Republished from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. June 25, 2011
The Beast was upset.
Just hours after a loss to Compton High in 2007, the La Mirada (Calif.) High School boys’ basketball team went to In-N-Out Burger for a postgame meal. Among them was a tearful Derrick Williams.
By all accounts, he should have been happy with his performance. The sophomore put up 23 points and 12 rebounds against Compton and a highly touted recruit named DeMar DeRozan.
Williams, however, couldn’t shake the fact that La Mirada let one slip away. So when assistant coach Charlie Torres asked him why he was crying, Williams had one response.
“He kept telling me, ‘I want to play. Let’s go play,’ ” said Torres, now the La Mirada interim head coach. “So at 1:30 in the morning, we all went to 24-Hour Fitness and played until 3. He just wanted to make a name for himself. He wanted to be on the map, and look at him now.”
Much has been written about Williams’ improbable ascent, how an unheralded high schooler absent from most national top-100 lists blossomed into the Pacific-10 Player of the Year at Arizona and became the No. 2 overall pick by the Timberwolves in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Four years removed from that late-night excursion, Williams has more than entered the map; he’s stomped on to the national scene.
Torres fondly remembers working with Williams in the La Mirada gym for hours after practice, propping doors open with bottle caps to get in extra time. When Williams was a junior playing AAU basketball, he began calling Torres to let him know about open gyms in the area.
At that moment, Torres realized the potential for greatness unfolding before his eyes.
“Derrick’s the most coachable, most responsible kid I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” said Torres, who was in attendance to see his pupil and friend drafted Thursday in Newark, N.J. “I knew I created a monster.”
But at his introductory news conference Friday, Williams was calm and soft-spoken, displaying the family-centric values learned from his mother while he prepares to, as Wolves President of Basketball Operations David Kahn said, join a new “family.”
“He’s a very humble young man who loves to have fun,” said Rhoma Moore, her son’s No. 7 Wolves jersey draped across her body. “But when he’s on the court, he’s totally the opposite. He’s considered ‘the Beast’ by his friends.”
Cameron Gillett, a former teammate, had died in a car accident at age 21. Realizing the opportunity to use his newfound celebrity status to help, Williams dropped everything and flew home. In a week, he organized a charity basketball game to help defray funeral costs.
“Just being that big in my city, I knew I had to do something,” Williams said. “That was a terrible experience and it was a tragic moment for all of us, but he loved basketball, and I felt like doing that was the best thing.”
Though Williams didn’t play in the game, the event raised $8,000 for the Gillett family.
“That’s just the type of person Derrick is,” sister Latoni Moore said. “He’s going to try to help in any way possible. For him to do that and for it to be as big as it was, it says that he’s a good person and he has a good heart.”
After Friday’s news conference, Williams sat on the stage, dangling his feet off the edge. When asked about the importance of staying grounded, especially given the expectations associated with helping turn around a 17-victory franchise, he glanced at his mother, sister and niece sitting nearby.
“You always want to stick with the people who knew you before you became a star,” he said. “Those are your true friends, the ones who don’t worry about D-Will the basketball player but who worry about Derrick Williams, the one they met before. Whenever you have friends like that, it really keeps you humble.”
News of the Wolves drafting Williams reached his friends in La Mirada during high school graduation Thursday. When the principal announced the Wolves’ selection, 8,000 attendees at the football stadium erupted into applause.
Among the crowd there was Richie Estrella, a lifelong friend and former teammate. Unable to make it to the draft, he instead called Williams last week, reminding him that, no matter the sponsorships or the contracts or the fame, the friends back home were there to stay.
“When he would come home, we’d play at the gym for 3 hours a night, and after Derrick would go home to be with his family,” said Estrella, now a rising senior at Pepperdine. “It was really weird, because you would think that a guy with that much celebrity power would want to go live it up and take advantage of his fame.
“That he didn’t do that says it all.”