navy, I still wanted to play, so I went to a community college [at Olympic College] and played well. So I sent Coach Smith a video. Actually, he used to come down and watch Mike [Jordan] and Kenny Gattison. He wanted Kenny Gattison to come play at Carolina, but Kenny ended up going to Old Dominion. He wanted Kenny to be behind James Worthy because they played the same position, but Kenny I guess wanted to play right away, so he didn't go.
"And so, when they was coming through Wilmington, [Smith] would stop by my high school and watch me play. Coach Smith, I sent him the video and he ended up calling me back, calling the [community] school and talking to me, telling me, 'I know you from high school. We used to watch you play in high school. As a matter of fact, the problem I have is you're good enough to play at the level, it's just that there's only been one player that's ever come to Carolina that was a two-year player, and that was Bob McAdoo. Our system is so complex, it takes about four years to learn. But what I'll do is I think you could play on my JV team at Carolina.' So he talked to Roy Williams for me, but I decided not to go there.
"Marvin learned basketball watching Dean Smith videos. I bought a video of Dean Smith and Roy Williams talking about the Carolina system. Roy was coaching at Kansas at the time, but he was on the video, a Converse basketball video. So Roy ran you through how to shoot the ball properly, Dean Smith talked about how to move your feet properly, defensively, and how they played defense. I used to make Marvin watch the video all the time, so when I wasn't around and he had a question, I'd say watch the video.
"So when he went to Carolina, Sean May thought [Marvin Jr.] had (already) been to the Carolina camps because he was so well-versed on how Carolina runs things, but it was because of that video. And I actually would sit down and talk to Coach Smith during practices. When Marvin was at Carolina, me and Coach Smith used to sit down at half-court and talk, and he said, 'That was a great idea [to use the video]. I never thought of that. I made that video for high school coaches to [use] for their teams. I never thought about using that video to teach an individual.'
"I used to walk into Carolina's gym and Coach Williams would call and say, 'Hey, are you gonna come to practice today?' I'd say yeah, and I'd walk in the gym, there'd be two chairs sitting at half-court and then Coach Smith would come out, and me and him would sit there for hours and just talk basketball, talk about life and things like that."
You used to play against Michael Jordan occasionally in Wallace, NC. Do you have any stories from those matchups against MJ?
Williams Sr.: "God blessed me to be at the right place at the right time, I guess. I started growing up learning how to play basketball through a couple of our friends, and then we eventually had to move to North Carolina because of my mom; Dad was real ill, and he ended up passing. So we stayed, and I continued to play basketball. Michael's grandmother lived in my hometown of Wallace, and so she used to go to church. He used to come down on the weekends -- him, Larry and Kenny Gattison -- and they used to come down on the weekends and play in the park with us.
"I got some great [stories]. They used to argue over who was gonna pick me on their team. Mike used to just tell me, when I was on his team, to shoot the jump shot, and I would shoot it. All you would see is just all arms over the rim. He'd grab it and dunk it back in. We used to have the gym. People in the churches knew that on Sundays, in our community, basketball was big. So at the church, everybody would come down to the community park, and there might've been a hundred people, 100 to 150 people out there watching. We used to battle every weekend. We had some good ballin' out there."
Some basketball dads push their kids really hard and try to live out their own dreams through their kids. Have you seen those kinds of dads? The ones who go too far?
Williams Sr: "Oh man, yeah. It's terrible. That's what happened with the Balls. Their dad (LaVar) tried to live his dream through [them] and I think a lot of people thought I was like that, but it wasn't. I made sure when Marvin went to play, when he first wanted to learn, I made sure it was something that he wanted to do, not because of something I wanted [him] to do. [There were] things I couldn't give him -- because at the time, I was financially strapped -- but the one thing that I could give him to teach him was to be a good high school basketball player if he wanted to learn. But I made it clear to him that, 'You're not gonna waste my time and I'm not gonna waste your's. If you want to learn, I'm here to help you. But if you don't, I'm fine with that, too.' So when he wanted to practice, he would call me: 'Dad, let's go to the gym.' I made sure that it was his responsibility to do that, not mine."
Do you have advice for basketball dads trying to find that middle-ground between father and coach?
Williams Sr.: "My first advice would be don't coach your kid, in terms of [being] on the team. That causes problems. That sets the stage for relationship problems down the road. Not only does a kid have to listen to you on the court, but then he's gotta ride in the car with you to go home and listen to it again. So when Marvin was coming up, I used to have some of his coaches ask me to coach. I said, 'No, that's not my job. That's y'all's job.' And I didn't want to cross that line so that when I did coach him, it was because he wanted to be coached. It wasn't because, 'I'm your head coach and I'mma continue talking about basketball 24 hours a day.' That's when the kids turn off on you. So I think the first thing if I would tell a parent (is), 'Don't coach your kid. Don't be no coach and coach your kid on the same team.'"
In what ways do you feel your influence impacted Marvin Jr. at all three levels?
Williams Sr.: "I've always been honest with him. Me and him have always had great conversations. I've always been one of those dads -- like I told him when he was young, don't ever be afraid to tell me anything good or bad. We always had an open relationship and still do to this day. So I think that was probably the biggest influence, to make him feel secure. No matter what he do, I'mma always love him, and I always try to tell him every chance I get that I Iove him. So I think that's the most important thing, for me, that I could give him."
Are there some things in hindsight that you would’ve done differently?
Williams Sr.: "That's a tough one. I'll have to say no because it worked out the way the Lord wanted it to work out, you know what I mean? Because sometimes as a human, you can't put your stamp on things that's God-driven. So I think it turned out the way God wanted it to turn out, and I'm very pleased -- and I know his mom is as well."
THE MATURATION OF MARVIN
How did fatherhood change your life?
Williams Sr.: "Fatherhood changed my life dramatically because I was 22 when I had Marvin, and I hadn't planned on being a father, but once it happened, I came to realize that I had to grow up and be a provider. So it helped me in terms of growing up, maturing and being responsible. It definitely helped me being responsible. But again, I think I was blessed, unlike some other people. Marvin's mom (Andrea Gittens) was fantastic. Even though we got divorced, we were still best friends and still are to this day, very close. And so, she'd done anything she could to help make my life easier so I could go play basketball. She wanted me to fulfill my dreams, and she had my back no matter what happened."
Were you and Marvin Jr. always close?
Williams Sr.: "Yes. Funny story, we used to go to church on Sundays with his grandmother [Barbara Phillips]. He was probably in ninth grade, and he had some friends that worked at Taco Bell, so every Sunday we would come in, order about 10 tacos and then me and him would sit down and talk about the plans for the future. And we did that for years. His friends in school used to see us come in; they would already have our food ready for us: 'Y'all comin' in today, Marvin?' Marvin said, 'Yeah, me and my dad will be there after church.'"
At what age did it first hit you that Marvin Jr. could turn into a professional player?
Williams Sr.: "At 12. He was about 6-foot-5 then. Me and him was out in the park playing one day, one-on-one, and I knew I was quick and I could get by just about anybody. I got past him on the first step, but then when I got to the basket and I picked up the ball, my dribble to go up and shoot, -- he took one drop step and he was standing there and his hands [were] spread out. I just looked up and I realized how big he really was. I was probably 35 [years old]."
How was Marvin Jr.’s approach to the game from a young age, and how did it change as he became more prominent?
Williams Sr.: "His approach to the game was just hard work. He never, ever ran from hard work, and when I coached him, I loved coaching him because he's that [way] no matter what. Some kids, they'll play on the AAU team and their coach will tell them to do something and then the parent will try to tell them to do something different, then they want to argue with you about what the coach said; I never had that issue with him. I'd tell him to do something and he said, 'Okay, Dad.'
"And as he got older while he was in the league, he wouldn't let no coach on no coaching staff touch his shot. He would always call me and we'd go in the gym early in the morning before practice. I'd change or tweak his shot a little bit, and interestingly enough, he would end up having great games. So one of the coaching staffs from Atlanta told me and said, 'I don't know what you're doing, but you keep on doing that.' And I think as he got older, he learned to understand -- he could play the three a lot, chasing those guys around. But as he got older, he wanted to not chase those guys as much and be more [in the post]. If you watch Kobe and LeBron's game [as they got older], they go to the post-up game. He developed, over the years, a post-up game. And then, he got more proficient at shooting the three, so they moved him to the four and made him a stretch-four.
"All the years, it was like a ritual with me and him. Even during the season, I would go in the gym at night with him and we'd work on his shot. If he had a bad game, we was in there at night time working on the shot, or early in the morning before practice working on his stuff."
So this whole time that he's been in the league, he's just worked with you exclusively?
Williams Sr.: "Yeah. He tells the coaching staff, 'Nah, y'all can't touch my shot. I gotta let my dad do that.'"
How does that make you feel, that he's gone that route and entrusted you in his career?
Williams Sr.: "I feel blessed because he could've been one of those kids that got to the league and think they know it all and just want to go off and do [their own thing]. I've seen some kids like that; they get in the league and think they know it all, don't want to listen to their parents and forget where [they] came from. And he was never like that. He always stayed humble, and I've never had a problem with him about anything. Sometimes, I'd say, 'Hey man, let's go to the gym,' and he'd be tired, but he'd say, 'Okay Dad, I'll be able to pick you up in two minutes.''
I've gotta imagine that loyalty only strengthened your relationship as father and son, too.
Williams Sr.: "Absolutely, and I think that's how we bonded as well, too. The thing I love about when we worked out was, we would not just go in the gym and work out. We would work out and talk about life and the future -- what the plan's gonna be, what's the next move and things like that. So, that was really our father-son bonding time. We used basketball to do that well."
What was it like watching Marvin Jr. develop from those early high-school years and grow as a person and as a player?
Williams Sr.: "It was wonderful to watch. It was just amazing that God had blessed me and his mom with such a wonderful kid. The more time I spent with him, the more I appreciated him as a person, not just as my son. I remember doing an interview on the radio one time in Chapel Hill, and the radio people would ask questions and then the fans would type in their comments or whatever; and I think a lot of people got caught up thinking I should've been his dad more than his manager, which they failed to realize I was his dad first. I never was his manager."
What did you have to protect Marvin Jr. from when he got to a bigger stage around high school?
Williams Sr.: "A lot. I was fortunate enough... his mom and his grandmother believed in me and trusted me so that, whenever any situation came up as far as coaches, I always made the decisions in terms of picking his agent, picking what school -- whenever the letters would come in, I would come over and read 'em, and we would talk about what schools he wanted to go to and which ones he wanted to eliminate -- and we went through that whole process. His mom and his grandma, again, were really good to me. They trusted me and believed in me. They said, 'You know basketball more than we do, Marv, so we'll let you handle all of that.'" And it worked out wonderfully for me."
At the time, did people offer you money and try to get to Marvin Jr. through you?
Williams Sr.: "Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I've had an offer of $200,000. I won't say who they are, but people said they would fly a private jet down, pick me and Marvin up, come down and walk around the school so the school gets to see him, so they make it look like they were recruiting hard. And then, they would give us the $200,000 and fly us back. But I told Marvin, even when he was growing up, 'Don't take no money from your friends or anybody. We not doing that.'"
As a father, what was your perspective on whether he should declare for the 2005 draft or go to school and play?
Williams Sr.: "He was eligible. He was good enough to go [to the NBA] from high school. But the thing was, I didn't like where [experts] had him [slotted]. Sonny Vacarro, who I really, really adore, worked closely with our family. He was with Reebok at the time, and he was telling me, 'We can get him in the first-round at [No.] 17.' I didn't like that and I wasn't comfortable with it. I thought maybe if he went to college [for] a year, he'd probably go up in the draft. So that's why we decided to go to college for a year and see how he would do."
How unique and tough of a decision is that, especially when you can make money right away?
Williams Sr.: "If you care about your kid and you want the best for him, you make the right decisions, so it was not hard for me to make that decision. Especially [because] I knew he was going to a great program like Carolina, so it wasn't that hard."
It sounds like Marvin Jr. had full trust in you.
Williams Sr.: "Yeah. I already knew he was a good student, so I could see him being a great college student as well, so that part I wasn't concerned about. He got his degree. He went back. A part of the deal was if he was gonna go to the league early, he had to promise Coach [Roy] Williams and me and his mom -- we made him write a little contract saying that he would come back to school and get a degree. Plus, I stayed on him every summer, and he was doing classes while he was in the league and during the summer.
"He actually was the first player in NCAA history to ever be a one-and-done and come back and graduate. He's the first and only one. My proudest moment was watching him graduate from the University of North Carolina. I went there and I watched that ceremony, and it was so amazing. I was about to cry. I didn't even know what to do. That was the proudest moment ever. He's done some great things, but I think to see him get a college degree like me and his mom had hoped for and we knew he could do, that was probably the proudest moment of my life besides him being born."
(Editor's Note: Marvin Jr. majored in African-American Studies.)
EXPERIENCES AS AN NBA PLAYER
When Marvin Jr. got to the NBA, when did you realize he was going to be a long-time pro and contribute at a high level?
Williams Sr.: "I knew because of how he carried himself and how he thought about things. I knew it was just a matter of time. I knew he'd be there for a while because he had a work ethic. He reminded me, as a 17-year-old, of a 40-year-old man. His mindset was like somebody who lived his life before and came back, you know what I mean? So we called him 'Old Man.' But at 17, he was pretty sharp."
Early on, what are some things you and Marvin Jr. had to navigate? In terms of adjusting and dealing with the hype.
Williams Sr.: "The only issue I had was people would come up to him and try to pitch him something or run some kind of... I'm not gonna say it was a scam, but they would say stuff to him like, 'Hey, I would like to meet with you and I got a project.' But then, my son would come to me and say, 'Did [that person] come talk to you?' And I'd say no. I said, 'It's clear whatever he was running, he wanted to run it on you and not me.' So he had those older people trying to get these young kids to make grown-up decisions when they weren't quite ready for it. So those are probably the major [ones], just keeping the right people around him and the right ones away from him.
"And he never really got caught up in the hype in terms of the media, what the media said, newspapers and stuff. I don't even think he read that stuff."
What do you mean by those wrong type of people? Who are you referring to?
Williams Sr.: "It was people trying to get him to invest in stuff, people trying to get him to invest in things that he didn't know nothing about. And I got a degree in business -- I used to manage big companies. I was a manager at Big 5, I was a regional manager for McDonald's, so I had that background. I knew what he should and shouldn't get involved in. But also what helped too was I kept him around Carolina people. I trusted those people that they would never do nothing to hurt him. So he got his agent, the agent was a Carolina graduate. His financial advisors were Dean Smith's first firm, and he stayed with them until he passed. And then, Roy Williams knew the firm, so they stayed on top of everything as well."
Some players change when they make it to the NBA and start earning a lot of money. Marvin Jr. seemed to stay humble. When his NBA career started, were you worried that he’d change or did you figure he'd stay down to earth the way he did?
Williams Sr.: "Nah. He was raised well. His mother, she instilled great values in him, and then his grandmother as well. They stayed on top of him. His grandmother is very religious, so she made sure he stayed humble and prayed and he still, to this day, does the same thing -- reads his Bible every day, goes to church whenever he can and does what he's supposed to do."
Now that his career is over, there's a huge respect for Marvin Jr. as opposed to the labels early on with his No. 2 pick status and not having "gaudy" numbers. I just want to know from your vantage point and having talked to him, what did he learn about the league and how did he adjust and keep getting better as the years went on?
Williams Sr.: "Well, the one thing I think we both realized is that what you see on TV with the NBA ain't what it's really about. There's a whole lot of politics involved in the league. The comment in terms of what you were saying that everybody basically tried to say he's a 'bust,' I've read some articles since then that the same guys who said he was a bust came back and apologized; they said, 'For a guy to be drafted number two in the league and last 15 years in the league and with his numbers and his stats was really impressive.' And to say he was a bust, he said he was wrong about that.
"The league is so political. What we learned was and been through was that you've got coaches who are responsible to answer to the owners. And so, if they've got a star player that's the guy, they've got to play. Then, them coaches are also participating in activities like if your contract is coming up and your numbers are going up, I've seen owners cut [their] minutes back so that the player doesn't get the big contract and it saves the owner money and then a coach keeps his job. So we've learned that it's a whole lot more political than people think it is. And the NBA's gotten so... it's more about egos and fan-favorite than it is about really the game of basketball, to me."
So you've gotta be happy that he stuck to his guns and continued to be himself then.
Williams Sr.: "Absolutely. That's what makes him special."