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The ‘essence’ of Monty Williams’s coaching style began with his high school coach

Coach Monty Williams has combined with Devin Booker and Chris Paul to lead the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

A previous version of this article incorrectly indicated that Austin Carr played for Digger Phelps at Notre Dame. The article has been corrected.

Monty Williams barely had enough time to process what had just occurred. In his second season as head coach, Williams led the Phoenix Suns from the lottery and back to the NBA Finals for the first time in 28 years. And just moments after he donned the commemorative hat and T-shirt, here he was, wearing a headset, using the same calm, measured tone that has always served him well, explaining to ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt what it all meant.

“The essence of my coaching is to serve,” Williams said, tapping into the broader affect of his accomplishment.

Taft Hickman was watching from his home in Upper Marlboro, Md., so pumped from the accomplishment of his former player that he wouldn’t fall asleep until around 3:30 a.m. Hickman watches every Suns game intently, taking note of players’ tendencies and listening to what cameras capture Williams saying in the huddle. During a game this postseason, Williams was caught telling his players that he loved them. Hickman said he always did the same with his teams, reminding them that even while he was demanding, he cared.

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The player-coach relationship has evolved into a friendship of two, distinguished older men — Hickman is 73; Williams will qualify for AARP membership when he turns 50 in October — that spans five decades. But Williams remains forever respectful, forever responding to text messages or questions over the phone from Hickman with, “Yes, sir.”

Williams describes Hickman as “foundational for me, as far as coaching, basketball, manhood.

“His support over the last 30 years plus of my life has been tremendous,” Williams said. “He’s been a father figure for me. Stuff that he did in my life. Affirming what my mother was teaching me. He was huge for me, in my growth as a person and a player, and now our text messages and phone conversations are the same way. He checks on me just about every other day, if not every day, to give me a point or encouragement or just check on me. I wouldn’t be in the position if it wasn’t for Coach.”

Hickman spent more than 48 years as a high school and college coach, crossing paths with Williams in the 1980s at Potomac High in Oxon Hill, Md. He was hard on his players, constantly putting them on the line for sprints and suicides. What impressed Hickman most about Williams was his never-lose competitiveness because Williams was far from the fastest player on his team, but he was always going to finish first. “He was very determined for you not to beat him. He didn’t want nobody to be better than him,” Hickman said.

Hickman demanded fundamentals and crisp execution, leaving no wiggle room for finesse over a simple finish.

“He would kick me out of the gym if I didn’t execute a certain fundamental properly,” Williams said. “If I went up and finger rolled instead of dunking it, he kicked me out.”

Williams’s mother, Joyce, worked as a computer specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency and got home late, so Hickman would usually take him home. Sometimes Williams would invite Hickman over for dinner. Other times, Hickman would take Williams to McDonald’s and wait patiently as Williams stopped to bless his meal, every time.

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They bonded on long drives to high school showcases, where Williams would establish himself as one of the best players in the country. Hickman didn’t necessarily need affirmation about Williams’s talent at those camps or AAU tournaments because he had already received the ultimate approving nod from the late Morgan Wootten of DeMatha. Williams had scored 56 points in a romp over Wootten’s famed program.

“‘Taft, who is that kid? I haven’t seen a kid that good,’” Hickman recalled Wootten telling him. “I knew then, when Morgan gave the stamp. He said, ‘Wow.’ ”

Hickman had tried to spread the word about Williams, at one point reaching out to his friend Craig Esherick at Georgetown to tell him he had a player the Hoyas should consider. Williams attracted a few offers, but the choice always came back to Notre Dame. Then-Irish coach Digger Phelps — who already helped players from the area such as Adrian Dantley reach the NBA — called a pay phone at Potomac High from an AAU tournament in California to declare how much he wanted Williams.

“I said, ‘We like you, too,' ” said Hickman, who told Joyce Williams during the recruiting process, “The big thing about Notre Dame is, if [Monty] blows out a knee or something [happens] where he can’t play anymore, he’s in the Notre Dame pipeline. He’s set for life with the alumni that they have.”

Williams started as a freshman but had his career put on pause when during a routine physical doctors discovered that he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare and life-threatening heart ailment. Hickman was shocked and confused. He ran Williams so hard in high school and never saw a hint of fatigue. He asked Williams bluntly whether he had taken any performance-enhancing drugs to get bigger, and Williams said, “No, sir.”

With Hank Gathers dying from the same condition only a few months earlier, Notre Dame shut down Williams. The school’s eagerness to step in and protect Williams from himself resonated with Hickman and showed that they cared about Williams as a person. He knew Williams had to stay, even if Williams felt as if the school was taking away his dream. Williams would defiantly play intramural and pickup games outside school supervision and let Hickman know, “I’m fine.”

Because Notre Dame wouldn’t let him play, Williams was determined to leave. When he found out Hickman was working behind the scenes to block him, Williams got so upset that the two went almost a year without talking. They reconnected in the best way imaginable. Williams called after midnight from his hospital bed at the National Institutes of Health, where he had just had a risky, experimental heart procedure that would allow him to play again.

“I started crying. Tears were running down my eyes. He said: ‘Coach, I want to apologize to you. I was just kind of mad at everybody. I was upset with what was happening to me.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it,' ” Hickman said. “Monty is more like a son than a player to me, and I wasn’t going to let nothing happen to him.”

Williams would finish up at Notre Dame and go 24th in the 1994 draft to the New York Knicks. Hickman remembers Williams coming up to the school the first time as a pro, driving a sleek, new Lexus. Before Williams had a chance to show Hickman all of the car’s luxury features, Hickman snatched the keys and drove off, taking a lap around the school before returning to a laughing Williams.

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Hickman, a certified driving instructor, had once taught Williams how to drive in the school parking lot. After all of those lessons, Hickman figured he had earned a joyride.

“That’s how close we were then,” Hickman said.

Hickman learned how much Williams admired his coaching style when he informed Hickman that the only difference between him and great coaches he had played for, such as Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich, is that they were in the pros and he wasn’t.

“It was more than basketball,” Williams said. “I’ve had coaches like that over the years, and he was the one that reminded me the most of Pop than any coach I ever had. Because of that off-the-court stuff and how he treated all of us.”

Hickman is admittedly at an age when his preferred bedtime is around 9 p.m., but he has been staying up for late West Coast tip-offs ever since Williams’s coaching career began as an assistant on Nate McMillan’s staff in Portland in 2005.

Williams developed a passion for coaching during what essentially served as an internship after chronic knee problems forced him to retire after a nine-year career. Popovich invited Williams, who had nurtured a strong connection with Tim Duncan during their lone season as teammates, to observe practices and work with players. After the Spurs won the 2005 title, Popovich lobbied McMillan to hire Williams on his staff in Portland.

“He was a guy I needed at that time,” McMillan said of Williams. “I needed that energy from my staff. So he was really the right fit for me working with him. What he is doing now is really no surprise.”

When Williams got his first head coaching job with New Orleans in 2010, Hickman would text him motivational quotes that he found from a book. After almost a year, Hickman stopped sending the quotes, but Williams texted to keep them coming because he had been depending on those words.

Hickman was there during the darkest moment of Williams’s life in February 2016. While in Oklahoma City, when Williams was an assistant on Billy Donovan’s staff, his wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car accident, leaving him to raise five children. Although he had just had surgery on his neck, Hickman flew out to his native Oklahoma to show his support at the memorial service, where Williams told those in attendance, “You can’t give in.”

After Ingrid’s death forced Williams to step away from coaching, he found refuge in San Antonio, where the organization named him a vice president and gave him the space he and his family needed to regain their footing. He returned as the lead assistant to Brett Brown in Philadelphia, then General Manager James Jones lured him to Phoenix to help a young stable of talent that included Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges to reach and possibly exceed its potential.

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While describing how special it was to be on a Finals run with the same coach he had left behind 10 years earlier, Chris Paul said: “Sometimes you have coaches that are just coaches. And sometimes you have relationships that last a lifetime.”

From the moment he began serving what amounted to an internship with the Spurs, Williams has taken the latter approach.

“He’s an authentic person, and he’s incredibly caring,” Spurs chief executive RC Buford said of Williams in a telephone interview. “And he could give a damn about whether they can make a free throw or not. It’s about the person. And he spends time to develop those relationships in ways that make it evident to people that what they’re doing isn’t what’s important; it’s who they are. That is the essence of Monty.”

During the conference finals, Williams, unprompted, mentioned that he’s in communication with Hickman almost every day. Before the series-clinching Game 6 victory that sent Phoenix to the NBA Finals to face the Milwaukee Bucks, Hickman texted Williams to remind him that despite a loss in the previous game, the Suns remained in the driver’s seat and needed to dictate the terms of the game to finish off the Clippers. “Thanks, Coach,” Williams replied.

Hickman said he and Williams had one of their longest conversations about coaching last season, while Williams was in the bubble. There, the Suns went 8-0, setting the stage for the acquisition of Paul and the dramatic turnaround from the lottery to the Finals. At one point, Hickman said Williams asked him, “How have you been doing this for so long?”

Hickman doesn’t remember his response, but the connection he has with Williams is the only correct answer.

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