Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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Williams earns his next big opportunity

Brian T. Smith: Commentary

The Columbian
Published:

Monty Williams’ time appears to have finally arrived.

After declining an opportunity during three out of the last five years to trade the title of Portland Trail Blazers assistant coach for a bigger name and larger role, Williams was offered a multi-year contract by New Orleans on Friday evening to become the Hornets’ next head coach.

The deal is not finalized and numbers are still being worked out. But Williams’ impending move to New Orleans is all but final.

“I would expect it to be done early next week,” said Williams’ agent, Steve Kauffman.

As of Friday afternoon, Williams was still running second to Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau. But while Thibodeau took his sweet time making a major decision, the Hornets kept a close eye on Williams. And when Thibodeau began favoring open jobs with more cachet and brighter lights, New Orleans pounced, afraid that Williams would soon be lured away by other teams in need.

Now, a top-heavy domino — one of many likely to fall in the coming months, affecting players and coaches alike, and rearranging a multitude of NBA rosters and lineup cards — has moved forward.

And Williams is finally getting the opportunity he has long deserved.

“I think he’s ready for this,” Blazers head coach Nate McMillan said Friday afternoon, prior to the news of New Orleans’ offer to Williams.

Just hours before receiving the honor, Williams said he was embarrassed by the attention his name was receiving.

Flattered, yes. Honored, without question.

But after Williams saw and heard his name linked over and over during recent days as a primary candidate for the Hornets job, he acknowledged that he was more than a little uncomfortable with the sudden notoriety.

Emphasis on sudden.

Suddenly, Williams was receiving phone calls from people he had never spoken with before. Text messages from inquisitors who wanted the good word and the scoop.

By Thursday, the overwhelmingly modest and down-to-earth Williams — whose religious faith guides him, and who regularly references Bible quotes that inspire him — needed space.

“I had to catch my breath,” Williams, 38, said. “Everybody was calling me and said I had the job.”

Thing is, Williams did not. As of Friday afternoon, the right to coach Chris Paul’s Hornets was still in the hands of Thibodeau, leaving Cool Hand Williams to sit and wait.

Which is exactly what he was doing Friday afternoon.

One of the hottest and most desired coaching names in the league was killing time, waiting to pick up his children from school. He also was thinking about his wife, Ingrid Williams, who is eight months pregnant with the family’s fifth child. And his church group. And the regional community that he and his family love.

The quiet time and a few precious minutes away from everything pressing, immediate and rumor-filled provided Williams with an open window.

One in which he could look out and see an undetermined, unwritten, exciting future.

One in which he could also look back on five years spent working with McMillan, lead assistant Dean Demopoulos, and general manager Kevin Pritchard as they reshaped and reformed the Blazers, turning the franchise from one of the weakest in professional sports into one of the strongest.

“The first year was tough,” Williams said. “But the last four years, I really understood right from the jump that this was a special place. And that if I ever have to leave, it’ll be tough.”

Williams then spent several minutes emphasizing just how tough.

To the Notre Dame graduate who spent nine years playing in the NBA, Portland possesses a collection of young talent that is unlike any he has ever had the privilege of coaching.

Then there are the Blazer-based bonds that Williams has formed.

When Brandon Roy took the court with fluid in his knee, Williams was unable to sleep.

When Martell Webster was unhappy or unsure, Williams worried and wondered.

And when Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw were exchanged for Marcus Camby last season, Williams was on the verge of tears.

Which is what makes Williams so special — and so desired in the NBA. Because the same man who notices and feels everything around him is also widely known for being the one Blazer who could out-Sarge Sarge.

“A guy has to really love you to tell you the truth,” Williams said of his relationship with McMillan.

He added: “The coaches who bothered me the most when I was playing were the ones who told me everything was OK, when it wasn’t.”

Williams’ unshakable combination of honesty, loyalty and commitment are what first drew the eye of McMillan five years ago. Williams was young and largely unproven. But after playing for Pat Riley in New York and coaching under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, he had learned the game from two of the best to ever walk the sideline.

Five years later, Williams referred to McMillan as one of the most influential people in his life.

“Nate has never straddled the line,” Williams said. “It’s not like he came in with a machine gun and started blowing people away. But he’s always been the guy who says, ‘Hey, Mont: don’t do that.’ Or ‘Look, let’s do this better.’ You don’t get that from a lot of people in the world we live in.”

In a league mostly filled with and surrounded by yes men, you also do not find many like Williams.

McMillan said Williams is a mentor. Someone whose devotion to and time spent working with young talent is unparalleled. A demanding coach who — much like McMillan — will push and pull as hard as possible. However, Williams is still close enough to the game and the millionaires who play it to know exactly when to walk over, reach out and listen.

“When I’m hard, he does a good job of making the read,” McMillan said. “And not that he’s soft on the guys — he just pulls the guys on the side and explains it to them in a different way.”

Now, Williams has likely coached his last game as a Blazer.

If he leaves, he will unquestionably have left a lasting mark. Meanwhile, Rip City will always have a spot in Williams’ heart.

“I’ve never been in a city where the assistant coaches get treated like I get treated,” Williams said. “I don’t take it for granted.”

Brian T. Smith covers the Trail Blazers for The Columbian. Contact him at 360-735-4528 or brian.smith@columbian.com. Read his Blazer Banter blog at columbian.com/blazerbanter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/blazerbanter

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