Blazers Assistant Coach Monty Williams speaks on his faith
Prior to Saturday Night’s tipoff between the Blazers and Bobcats, I had the opportunity to sit down with Blazers Assistant Coach Monty Williams. Coach Williams was kind enough to discuss his work developing the team’s young talent, how he has learned from some of the best coaches in the league, and what is really going on when he holds Coach McMillan back during confrontations with the referees.
Mr. Williams also talks candidly in this interview about his Christian faith and how it sustained him through the trials and tribulations of dealing with a mysterious heart condition.
Here is the transcript of our conversation.
Blazersedge: I understand that Coach Nate McMillan breaks the roster down into groups for video sessions. Who is in your group?
Well, usually I have Travis [Outlaw] and Martell [Webster]. Sometimes I’ll take [Jarret] Jack if I need to show him something or Brandon [Roy] every once in awhile when he’s not getting treatment, James [Jones, on occasion]. More often than note, I’ll have Travis and Martell.
Blazersedge: Both Martell and Travis have taken big steps forward this year. What is it that you’re focusing on with them?
Well, we try to teach them how to play consistently. A lot of that has nothing to do with the court. A lot of that with them has been getting better at preparing to play. Making sure they get the consistent work in every day, not working on a crossover or a different dunk. We’re talking about how to come off a certain screen, or how to prevent certain guys from coming off of screens defensively. A lot of it is [game] preparation more than anything, but we talk about a lot with those guys because for so long it was ground zero with them. A lot of the time we talk about elementary stuff and it’s helped them with their games and helped them with their confidence.
Blazersedge: Next year, with Greg Oden being added to the roster, what do you see as your role in managing his development?
I don’t think I’ll [do much]. Maurice Lucas deals with Greg. If I can help him in any way, I’ll try to. But he’s got so many people talking to him about what he should do, I just try to stay out of the way. Pop [Coach Gregg Popovich] taught me in San Antonio not to mess it up. And that’s what I try to do with our guys; I don’t want to mess up what they already have.
Blazersedge: Can you explain how you came from the San Antonio organization to Portland?
It was such a blessing. I was coaching summer league and was thinking about my future and whether I was going to be back with the Spurs. I got a call from Pop about a couple of ideas they had for me to continue to grow in that organization. I went to summer league and Nate called me, and a couple of other teams called. I’d never met Nate before, played against him but never met him, and all of a sudden I had a job offer here. I came up here and interviewed for the job and signed a 3 year deal and it’s been the best decision I’ve made in my basketball career.
Blazersedge: Was that a pretty easy decision to make?
It was. I had known so much about Nate, how hard he worked, his professionalism, and a lot of people had kind of compared us. They said I was a young Nate in the making. I didn’t know that I would come here and learn so much. Pop told me I needed to come here so I could broaden my horizons. Go somewhere else, learn something different in an organization that was starting at the bottom and moving up. It was a blessing to come here and do that.
Blazersedge: Of the other assistants on the staff, who have you learned the most from?
All of them. I can’t say that I’ve learned more from one guy. I learned a lot about the zone from Dean [Demopoulos], I learned a lot about managing people from [Bill] Bayno. Luke [Maurice Lucas] is good at keeping people calm, he brings a lighter side to the basketball aspect that we don’t necessarily think about all the time because he’s been there, done that. I don’t know whether I’ve learned more from a certain guy.
Nate has poured so much into me, he will sit me down some days and just explain something to me in a way I don’t think I would have ever looked at, just because he’s been in so many coaching situations in his 8 years as being a head coach. I think the thing that’s helped him with me is that he trusts me. It’s kind of like when you’re growing up back around your neighborhood and the older kids pick you to play on their team. That’s kind of how it is here.
Blazersedge: He’s a mentor of sorts?
Yeah. You get confidence when the older guys trust you to do the things you probably wouldn’t get the chance to do if they didn’t pick you. I think I’ve learned a ton from all of our guys.
Blazersedge: I see you interact with Nate a lot especially when he goes after the refs. Are you guys playing good cop, bad cop during those confrontations with the officials or do you really have to hold him back sometimes?
No, I think a lot of times, sometimes I don’t say anything. I just come up and squeeze his arm.
[Coach Williams demonstrates by squeezing my arm.]
It just reassures him that what’s important… the team looks to him for leadership. A lot of times if Nate gets a [technical foul] or gets kicked out, I think our guys feel like “Ok, where are we going to turn to now?” Sometimes I’ll just say, “Hey Nate it’s alright, let that one go.” Sometimes I’ll be like, “You’re right, you need to go tell him.” I don’t need to go up there and do that, sometimes I just go up there and squeeze his arm and it kind of calms him down a little bit. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t need me up there all the time.
[Note: Mr. Williams was diagnosed with Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, which is a rare condition of thickened muscle between the chambers of the heart. This diagnosis resulted in a doctor’s order to stop playing basketball.]
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.
[Note: Mr. Williams came back after two years away from the game after his symptoms subsided. He earned honorable mention All-American as a senior at Notre Dame before going on to play for 10 years in the NBA.]
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.
Blazersedge: It makes you alive, you know?
I have no problem talking about what God has done for me. We go to games and cheer for something that lasts for 2 hours and here’s a guy that gives us life and we don’t want to give him praise. I can’t do that. It was devastating, the heart deal, but it ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Blazersedge: When you came into the NBA, did teams ask you about it? Did it affect your draft status? If you came into the league today, it seems like it would play a big role in the physical evaluations that players are put through.
I was supposed to be a top 5 pick and I ended up going #24. It cost me a lot of money but the things I went through back then are helping me now. I ended up going to New York and play for Pat Riley and he taught me how to work. I ended up working every day with Jeff Van Gundy. Those situations are helping me now. I got traded to San Antonio, that situation helped me when I was done. Had I gone to a bad team, I probably wouldn’t have learned how to play the game or I would not have understood the game the way I do now. The heart condition affected my draft status but it’s helped me right now as a coach.
Blazersedge: You played for Pat Riley, worked with Jeff Van Gundy, coached with Gregg Popovich, now you’re coaching with Nate. Are there any other mentors we’ve overlooked? You’ve coached with the best coaches in the league.
Doc Rivers. He was the first person who told me I was going to be a coach when I played for him in Orlando. I thought he was nuts. I was like, “There’s no way I’m going to deal with me.” You know I didn’t want to deal with me as a player let alone anyone else. He was like, “You’re going to be a head coach some day.” I just kind of blew it off. Maybe he had an understanding of what my IQ was on the court.
He’s probably been the biggest mentor I’ve had since I’ve come out of college. He was the first person in New York to take me under his wing and say, “Hey man, you’ve got to stop dunking all the time and go work on your game.” And his wife was the first person to invite me over for dinner, to make sure I was ok. He’s been like a big brother to me since day one.
Then I had Avery Johnson when I was in San Antonio. He’s always been in my ear about what I should be doing, how I should look at things. It puts a lot of pressure on me at times because I don’t have any excuse for failure because I’ve had so many guys who are successful in this league take me under their wing and say “Hey Mont, this is what you need to be doing.”
Blazersedge: Do you think there are aspects of your personality that draw these people to you in this big brother/mentor role?
I don’t know. I’ve always felt like if I worked hard, everything would take care of itself. That’s not always the case, but if I don’t work, I’ll always have to look back at what I didn’t do. I don’t want to leave any stone unturned when it comes to working hard. So maybe they saw that. Maybe it’s just been a blessing that God has put these people in my life. I tend to believe it was that. I just felt like I was in these situations where I was around guys that were great at what they did. Sometimes they didn’t sit me down and say this is what you do, sometimes just being in that atmosphere was enough.
Blazersedge: Who were the top five players when you were still playing?
Number one for me has always been Michael Jordan. Having played against Karl Malone, Magic Johnson, he was on the back end when I was coming in, Tim Duncan is my all time favorite, David Robinson, so many guys. The most talented guy I’ve been around hands down is Tracy McGrady. And then there’s Allen Iverson.
I kind of came in where all those guys crossed paths. There was the old school and then this new school coming in. I had the chance to play against both. Michael Jordan was hands down the best I’ve ever seen step on the court. His killer instinct, his talent, his work ethic, was by far the best I’ve ever seen.
Blazersedge: Michael Jordan went straight to management after his career. Do you see yourself taking that step in your career? Or do you see a head coaching role in your future?
I’d be lying if I didn’t see myself in those positions. I’m working as hard as I can now, [so that] in the event that that happens, I’ll be prepared. Pop told me he thought I could do both management or coaching.
I’m just excited about the future. I’m looking forward to getting better as an assistant. I’m enjoying being an assistant coach right now. I’m being put in some situations that most guys my age don’t get a chance to be in.
Blazersedge: With the offseason coming up, what do you see as the top priorities for upgrading this roster? Of course, [Blazers General Manager] Kevin Pritchard is the one to make the decisions…
We fully trust Kevin. He’s made some moves that a lot of us weren’t thinking about. And he’s been able to revamp this organization in a matter of two years. I give my input about certain things that I can see, what I think about a guy, his work ethic, some of the decisions he makes on the court, we fully trust Kevin and his staff, they’ve done a great job so far and I’m excited about what they’re going to do this summer.
Blazersedge: Is there a formal process where Kevin solicits your opinion or is it more in passing, I’m going to come through and ask each coach?
He’ll do both. He will bring you in the office some days and be like “Hey Mont, what do you think about this guy?” or “what do you think about this move?” And then some days we’ll have a sit down with all the coaches and we’ll talk.
It’s the same thing we did in San Antonio, everybody has to put something in the pot. Kevin has brought that here. If you’re not adding to the pot, you need to go somewhere else, because we need all the input we can. In the end, Nate, Kevin and [Blazers Owner] Mr. Allen will make the decision.
Many thanks to Coach Williams for taking the time to speak with us.