Marvin Williams Mommas Boy

THM: Marvin Williams, Mama's Boy

Marvin Williams is entirely normal. Which makes him entirely remarkable.

March 2, 2005

Tar Heel Monthly is the premier magazine devoted to the stories and personalities behind UNC athletics. Click here for subscription information.

The following story is the cover story from the March issue of the magazine.

By Adam Lucas

It's the biggest game of the year and Marvin Williams is on the bench. Time is winding down in the championship game, his team is losing, and the fans are growing restless. They shout at the coach.

"Put Marvin in!" they yell. "We need Marvin!"

They know. It is 1996 and they've already seen that this 10-year-old kid named Marvin Williams is better than everyone else on the floor. So what the heck is he doing on the bench? This is the Bremerton rec league championship game! There are three minutes left and we aren't going to win without Marvin.

He never went back in, even when the fans started chanting, in unison, "We want Marvin."

His team lost. At the annual team banquet, the head coach walked to the podium and faced the parents who'd begged for him to play his superstar.

"I want you to know that I heard you telling me to put in Marvin," he says. "I also want you to know that Marvin took himself out of the game."

Took himself out? Of the championship game? Was he hurt, was he tired, was he sick?

None of the above. Late in the fourth quarter, Marvin had come to the bench during a timeout and noticed teammate Justin Robinson in tears.

"What's wrong?" Marvin asked.

"Coach hasn't played me at all in this game," Justin said.

Then the 10-year-old decided to teach his coach, the fans, and even his own mother a lesson. Marvin Williams walked up to his coach and said some very strange words: "Coach, take me out." He explained the situation, and Justin Robinson played the final few minutes of the game while future college star Marvin Williams sat on the bench.

"The coach kind of looked at me funny, but I thanked him for taking me out of the game," Williams says today. "My buddy was crying, and I felt so bad for him.

"It's about having fun. Everybody likes to win but at that point it's just about having fun. I just wanted him to play."


Even before he arrived at last year's McDonald's All-American game in Oklahoma City, Marvin Williams knew he was different. Most of the other 23 players in attendance at that game weren't new to him. He'd played against them during AAU tournaments, had hung out with them during the inevitable down time that surrounds those events. And it hadn't taken him long to realize exactly what people in Chapel Hill began to realize last fall: this Williams kid isn't like other prep basketball superstars.

"I noticed I was different right off the bat," he says. "You meet some real characters at those games. Those guys are so basketball serious. And it shows, because some of them are in the NBA right now. Basketball is something I love and I'm thankful I can do it, but they have a different passion for it. They can play or talk about it all day long, seven days a week. Sometimes I just need a break."

One of the most basic things--and also most flattering things--you can say about Marvin Williams is that he's, well, pretty normal. Sure, there's the freakish athletic ability and tendency to dunk on the heads of unsuspecting opponents, but he doesn't seem impressed by it. One of the first ways he made an impression on Roy Williams was not by shooting or passing. It was by serving.

With his future head coach in the stands, he'd fouled out of an AAU game. This is the time when most prep superstars kick back on the bench. So Williams was just a little taken aback when he noticed the 6-foot-9 prodigy meeting his teammates during timeouts, passing out cups of water for the five players still in the game. The superstar had become a waterboy. This was a player Roy Williams wanted.

Close friend Ian Mateikat, who has known Marvin Williams since high school, isn't surprised.

"We don't really talk about basketball stuff that much, but when I ask him about a game, usually he says, `I did alright. I got a dunk,'" Mateikat says. "I'll say, `Was it on somebody?' and he says, `No, not really.' Then later I'll see the highlights or read about it and find out he dunked all over some guy."

Moving to the other side of the country from Mateikat, Josh Johnson, and Phil Houston--the close circle of friends he'd grown up with in Bremerton, Washington--wasn't easy. The night before Williams left to enroll at Carolina, the quartet went to a Bremerton tattoo parlor and got matching tattoos that included their initials and the words "B-Town's Finest." It was an emotional night.

But that's not the tattoo you'll see Williams touching before he shoots each one of his free throws. Before he releases the ball, he taps his left bicep with his right hand, rubbing his fingers over the word "Andrea." It was his first tattoo, inked when he was just 15 years old. It's on his left arm, but it's the one closest to his heart.

Andrea Gittens is a single mother who has somehow managed to raise three respectful sons while simultaneously holding down a full-time job that pays the bills for everyone in the house. And not just any full-time job. The daily routine until Marvin left for college:

Drop off Andrea at the Washington State Ferry at 6:45 a.m. While Marvin drives the boys to school, their mother takes a one-hour ferry ride from Bremerton to Seattle. The ferry departs at 7:20 a.m. Miss it by even one minute, and the next one doesn't come until 9:00 a.m., which means staying at work two hours later to make up the lost time. Arrive in Seattle at 8:20. Take the 25-minute walk uphill to her bookkeeping job. Leave work at 6 p.m. Take the ferry back to Bremerton. Arrive home--hopefully--by 8 p.m.

Every day.

So it's no wonder that Marvin and brothers Dimitrius (16 years old) and Jaton (13) are more than capable around the house.

"She taught us how to cook and clean and I still do that to this day," Marvin says. "I can get on the stove a little bit."

She could be tough--any sentences directed at her that didn't include "please," "thank you," or "ma'am," were usually met with, "Did I hear you say something? I don't know who you're talking to"--but her boys saw her sacrifices. When Roy Williams gave his team the weekend off just before the season opener against Santa Clara, there was very little doubt where Marvin Williams would spend it. He'd mentioned the open weekend to his mother, but told her there was a good chance a recruit would be in town and he'd need to stay in Chapel Hill for the festivities. But he was simultaneously making plans with his uncle to fly back to Seattle and catch a ride to Bremerton.

Around 11 p.m. West Coast time one November evening, Andrea Gittens got a telephone call from Marvin. "What are you doing?" she asked, well aware that it was 2 a.m. in Chapel Hill.

"Just chilling," he said. He happened to be standing in his mother's kitchen, pawing through the refrigerator, but she was in her bedroom and hadn't heard him yet. He pulled a snack out of the cupboard, hung up the phone, and switched on his mother's bedroom light. Standing there in the suddenly bright room, it could've been Dimitrius, who stands 6-foot-3.

And then she realized it was Marvin.

"I had cried literally for a week when he left," Gittens says. "And when he was standing there, I just screamed. It was the happiest day."

Williams's departure for Carolina was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to play for the Tar Heels. Although he grew up on the West Coast, he was captivated by Dean Smith, by the way teams from Chapel Hill carried themselves with a dignified air. While talking with Mateikat recently, he had a moment of wonder, asking his friend, "Ian, it's so weird. Can you believe I'm actually playing for Carolina?"

He knows the tradition he represents and fits in flawlessly.

"Class is the way you carry yourself," he says. "I like people to act professionally. You have to be classy with Coach Smith here. You don't want to do anything crazy."

When he was younger, his father, Marvin Williams, Sr., would make sure he noticed not just the way Michael Jordan played basketball, but the way he handled himself in post-game interviews. Level-headed. Cool. Classy.

That philosophy extends even to the way Marvin dresses. The team frequently wears suits on the road. But even when suits aren't part of the dress code, Williams checks with Jawad Williams to find out what the senior is wearing. If the elder Williams, who makes a habit of almost always being dressed impeccably, is planning to wear a suit, odds are Marvin Williams will come out of the locker room dressed like he's about to go to a bank meeting.

Odds are, of course, that he'll one day break the bank with his first professional contract. His easygoing nature and ease in meeting new people makes him a natural for Chapel Hill but his expanding shooting range and tenacity around the basket will one day make him a natural for the NBA. There are certain things players are expected to buy when they make the pros: a fancy house, a car with gaudy rims, some fancy stereo equipment. Marvin Williams doesn't seem to care about that.

"We're not really material people," he says. "But my dream in life is to take care of my mom. That's my dream and my brothers' dream. I want her to have a big house, a nice car. She's worked so hard for us all our lives. One day, if she doesn't feel like going to work, I don't want her to go. If she doesn't feel like going to work for a month, don't go. If she never wants to go back, don't go. If she doesn't want to get on that ferry, don't go. Go to the mall, do what she wants, and stay in bed for a week if she wants to."


Cathy Crosslin coached women's basketball at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., for four years in the mid-1990s, spending her days trying to impart some basketball wisdom to her players.

But her best pupil wasn't a player. It was a 13-year-old kid.

Crosslin dated Marvn Williams, Sr., for several years. The couple wasn't affluent, so babysitters weren't an option. Marvin, Jr., tagged along with the pair when Crosslin was coaching the AAU Seattle Magic, and when she was hired at Whitman, he frequently sat on the bench with her.

"I'd give them a play during a timeout and they'd screw it up," she says. "And he'd turn to me and say, `You told them to go here, and they went there. Why didn't they see what I saw?' He'd know what I was going to do even before I did it. He had a coach's mentality even then."

It gave the budding prodigy a unique perspective on the game. While his peers were out playing one-on-one, honing their individual skills, he was learning team principles: finding the open man, playing solid defense, working for a good shot. By the time he was in high school, he wasn't just a talented athlete who happened to be able to put a ball in a hoop. He was a very good basketball player who understood the game at both ends of the court.

The fundamentals had been drilled into him. He'd watched, learned, asked questions. Like most kids, he didn't want to work on his left-hand skills. Crosslin made him a deal: make 10 straight left-handed layups, and we'll stop and get a Blizzard from Dairy Queen on the way home. Before long, he was eating a lot of Blizzards. But the physical preparation hadn't taught him about one small detail.

On the way to his first-ever basketball game, he felt something unfamiliar.

"Cathy, my tummy feels weird," he said.

"Like butterflies?" she asks him.

"Yeah, that's it."

He had no concept of what it meant to be nervous. Almost 20 years later, he still feels those butterflies in warm-ups, but says they disappear as soon as he enters the game.

In a few weeks, he'll play in his first NCAA Tournament, an experience that overwhelmed some Tar Heels last year when they received their first pressure postseason exposure. The level-headed kid from Bremerton isn't likely to be awestruck. At 10.6 points per game, he's on track to become the first Carolina non-starter since Jerry Stackhouse to average double figures.

Until then, he's got classes to attend, people to meet, college life to live. At the Duke-Carolina women's basketball game on Jan. 24, most of his teammates stood in the Smith Center tunnel to watch the game, having learned over the years that any appearance in public is likely to mean hundreds of autographs. Marvin Williams could not be found...until a quick scan of the crowd turned up a suspiciously tall fan sitting in the stands, exchanging high fives with fellow students. His shirt was untucked, his smile was wide. He looked like a college kid having fun.

He looked entirely normal. Which makes him entirely remarkable.
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