The sun has barely been up in Texas and T.J. Williams is already at work – but not on a basketball court. That comes later, when most of his peers are just getting out of bed.
Williams wakes up at 6:30 am to bike down to the Villages of Hidden Lake. He needs ample time to circle the lake twice, a 3-and-a-half mile distance.
On a good day, the future point guard for 14-seed Northeastern basketball, will then ride the hills, pumping on his pedals until he feels his calves burn.
Then it’s time to hit the court. Williams will be early for his team’s morning practice and the last to leave practice after school but he likes it that way.
It’s all he’s known since the third grade.
“You always want to be the first person in the gym and the last person to leave the gym,” says Williams, a sophomore whose Huskies will take on three-seed Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament second round on Thursday, looking back on the training regiment of his childhood. “I know that I would always be the last one to leave.”
When all of his teammates have left, one person joins Williams in the gym. Tim Williams can’t always make it with work but he has been his son’s most consistent coach.
When Williams got his first letter of interest from a college – in eighth grade – his father kept him humble by making him practice twice as hard.
“When I realized he was going to be pretty good, I started working him out every weekend and I would take him to the gym after I got work,” Tim says.
Every day wasn’t easy for the father and son but even when his son lashed out, Tim knew his son would one day understand.
He knew that his son had the potential to be a starting point guard at a Division I school.
Tim Williams’ passion has always been basketball but the Louisiana native got his college opportunity on the baseball diamond. After playing at Houston-Tillotson, Tim spent about five years playing in professional softball tournaments.
He still thinks that with the right mentor, his path could have led to a parquet court.
“Had I had somebody to push me, to give me that extra push, there’s no telling where I could have been,” Tim says. “Since I didn’t have that, I wanted to make sure I didn’t shortchange my son.”
Tim saw the signs of potential when his son was assigned to play with fourth graders as a third grader. From there on most vacations were spent traveling as far as San Diego – anything to get Williams into the best basketball camps possible. Weekends were spent in 24-hour fitness.
“Everyday was not a good day between T.J. and myself,” Tim reflects. “There was days he didn’t want to go and he didn’t understand why I was pushing him so hard.”
When Williams’ middle school friends invited him to sleep-overs, he had to decline because he risked missing a morning workout.
“It was very hard,” says Williams. “I didn’t understand some of the things that I was doing was going to get me to where I would want to be later on in life.
“…I was living the basketball life at a young age and it felt like a job to me almost but I didn’t really realize it at the time.”
One might think the pressure would relent when Williams got a letter of interest from Texas A&M in the eighth grade. But Tim knew the letters would stop coming for his undersized son if he let up.
In fact, high school meant it was time for Williams to clamp down more – even if it meant distancing himself from childhood friends.
“There are going to be some people that you’re going to be dealing with and if you’re going to reach the next level, you’re going to have to distance yourself from them,” Tim told his son in high school. “There are things that they’re doing and you’re doing that aren’t the same.
“Your common going and their common going is not the same.”
Soon, T.J. Williams was waking up in the morning to workout by himself. He implemented the hills and the bike riding into the workouts without his father.
Williams’ peak physical condition led to success on the court.
After an injury-plagued junior year, Williams averaged 17 points per game on 48-percent shooting and led Pflugerville to a district championship.
But college is a whole different ball game.
Northeastern Coach Bill Coen says there are three sides to a basketball player’s transition from high school to college; the new home, the added mental load and the higher level of weight training and conditioning.
Williams was more than ready on the latter of the three. After starting high school at 5-foot-6, the point guard entered Northeastern at 6-foot-3 and 203 pounds.
“He got his body up on his own by going to the gym and lifting weights so that when he stepped on to Northeastern’s campus, he didn’t look like the same T.J.,” Tim says.
It didn’t take long for Williams to make his presence known in his freshman campaign. After scoring 10 points in a nationally televised 63-56 win against basketball power Georgetown, the guard was promoted to the starting lineup.
“His entire freshman campaign built to his last six weeks where he really, in that point in time, got comfortable with himself, got comfortable with his teammates, got comfortable with the system and got comfortable with the level,” says Coen.
Williams ended the year with averages of 6.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, sufficient enough to earn him a spot on the CAA All-Rookie Team.
The award was a sign that his childhood training — that would make many high school athletes shudder — was for good reason.
When the 2014 season ended, Williams was faced with a decision: go home to see his hometown friends or stay on-campus to workout with the team.
He knew the jump from freshman to sophomore year is crucial for a basketball player. But the lure of seeing your family and high school friends could change any 20-year-old’s mind. As always, his father pushed him to take his training up a notch.
“Some of those same people you went to high school with, they won’t even be a part of your life once you grow up,” Tim says referring to their talk in the summer. “You’re going to lose people along the way. I don’t need you to come home this summer. Stay up there, get an education and work on your game and that’s going to benefit you more.”
It has clearly paid dividends.
Williams finished second on the team in assists (3.2 apg), while averaging 9.7 points, shooting .457 from the field and .346 from behind the arc.
While most of his high school friends were partying on New Year’s Eve, Williams scored a career-high 20 points and had six assists and six rebounds against Richmond.
The performance was enough to get him CAA Player of the Week honors.
“There’s been some great point guards out there from J.J. Barea to Chaisson Allen to Jon Lee and those guys, all different styles, but they all took command of the game,” Coen says of the torch that has been passed down from recent Northeastern point guards. “I think TJ is just taking that edge where when you watch the game, you begin to notice him more.”
Coen and Williams credit part of his growth to the summer workouts. His effort in the off-season even caught the attention of an “old” Northeastern star.
“The way he makes plays for his teammates and gets them shots and he doesn’t give up on the defensive end as well,” says former Husky Joel Smith, now with the Mexican team Ultimas Noticias. “He’s got a big heart for the game and just goes after it.”
But Williams also credits his father’s constant pressure and guidance.
“I can look back and say that’s why I did that because this is why I’m here — I put in all that extra time,” Williams says.
Like any father, Tim is extremely proud of his son’s early success but it didn’t take a Player of the Week award to make that happen. He could sense his son’s growth when T.J. called him in the summer and told him thank you.
“The thing that I’m most proud of is that even when he didn’t believe what I was putting him through was for a reason, I’m most proud of that I had an opportunity for him to tell me he understands,” Tim says of his son. “Everything I was trying to tell him, he understands.”
According to Tim, the extra time on the court was never about the game.
“He’s playing basketball and that’s important right now,” Tim says. “But I want him to be a good person that’s playing basketball rather than a person who’s playing basketball that’s not a good person.”
Photographs by Sam Perkins