Ex-Tar Heel hopes to embody Dean Smith

Donald Williams paused for a brief moment, seemingly reflecting on 20-year-old memories.

It wasn’t easy for him to fully express the enormity of his former mentor’s impact. It wasn’t easy to condense Dean Smith’s teachings into just a few words.

“I could write a book about it,” Williams said, “as far as teaching the game of basketball, how to play it the right way, about being a student athlete, as far as being disciplined, your integrity, everything … He taught me.”

Williams, 39, is two decades removed from winning the 1993 NCAA basketball championship as a starting guard for North Carolina, and still he finds himself revisiting the lessons he learned from coach Smith.

Now a coach himself, Williams has mentored young players through his Donald Williams Basketball Academy, in the AAU circuit and at various high schools around the Triangle for the last 10 years, and at each and every stop, he’s tried to spread Smith’s teachings.

He is set to begin his first season as men’s basketball coach at Northwood High School in Pittsboro this fall, and he said he’ll look to instill the Dean Smith method — both on and off the hardwood.

Off the court

Aumad Walker, a 17-year-old senior at Northwood, hadn’t been born when the Tar Heels won their championship in 1993.

Everything he knew about Williams he had heard through word of mouth, so when he and his teammates met Williams two weeks ago, they were surprised at what they learned.

“He talked about how he is going to put academics before athletics,” Walker said. “Everybody knew about the athletics thing since he went to Carolina.

“But they didn’t know how smart he was.”

Given who Williams’ teacher was, that academic focus shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.

Williams said Smith stressed the importance of being a well-rounded individual, not just a basketball player. That balance becomes even more imperative at the high school level.

“At this level, I think that’s what it’s more about. It’s more about the academics and the scholar part of it,” said Williams, who said he hopes to be a college coach someday. “To represent your school and community, you have to have good grades.

“I don’t want kids to just go to school and try to play basketball, because life is not like that.”

On the court

Smith also taught Williams a thing or two about winning basketball games, and that’s something Northwood athletic director Jason Amy found highly appealing during the hiring process.

After former coach Russ Frazier left for Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, Amy said the focus was on bringing in someone who could be both a head coach and a physical education teacher.

Then word spread that Williams was potentially interested in a head coaching position, and the plan changed.

“When I heard that, I was all on that one,” Amy said, laughing. “We hopped on that quick.”

Williams will commute to Northwood from Garner Magnet High School in Raleigh, where he is a teaching assistant.

He won’t be able to fulfill the P.E. teaching role at Northwood at this time, but that is more than fine for Amy. He said he believes Williams can reverse Northwood’s athletic fortunes.

The Chargers have been on the cusp of glory for the last four years, reaching the 2-A championship game twice but falling short each time. In fact, Northwood hasn’t yet won a championship in its 40-year history.

Amy said Williams could take the Chargers to that next level.

“I feel like with the talent that we have and the leadership, the sky’s the limit,” Amy said. “The kids got to buy into it, but I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to buy into a system that’s obviously pretty proven.

“He’s got so much experience … He’s got a lot of background from different organizations that he’s learned over the years.”

Putting it together

Williams earned most-outstanding player honors in that 1993 NCAA Tournament win, and in his 10-year playing career in Europe, he was part of three more championship-winning teams.

He said he wants to teach the Northwood basketball players the preparation skills and focus required to be a championship-caliber team.

But, again, that’s just one aspect of a loftier goal — just like it was for Dean Smith.

“Everyone who left Carolina became a better man once he left there,” Williams said.

“So that’s my intention: Once you leave Northwood High School, I want you to be a better person.”

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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