Marvin Williams needed a car. Projected to go either first or second in tomorrow's NBA draft, the freshman standout from North Carolina's national championship team had places to go and things to do while training this summer in Chapel Hill. He didn't want to rely on his own two sneakers or the kindness of friends.
Williams e-mailed his attorney, Jim Tanner, and within a few days, had a silver Hummer H2 with black leather interior. It was the right car for a teenager about to become a multimillionaire. It was the wrong car for Williams, a small-town kid from Bremerton, Wash., who usually chooses sensibility over showing off.
Williams test-drove his flashy ride for the past month but recently handed back the keys before heading to New York for the draft. To the 19-year-old, the oversized sport-utility vehicle -- the essential vehicle in many NBA driveways -- was like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly, effective but unnecessary. "Marvin is real low-key. He said he liked it, but he probably won't buy one," his father, Marvin Sr., said in a recent phone interview.
Williams's unassuming nature is not an act. How many sure-fire lottery picks delay NBA riches to attend college because they feel the need to grow up? How many McDonald's all-Americans have no problem coming off the bench if it means it will help the team win? And how many certain top-five picks sleep on a futon in a teammate's apartment while preparing for the draft?
Marvin Williams can raise his hand for all three. This is the same Williams who sported a "Lion King" backpack through four years of high school, read "Harry Potter" books on AAU basketball road trips and got downright giddy when he discovered his AAU practices were moved to the early morning and wouldn't conflict with "Rugrats."
"I'll forever be a kid, no question, no matter where I'm at. I'll still watch cartoons. I still like to have fun. That's just me," said Williams, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward who chose to prepare for the draft in Chapel Hill instead of following his teammates to more lively outposts such as Chicago and Los Angeles.
"I think he's motivated by success, motivated by winning and he's highly competitive, but those are things that will remain on the court. I think off the court, he's going to remain who he is, which is a very humble, mannerly, family-oriented person," said Tanner, a partner at Williams & Connolly, the same firm which represents other too-good-to-be-true players Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Ray Allen and Shane Battier.
If the Milwaukee Bucks take Utah center Andrew Bogut with the No. 1 pick, Williams isn't expected to slip past the Atlanta Hawks at No. 2. Some may wonder how a player who didn't start for his college team and averaged a mere 11.3 points per game could become arguably the best player in the draft. But in a draft where youth is coveted and potential is intriguing, Williams is exactly what the NBA wants -- a player oozing in upside and the unknown.
"You're not looking at a finished product when you look at Marvin Williams," said Hawks General Manager Billy Knight, who will gladly pounce on Williams if the Bucks pass on him. "You're looking at a young prospect who is going to get better and improve. I think he's got a ways to go. He just turned 19. Sure, we need a point [guard], we need a center, but we need basketball players, period. I like talented players. I'm still taking the best player that I can find."
Pro scouts have been aware of Williams's talent since he was in high school, when some thought he was the best player in a class that included Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson and Josh Smith. Williams was given assurances that he would be a top-10 pick last year after averaging 28.7 points, 15.5 rebounds, 5 blocks and 5 assists at Bremerton High School but opted for North Carolina. "Going to the pros out of high school was something I wasn't so keen on," he said recently. "It helped; I got better as a basketball player and a person. I've improved in a lot of areas."
In one season at North Carolina, Williams backed up Sean May, another projected lottery pick, and Jawad Williams but he was always on the court when the game mattered. Williams showcased his skills in his first two games of the NCAA tournament, when he scored 40 points with 23 rebounds. He displayed his length and athleticism when he rose above everyone on the floor for the left-handed, game-winning tip of Rashad McCants's miss late in the Tar Heels' 75-70 win against Illinois in the national championship game.
"I think Marvin's got superstar potential," one Eastern Conference executive said on condition of anonymity. "If you look at his stats, if he had played as much as the other guys, he probably would've been the leading scorer on the squad, the leading rebounder. With his body, he can be a more athletic Antoine Walker. He can be an all-star for years and years. I think he will be able to come in and help right away. He's too talented not to do it."
Those familiar with Williams weren't surprised that he was willing to put the team before himself at North Carolina. As a 10-year-old playing Little League baseball, Williams went to the bench late in a game that his team eventually lost. While Williams sat, the other parents became enraged, begging the coach to put him back in the game. It was later revealed at the team banquet that Williams had pulled himself from the game when one of his teammates began crying on the bench because he didn't get to play. "That's how Marvin is, that's my Marvin," said his mother, Andrea Gittens. "He's always been like that."
Marvin Sr. recalls a time when his son asked him for some money in high school and he gave him $100. His son kept $20 and gave the rest to his mother and brother. "Some kids would've kept the money and wouldn't say nothing," he said.
Williams and his two younger brothers, Demetrius and J-Tonn, were raised by Gittens. Their parents separated when Marvin Jr. was an infant, but he stayed close to both. Marvin Sr. introduced his son to basketball in the basement of his apartment during weekend visits when his son was just 4. A native of Wallace, N.C., Marvin Sr. claims to have played pickup games against Michael Jordan, grew up a Tar Heels fan and used to show his son tapes of their games.
Marvin Sr., a former junior college player, said he dominated his son in one-on-one games until the younger Williams turned 12 and finally beat dad, 11-0. "I was the teacher. After a while I felt like the student," said Marvin Sr., who moved back to Wallace when his son attended college and will live with him during his rookie season.
In his father, Williams discovered basketball. In basketball, he discovered the means to take care of his mother. Williams said his mother was his inspiration for declaring for the draft. Gittens would wake up at 5 every morning to take a two-hour ferry ride to Seattle, where she worked as a bookkeeper. She would return every night around 8 p.m., tired and worn. Williams hated to see his mother struggle and took a job bagging groceries to help support the family.
"He worries about me more than I worry about him," said Gittens, who has also needed back surgery for about five years. "He's taken the role of, 'I'm going to take care of you, Mom.' I've taken care of my boys all by myself all this time. I guess they've seen me struggle so long. I'd be crying when I'd get home because I couldn't pay this bill or that bill. He'd say, 'Don't worry, Mom, just give me a few more years.' "
The wait is almost over. "My whole life I've looked forward to taking care of my family, and that's what I'll do," Williams said. "I'm not really a material guy. I don't need three cars and two houses. One house is fine. One car is fine. One TV is fine. I'll be fine."
The only getaway Williams afforded himself the past few months was surprising Gittens with a visit on Mother's Day. He spent his birthday -- June 19 -- working out for the Milwaukee Bucks. The self-described "boring" guy said he had nothing to do anyway, and that he was pleased when the Bucks presented him with a birthday cake. "The cake was good, too," Williams said.
Gittens has already started looking for a new spacious home in Bremerton, a seaport town she said she will never leave. But Williams doesn't know what he'll buy his father. He asked him if he wanted a new car.
"I said, I don't need all that," Marvin Sr. said. "He said, 'Me neither. I don't really like all that stuff.' "