JERREY ROBERTS UMass student Eric Sullivan holds a sign that implies Chaz Williams' number should be retired along with those hanging from the ceiling of the Mullins Center. Beside Sullivan, Tessa Liberi cheers for Williams during senior night festivities before the Minutemen's loss to Saint Louis March 9.
In Chaz Williams’ mind, the line between success and failure for the University of Massachusetts this season and his entire legacy came down to one accomplishment.
“As a player, I’m definitely trying to make it to the tournament,” Williams said in early November, before the Minutemen had played a game. “If we don’t, my job here hasn’t been completed and I’d be just another basketball player that came to UMass.”
It’s a moot point now. The Minutemen are in the NCAA tournament. They’ll play the winner of a play-in game Friday at 2:45 p.m. in Raleigh, N.C. But Williams was wrong. By no definition could he have ever been just another UMass player.
Whether his career ends Friday or at the Final Four, Williams will leave Amherst as one of the best and most influential players ever to wear a Minuteman uniform.
At some point during the 2014-15 season, probably at the first home game or even the exhibition game, there’s going to be a ceremony at the Mullins Center to unveil UMass’ “2014 NCAA Tournament” banner.
It shouldn’t be the only new banner that comes from the 2013-14 season. Hanging behind it on the far wall should be Williams’ No. 3, joining the retired 32s of Julius Erving and Trigger Burke, Al Skinner’s 30, Lou Roe’s 15 and Marcus Camby’s 21.
That’s impressive company but Williams undoubtedly belongs.
Williams will leave UMass as the best point guard in program history and one of the best players ever to wear a UMass uniform. Despite playing just three seasons, he’ll leave as the program’s career leader in assists (697 and counting) and as one of the top 10 scorers (1,641). Between the baskets he’s scored and those he’s set up, Williams has been directly involved in over 40 percent of the points UMass has scored.
He put up those numbers despite never playing with a single teammate that earned all-conference honors. Defending him has been the focus of every opponent’s game plan over the past three years. Against man-to-man, against zone, against gimmick and junk defenses, against teams willing to run and teams trying to play slow, Williams has found a way to impact games, put up numbers and victories.
“They’re game-planning for him every time out,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said, shaking his head. “You can’t even quantify what he’s done for the program. His numbers are there.”
But his contribution extends well beyond numbers. Williams became the face of the program almost from the moment he became eligible as a sophomore. It’s easy to forget how demanding a role that can be. Fellow students, professors and fans watch his every move. People around campus whisper “hey that’s Chaz Williams” when he walks by. The spotlight might not be as bright in western Massachusetts as it would have been in Kentucky or on Tobacco Road, but it’s a fishbowl nonetheless.
Williams not only handled it, but thrived with it.
“It’s weird cause I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, New York,” Williams said. “Coach Kellogg allowed me to understand that the identity of our team sometimes fits the identity of my character as a person. It’s cool because you realize it’s your energy that people feed off of.”
Teams often take on the personality of the best players or their leaders. Before Williams’ arrival, UMass mirrored the not-especially-outgoing, not-especially-happy Anthony Gurley, who wasn’t a bad kid, but ill-suited for the responsibilities of leadership.
The same combination of passion and joy that made Williams a fan favorite, made him an easy player for his teammates to follow. For most of his life, Williams’ generously listed 5-foot-9 height has caused him to be underrecruited and underrated. That’s driven him to prove people wrong. His teammates have adopted that same “I’ll-show-you” attitude. It’s made them good and the program relevant again.
“He brought a little swagger. He brought confidence to the other guys. His personality is really what changed the program,” Kellogg said. “His charisma and his leadership really carried over to the guys. He’s been able to take that New York charisma and personality and carry it over to the floor.
“Who in the history of the program has done more to change the culture?” Kellogg continued. “He’s changed the culture as much as anybody has. He’s been a guy that’s been the backbone to bring us back to the NCAA tournament and really bring credibility back to the program.”
UMass was fortunate to get and keep Williams. If Tom Pecora didn’t leave Hofstra, Williams might have played his entire career in West Hempstead, N.Y. If Hofstra hadn’t blocked him from transferring to New York City area schools, Williams might be leading a magical revival at St. John’s.
He almost left last summer for a lucrative offer and a chance to start his professional career in Turkey. But he came back, partially to make the NCAA tournament and prove he wasn’t just another player. It wasn’t an easy call. He was coming off a great year. A return meant risking injury or even just a down year that might have damaged his professional prospects and lowered his earning potential.
“You see guys that come back to school that don’t do was well in their senior years and don’t get the same offers that they did,” Williams said. “I just came back and was focused on winning games with my teammates and getting to the tournament.”
They wouldn’t have gotten there without him. Williams didn’t do it alone, but he’s always been the engine.
“I’m really proud. Getting to the tournament was one of the main reasons I came back to school. It was the main thing for me and my teammates,” Williams said. “We worked hard, tremendously this summer. It’s great to see our hard work pay off. But at the same time we still understand that we have work left to do.”
If the Minutemen make any kind of run, Williams could be the latest player to go from unknown nationally to cult hero for a few weeks. During UMass’ deep run in the NIT two years ago, fans raved about him on Twitter during every televised broadcast. The NCAA tournament would give him infinitely more exposure than the NIT ever could.
Even if UMass exits early, Williams’ legacy in Amherst is secure. Now that an NCAA berth proved to himself that he’s not “just another player,” he knew how he wanted to be remembered.
“A tough kid that never liked to lose, that always wanted to win and did everything in his power to win,” said Williams, who offered a rare moment of nostalgia. “It sucks that I’m not going to be here much longer, but I’ll always be here in spirit.”