Shortly before boarding a flight to Los Angeles in early August for the Adidas Nations Camp, UMass point guard Chaz Williams received a call he wasn't expecting.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 9: The Atlantic 10
A representative from a Turkish pro team offered Williams the chance to skip his senior year with the Minutemen and begin his pro career overseas. Some brief negotiations soon yielded Williams a contract offer worth $150,000 and an agreement that the team would pay for his mother Diane and three-year-old daughter Cheree to join him in Istanbul as well.
"It seemed like everything he asked for they kept giving to him," Diane Williams said. "He told them, 'My mom and my daughter need to come out here too.' They were like, 'Alright, we'll get plane tickets. He said, 'But where are we going to live?' They said, 'We'll hook your family up with their own flat and they'll have their own personal car.' When he told me all of that, I was like, 'Oh wow.' That was a pretty great offer out of the gate."
Preparing for his final year at UMass had been Williams' sole focus since making a mature decision not to enter the NBA draft three months earlier, but this was a tempting scenario. Whereas NBA officials warned Williams in April he'd likely go undrafted and have to fight his way onto a roster with a strong summer league showing, the offer from the Turkish team guaranteed him financial security and a way to provide for his family.
Williams' mother said her son was initially enthusiastic enough about turning pro that he requested she begin investigating what there was to do in Istanbul and where the best schools were for Cheree. Only after asking the Turkish team to extend its deadline five days did Williams finally reject the offer in late August, opting instead to return to UMass in hopes of making his first NCAA tournament, finishing his degree and putting himself in position to coach one day once his playing career is over.
"I thought about it long and hard," Williams said. "I want my daughter to have the best and I really wanted to provide her with the things I haven't been able to in years past, but I felt like coming back to school would be better. I can set an example for my daughter and finish my degree. And I had unfinished business here. We lost in the first round of the NIT last year. That left a real bitter taste in my mouth and I didn't want to leave on that note."
That Williams returned for his senior year is critical for a UMass program seeking its first NCAA bid since 1998. Williams had led the Minutemen to a pair of NIT appearances since joining the program after one season at Hofstra, but this season probably represents the 5-foot-9 senior's best chance at playing on college basketball's biggest stage.
Unlike last season when Williams averaged 15.5 points and 7.3 assists but had to carry too great a burden after Jesse Morgan's midseason ACL tear, UMass has surrounded its point guard with a capable supporting cast.
Having Western Kentucky transfer Derrick Gordon eligible will ease the pressure on Williams to always create off the dribble because the 6-foot-3 combo guard can share scoring and ball handling duties. Gordon averaged 11.8 points and 6.7 rebounds as a freshman two seasons ago and will likely thrive in an up-tempo system at UMass because of his defensive anticipation and his ability to draw fouls and finish at the rim.
The frontcourt is stocked with experienced veterans, from seniors Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter to juniors Cady Lalanne and Maxie Esho. Poised to make the biggest impact is Lalanne, a 6-foot-10 rim-protecting center who is finally healthy after two injury-plagued seasons and has shed enough weight over the offseason to improve his mobility and explosiveness and avoid picking up quick fouls.
"Knowing we had a great core group of guys coming back helped make Chaz's decision [to return to school] easier than it might have been if we were on a down year," UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. "Nobody wants to go through their senior year and not have a great season. But with Derrick being eligible, a lot of guys coming back and a good group of freshmen coming in, I think everything is in a good position for Chaz to get everything out of this season that he hopes for.
"The icing on the cake would be us having a successful season and him showing everyone around the country he's one of the best point guards in the nation."
The challenge of trying to return UMass to national relevance surely doesn't seem as daunting for Williams when he takes a moment to reflect on what he has already accomplished. First he had to overcome the grief and anger caused by his father's tragic death. Then he had to prove wrong a legion of skeptics who insisted a kid generously listed at 5-foot-9 would never flourish in big-time basketball.
Born into a sports-crazed Brooklyn family, Williams inherited his quickness and athleticism from his mom and his knowledge and passion for sports from his dad. His mother was a standout basketball player and his father used to take him to the park to shoot hoops or hold him in his lap during football, basketball or baseball games and teach him all about the nuances of those sports.
Those lessons abruptly stopped when Williams was nine years old because doctors found a tumor in the back of his dad's brain that was too large to treat. The tumor diminished the elder Williams' memory during the hospital stay that preceded his death, sometimes making it hard for him to distinguish between his own kids.
"That's what rattled Chaz," Diane Williams said. "He went to go see his dad, and his father would call him his little brother's name. Chaz kept saying, 'No, daddy, it's me, Chaz,' but he would not say 'Chaz.' Chaz has hated going to the hospital ever since then."
It took Williams more than a year to consent to playing organized sports again after his dad's death, but the chance to make his father proud drove the young point guard once he returned to basketball at age 11. Doubts about his lack of size gradually melted away after he led Bishop Ford High School to a state championship as a junior, averaged 25.9 points and 6.2 assists as a senior and accumulated enough trophies, plaques and medals to cover the walls in a spare room in his mother's house.
Even now that he's in college, Williams pays homage to his father before every game by tapping his heart and pointing to the sky. It's also a testament to his father that Williams himself is a conscientious dad to Cheree, making the three-hour drive to see her in Brooklyn as often as school and basketball will allow and talking to her via Skype or FaceTime in between to avoid missing any milestones.
Williams' father would surely also be proud of the effort his son has put in this offseason to make sure his final season at UMass is his best yet.
Eager to cut down his turnovers and improve his 33.3 percent 3-point shooting from last season, Williams spent a lot of time this summer watching film in hopes of figuring out what he could do better. He noticed that too often he was trying to draw contact on his jumpers rather than staying with his shot, so he is making an effort to change that during pickup games and practices leading up to the new season.
The other offseason focus for Williams was building the chemistry and camaraderie among his teammates that sometimes was lacking toward the end of last season. He has more faith in the players around him this year and they know him well enough now to understand that his first priority is winning -- not his own stats.
"Team chemistry-wise, talent-wise and depth-wise, I think this is the best team I've been part of since I've been at UMass," Williams said. "We were just a couple plays away from making [the NCAA tournament] the last two years. We're going to do everything possible to make it this year."
If Williams were to make the NCAA tournament next spring, it would be a fitting reward for his decision to remain in school for his senior year despite the tempting offer to turn pro overseas. He could cement his legacy as the most important player at UMass since the days of Marcus Camby and Lou Roe and he could boost his own stock heading into draft season next spring.
Even if UMass falls a win or two short of the NCAA tournament for a third straight season, however, Diane Williams is proud of the decision her son made to return to school. He's on pace to become the first male member of his family to earn his degree this spring, setting him up for a future in coaching once his playing career is over.
"He told me, 'Mom you always taught me that if none of this works out, I need a degree to fall back on,'" Diane Williams said. "I've been arguing with him for years that he's a student-athlete and not an athlete-student, so to hear him say that did my heart good. Sometimes when you talk to your kids, you don't know if they're really listening to you. With his decision, it showed me he has been listening to me all those years."