Inside Carolina Magazine
INTERVIEW: J.B. Cissell
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins & Getty
hammond Williams completed his high school basketball career at Southside High School in Greenville, S.C. as a virtual unknown in college recruiting circles, but after a year at Fork Union Military Academy he garnered attention from some of the blue bloods of college basketball. At the University of North Carolina, he made one of the most dramatic improvements over the course of his career of any player to pass through the storied program.
He began as an unheralded freshman and finished his senior year as one of “six starters” on the 1997-98 team that advanced to the Final Four for the second consecutive year. When he graduated he held school records with the most three-pointers made in a game (8), season (95), and career (233); he also held the record for the top free-throw percentage for a season (.911) and career (.849). At graduation, he had also garnered accolades as All-ACC Tournament performer twice (including one MVP), two NCAA regional all-tournament teams (including one MVP), two All-ACC teams, and one third-team All-America.
After graduation, he was selected 34th overall in the 1998 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, but never actually played there. Over 13 years he has played NBA ball with Atlanta, Seattle, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, Orlando, and Los Angeles in addition to stints abroad in Turkey, Russia, Spain, Italy, and Cyprus.
When you were a senior at Southside could you have imagined that you would have the basketball career you have had since that point in time?
No, sir. It has been a blessing, by far. It has been great to have basketball as a profession for the past 13 years. It’s something that I would have never thought about because I didn’t even think basketball would have been a profession at that time.
I know you went to Fork Union to attract some attention from college coaches. You ended up at UNC.
Like you said, when I left Southside High School in Greenville I had not one scholarship offer to any university. Once I got to Fork Union after a summer of working on my game and being under the tutelage of Fletcher Arritt, and with God’s blessings, my whole life changed with reference to basketball, having nothing to a scholarship (offer at) institutions all over the United States. More than anything having the opportunity to get a scholarship offer from Coach Smith and Rick Pitino.
I’ve been following UNC basketball informally since the late 1970s and covering the team for Inside Carolina since 1997, and I can’t really remember another player who improved so much from his freshman year to senior year. What kind of feedback did you get from teammates and coaches while you were improving?
My teammates, of course, they respected me. My freshman year, Rasheed (Wallace), Jerry (Stackhouse), and Jeff (McInnis), we came out of high school together so we had played against each other on the summer circuit. We knew of each other, but I didn’t have the accolades that they had. I came the year after, and I spent a lot of time with Jerry. He and I used to spend extra time in the gym competing against each other and playing. That was something I continued to do because I wanted to be a good basketball player at the University of North Carolina.
My sophomore year I continued to work and spend time in the gym. My teammates saw the work ethic that I had, and once I had the opportunity to apply it to the court more my sophomore year my teammates supported me. They knew the work that I had put in so they see what you are doing and see the time you are spending. They were appreciative because they knew I was a team player and more than anything else I wanted to win.
The 1997 ACC Tournament seemed to be a validating moment for you with the MVP. Where does that rank during your time at Carolina?
That was probably the best accolade during my Carolina career. Like you said, it showed that people appreciated me and saw what I meant to my team. It just felt good to be appreciated.
One of the low points of your career had to be during a road game at Virginia. There are lots of rumors about what happened. Can you share what happened and what lessons, if any, you took from that experience?
Well, to be honest it wasn’t a low point for me. I feel, even to this day, the perception of what happened—I wouldn’t have changed what I did or how I acted. I’ve never been an individual to have any altercations with anyone. I’ve never been disrespectful to anyone, and I live my life like that, as Christian-like as I possibly can and I always have. Even though it may have cost me first team All-ACC or those kinds of things, I wouldn’t change the person I am, I wouldn’t change the person that I was that day, and I wouldn’t have changed what I did that day because I know in my heart and my teammates know that it was just a misunderstanding at the time, but there is nothing I would go back and change.
If I were to change anything about my college career, it is that I wish I won a national championship, but it wouldn’t have been that situation at Virginia. For me, that wasn’t a low point. People that know me, that are affiliated with the basketball program and people that have been around the Smith Center for years know the type of person I am. I try not to regret any of my actions; my actions maybe didn’t warrant what happened, but that is in hindsight. God has given me the strength to continue on and not harbor the issues that took place that day.
What has been the high point of your professional career?
The high point of my professional career? I think just being drafted because once you get into your career and start playing it is pretty much basketball and you know what you are capable of as a basketball player. I just think being drafted was the highest point of my NBA career because it validated that my skills and hard work and the things I had endured as an athlete had put me in a position that someone felt I could help their team.
Tell me how being part of the Carolina basketball family has impacted your career since you left college?
It hasn’t impacted my career much as a professional athlete, but it impacts me when I’m out in the community and I run across someone who has graduated from the University of North Carolina. I treat them as family because the Carolina family extends far beyond just the immediate family consisting of the guys in the Smith Center. As for my playing career, it has been more affected by interacting with people who were in school with me at the same time or prior, just dealing with alumni and showing them how much I appreciated them. I just felt like a student who had the opportunity to play basketball. I wanted them to know that just as much as they appreciated me, I appreciated them, because those were the people I did it for.
It’s a tradition for the professional players to come back during the summer and compete against the current team at UNC. What was that like for you when you were a player at Carolina, and what is it like now that you are one of the veterans pushing the current players?
When I was in school, it was great to have Hubert Davis, Rick Fox, Michael Jordan, and those guys to come in and play against us and spend time with us. A person like me, I just wanted to acquire the knowledge they had and learn from things they had encountered to help me become the player I wanted to be. You had players like King Rice, Brian Reese, Derrick Phelps, come back, and for me, I just wanted to gain as much knowledge to become the best basketball player I could be. It was great.
I owe a lot to Hubert Davis for the time he spent with me, giving me advice about shooting, letting me shoot with him. Words cannot even explain how much—even though it may have seemed so small to him—it meant to me. With him doing that, it was a no-brainer for me to come back and always give my time, especially summer time, with playing, giving advice, whatever these kids need to help them become better student-athletes.
That’s what Coach Smith wanted. That’s something that he instilled in his players to do if they had the time. It made so much of an impact on my career. I feel like I owe it to everyone that I can possibly reach out to in any aspect of their professional career or their career as a student-athlete. That’s what makes us Carolina Basketball.
From what I know about the pickup games, it sounds like you not only show current players what it’s like to be a pro through actions but you encourage them and coach them on how to get better in the moment. It sounds almost as if you are a coach out there.
Being a point guard, you kind of have to be the coach on the floor. That is something that I’m interested in. I have aspirations of being a basketball coach on the collegiate level, maybe the NBA level. While we are playing I try to give the kids all the knowledge that I possibly can give them. I want the best for all the kids that play [at UNC]. If there are 20 spots in the NBA Draft and we have 20 kids with aspirations of playing in the NBA, I want all 20 of these kids to be drafted. The best things I can do is give them the information that will separate them from the next athlete. It’s tough—the NBA is a business and you have to have a lot of skill. What separates guys that are similar in skill? It’s I.Q. If you have the basketball I.Q., that will give you an advantage. I want my kids—I call them my kids—I want the kids here at Carolina to have an advantage. Not everyone can grow up in a household with a father that plays professional basketball, but I feel like they are my little brothers. So if you have a brother that plays professional basketball, that is the next-best thing. Even though you only get to be around them in the summer time, during that time I’m trying to give them all the insight possible so once they leave Carolina they will be in a position to excel.
You touched on my next question about getting into coaching. What is your plan for getting into coaching? What are your plans for your immediate future?
Last year I was trying to decide if I wanted to continue playing basketball or not, and I went back and started playing in January. When I left in January I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time around here (Chapel Hill) and spend time with the kids. If someone needed help, then I was there. This summer I spent a lot of time on the AAU circuit trying to get familiar with kids and get familiar with collegiate coaching.
What I began to find is that there is a perception that professional athletes want to coach after they can’t play anymore. Even though I have the ability to continue playing, I felt like if I continue playing this year then people may not take me seriously about coaching. Once they are making decisions about [building] a coaching staff I would be playing. I have taken the approach that I’m not going to play anymore with aspirations of putting myself in a position to be in consideration for someone’s staff once that position opens in April.
I’m trying to do all the leg work (now). I’m learning, I’m visiting other institutions and watching how they practice. I’m watching AAU basketball, I’m watching high school basketball. If I’m afforded the opportunity, the things I might not know administratively I can most definitely offset that with my knowledge as a professional athlete for 13 years and my ability to get kids to respond to me and listen to me, in addition to being a professional athlete that kids can recognize. A lot of times they are willing to listen and try to emulate the things that you do with the hope of being able to reach the goals you have obtained in the past.
How much will being part of the Carolina family help you in getting into coaching?
It helps a lot. I’m not saying that it will get me a job, but it helps me being part of the Carolina family because I am able to come in and watch practice, I’m able to ask Coach Williams about certain things. I have my perception of things, and I ask him his perspective. I’m able to be around the greatest institution when it comes to basketball. I’m sitting here talking to you, and I’m going to be in on practice this afternoon. I’m able to talk with Coach (Roy Williams), Coach (Steve) Robinson, Coach (Joe) Holladay and just try to understand different aspects of coaching. If I had not been part of the Carolina family I wouldn’t have this access to practice or to even playing against the kids. That opportunity wouldn’t be afforded to me. I’m extremely thankful to be able to be this close to learn and watch how Coach Williams runs practice, talk to him about how he recruits. Getting information from someone who has achieved the things he has—you can’t take that lightly. You can’t take that lightly. Lots of people are dying to be able to ask him questions. Even if I don’t get a job because someone from Carolina is the head coach somewhere else, this information I’m getting from Coach Williams (and access to the program) is valuable to me. I’ve never been opposed to hard work, so for me to have to lay the ground work and do some leg work now—that’s Shammond Williams. The most important thing is having the ability to learn, apply it to myself and hopefully make me be the best assistant coach and one day be the best head coach that I can possibly be.
Have you had any discussions with guys you played with about getting into coaching, and what response did you get? Anyone in particular you are close to?
Well, I’m close with all my teammates. I would say that Makhtar Ndiaye is probably my biggest advocate.
Even when we were in college they always called me ‘Coach.’ If something was going on, like in overtime, my teammates made sure that I had the basketball. They understood and believed in my thought process and ability to do certain things. Even now, guys that I played with—Vasco Evtimov, Vince (Carter), Antawn (Jamison), those guys looked to me for guidance in certain areas. I’ve always been that type of individual.
I have discussed it with my teammates. They always say, ‘Shammond, when are you going to start coaching?’ Everybody asks me that. I do have aspirations to coach; I have always had aspirations to coach. I’ve always felt like that was my job in the summertime to help these kids. I can’t stop it. It’s just part of me wanting to help. I feel like if you are informed and you are preparing the right way the sky is the limit.
I’m selfish. I want the sky to be the limit for all of the guys that go to Carolina. If they don’t obtain [their goals] it hurts me just as much as it hurts them.