Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court
By Roy Williams with Tim Crothers
Algonquin Books, 258 pp.
Light Blue Reign: How a City Slicker, a Quiet Kansan, and a Mountain Man Built College Basketball’s Longest-Lasting Dynasty
By Art Chansky
Thomas Dunne Books, 337 pp.
When the chartered plane carrying the UNC Tar Heels, newly crowned national champions after winning two back-to-back triple-overtime thrillers over Michigan State and Kansas, approached the Raleigh-Durham airport, so many jubilant fans were crowding the taxiway that the pilot had to circle several times while he considered diverting to Greensboro before he finally landed the plane.
The year was 1957, and this anecdote is retold in Art Chansky’s recently published Light Blue Reign, his profile of the three great UNC basketball coaches. It’s interesting that the vanquished opponents of the 1957 Final Four, the Jayhawks and the Spartans, continue to be titans on the college basketball landscape and closely linked with UNC. However, the basketball culture in Chapel Hill was very different: all-white, of course, and New York and Catholic and Jewish. UNC’s star player was Lennie Rosenbluth, still the holder of Tar Heel scoring records, and the coach was Frank McGuire, who begat Dean Smith, who begat Roy Williams.
Fast-forward five decades from the riotous airport reception of 1957 to last June: Williams, the victorious coach of the UNC men’s basketball team, was on yet another recruiting trip, driving between Cincinnati and Cleveland with his assistant coach, Steve Robinson. Williams asked Robinson if winning the national championship in April 2009 had created the excitement that the ’05 championship had. The two men agreed that it hadn’t. In his new memoir, Hard Work, Williams writes:
When we got back to our hotel after the 2009 championship, it wasn’t the mad scene it had been in St. Louis in 2005. When I got home in ’05, there were signs in my yard. That didn’t happen in ’09. When we got back to Chapel Hill the day after the ’05 championship, everybody was so excited that people were still hugging each other. When we got back in ’09, people weren’t hugging each other anymore.
Clearly, times have changed in Chapel Hilland in America. (The Kansas team that UNC defeated in 1957 included the 7-foot-2 Wilt Chamberlain, whom Frank McGuire contemplated recruiting to Chapel Hill a full decade before the school finally enrolled a black player.) One would have to be a true diehardand a bit of a glutton and a sadistto take real pleasure in watching last year’s Barack Obama-backed team bigfoot its way through the NCAA tournament, with no opponent losing by fewer than 12 points. The real competitive highlight of last seasonfor me and, I suspect, a number of otherswas seeing Tyler Hansbrough and his fellow seniors silence Duke’s Cameron Crazies for the fourth consecutive year.
Still, despite the fact that last year’s team merely succeeded in meeting expectations (except for the ridiculous notion of them going undefeated), Williams tells us that it was most satisfying to him personally. He had to coach the team through serious injuries to his two best players, Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, while two key reserves, Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Zeller, were essentially lost for the season. Worst of all, though, were the expectations in Tar Heel Land that anything less than a national championship would be a failure.
At first blush, Williams’ memoir may seem like 258 pages of breast-beating game highlights, player anecdotes and motivational nostrums that are the due of a coach who accomplished in five yearstwo national championshipswhat took the beatific Smith 36 years to do. And while his book, written with Tim Crothers, does contain those elements, it is also surprisingly revealing and moving.
While it’s never been a secret that Williams came from humble origins in Asheville, N.C., he tells us right off the bat that his family was one of drinkers and brawlers, an ill-educated, bad-tempered brood of Scots-Irish with genealogical ties to the pugnacious Hatfields of West Virginia and the Dalton Gang of bank robbers in Kansas. Unfortunately for young Roy and his sister and mother, his father didn’t fall far from the tree. A bum and a drunk, he knocked his wife around and moved in and out before leaving for good when Roy was about 11.
But despite his inauspicious beginnings, Roy somehow possessed the intelligence, drive and good sense to escape the mountain slums and become a world-dominating figure with millions of dollars, multiple homes and a good golf game. (His life trajectory bears more than a passing resemblance to Bill Clinton’s, minus the personal scandal.)
Young Roy seemed to have a knack for channeling his inborn aggression to the basketball court. Before he was a teenager, he was sneaking into his grade school gym to practice; when apprehended by a police officer and taken to his principal’s home, Roy showed enough character for the principal to simply give him a key.
Roy writes that he had no goals as a youngster; nonetheless, he became an exceptional student simply because it was another competition he could win, to be the smartest kid in the class. When a high school girlfriend badgered him into trying out for the school square dance team, he practiced and practiced to make damn sure he wouldn’t fail to make it. (This leads to the first of Roy’s many visits to Cameron Indoor Stadium and the most surreal passage in the book: “The first event we ever participated in was the Duke University Folk Festival in the fall of my senior year. I’ll never forget the list of performers: Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, and the Roberson High square dance team.”)
The smart, driven kid goes to Chapel Hill for college, spends a year playing freshman basketball and the next three watching Dean Smith lead his basketball practices, taking meticulous notes on the drills and Smith’s instructions to his team. He catches Smith’s eye, begins keeping statistics during the games, marries his high school friend-turned-sweetheart, gets a master’s degree, returns to Asheville to coach high school and gets recalled to Chapel Hill by Smith to become an assistant coach. It’s an onward-and-upward progression from here, and, gradually, Roy Williams transforms from a $2,700-a-year assistant to a big-time college coach.
Although Williams doesn’t make this point, readers of Chansky’s lively book may observe that Williams’ career straddles two starkly different eras. He began as a high school scrapper in the 1960s, a time when, we learn from Chansky, ACC basketball operated at a level of intensity that we don’t see anymore. On-court fights were commonplace; many readers may regret missing a 1961 battle between UNC and Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium that ended with the Heels’ Larry Brown punching Duke star Art Heyman. A 10-minute brawl followed with Duke fans and football players getting involved. Today, Williams, who admits to being a hot-tempered player in high school, operates in a more sedate era that eschews the most unsavory aspects of the 1950s and ’60s, namely, the racism, the effigy hangings of unpopular coaches and the point-shaving.
While Williams’ career trajectory is predictable and pleasurable, with little-known nuggets strewn here and there and the odd settling of scores, what’s most striking is how much Williams’ occupationand the personality required to succeed at itresembles being a salesman. During his first five or six years as UNC assistant, he supplemented his meager salary by selling promotional basketball calendars during the summers, driving thousands of miles and selling tens of thousands of them to businesses. He sold enough calendars to support his family, and then some: He even managed to build a house for his mother.
When Williams hits the big time, his travelssales trips, reallyonly increase, and it’s clear he’s cut out for it. Williams tells us of the pride he takes in out-hustling other coaches on the recruiting trail. There’s one jaw-dropping anecdote after another about the mid-winter trips he takeson the one day of the week that his team doesn’t practice or playto remote patches of America to sell overgrown teenage boys on his school. He calls weekly, he writes (letters, not e-mails) three times a week, he attends summer camp with them. After they commit, he tries to attend their remaining high school games.
His 15 years in Kansas flash by in a single chapter as he goes from selling calendars to casually mentioning the driving tee across the way from his house in Lawrence, Kan., that says, “For KU Golf Team and Coach Williams Only.” Commercial flights give way to private jets, and he begins referring to himself in the third person. At one point, he tells a story, without irony, of being on a public phone wooing a prospect and shooing away reporters with the interesting dissembling of, “Guys, can’t somebody talk to his father without you all hovering around like that?”
Williams’ real father was a cipher (and his son would eulogize him by outlining his many faults), but his life was filled with surrogatesfrom his high school coach to Dean Smithbefore he turned his attention to being a father figure to a succession of young men in Kansas and North Carolina. He appears to have invested the same to his own children, too; his book’s final chapters are devoted to his family.
His experience of coaching at Kansas (alma mater of Dean Smith and home to the early coaching sage Phog Allen) and at UNC seems to have opened his eyes to the realization that people (outside of his family and friends) will only love him as long as he wins games for their school. In one of the book’s most surprising tidbits, Williams tells us that Bill Guthridge, Dean Smith’s seemingly mild-mannered right-hand man who took the reins himself for three years after Smith’s retirement, stopped talking to Williams after he spurned UNC’s overture to come coach in 2000. The chilliness in Chapel Hill turned to rapture when Matt Doherty was driven from the job three years later and Williams accepted the position.
Although Williams seemed to be assuming the mantle of Dean Smith, readers of Chansky’s book will notice some resemblance to McGuire, the godfather of the UNC basketball tradition. Although McGuire was tactically unimaginative and ethically tainted, he understood the power of his personality in relating to the media, to the boosters and to his team. Above all, he understood that winning requires good players. To that end, Williams is utterly ferocious in his determination to outwork his rivalsincluding his more businesslike one in Durham, Mike Krzyzewskifor the nation’s top prospects.
Williams doesn’t say this, but his initial refusal to take the UNC job had the effect of putting the school on notice: His existence and self-worth were bigger than the UNC boosters’ opinion of him. After he refused the gig in 2000 (like Achilles staying in his tent in The Iliad), the UNC program went off the rails, and its fans were unmasked as the ordinary, impatient, win-at-all-costs people they were. Although Williams claims he rejected UNC’s first overture simply because he’d promised his star Jayhawk, Nick Collison, that he’d be his coach for four years, the end result three years later was that Williams was able to come to Chapel Hill on his own terms, as a highly paid samurai retained to save a beseiged town. He’d been the object of spiteful treatment by fans of two of the nation’s most storied college basketball programs after he failed to answer their calls, so he now seems to have no illusions: If he stops winning, he’s finished.
Two days after winning the 2005 national championship, Williams was back on the recruiting trail. Following last spring’s triumph, he gave himself an additional day off. This year, his squad is off to a 6-1 start, and Sunday night’s victory over the University of Nevada represented his 600th career victory. This year’s Tar Heel lineup includes the returning Ed Davis, Deon Thompson and Larry Drew, while last year’s casualties Ginyard, Zeller and Will Graves are back, too. This year’s highly touted freshman are John Henson and Dexter Strickland, and next year, there’s an even better kid coming named Harrison Barnes. This is a purportedly a rebuilding year, so that means the team is currently ranked a mere No. 11 in the country in advance of Tuesday night’s nationally televised rematch against that old foe, Michigan State. The tradition continues.