ATLANTA — In the NCAA’s fantasy world, the kids who play Division III basketball dribble the ball with one hand while carrying a musical instrument in the other. They study Latin and Shakespeare during timeouts. Theirs is a higher cause. Many — if not most — aspire to save the world once they graduate.
The real world is Willy Workman, a 6-foot-6 inch Amherst senior who wants to play basketball for as long as he possibly can and brings a cerebral — and humorous — approach to the game that his coach, David Hixon, calls “Willy stuff” with a shrug.
Workman played his last college basketball game on Sunday, helping Amherst beat Mary Hardin-Baylor, 87-70, in the DIII national championship game with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Although Hixon likes to talk about Workman’s ability to do just about everything there is to do on a basketball court, Workman has always focused on only one stat: minutes played.
“I don’t like to come out,” he said, a big grin on his face after he and his teammates had cut down the nets at Philips Arena on Sunday afternoon. “When I first got to Amherst, my offense was very good, I could always score. But I realized we had plenty of guys who could score but not so many guys who could rebound and defend. I figured if I got good at that, I’d get to play.”
He played 39 minutes on Sunday, and the only reason it wasn’t 40 was because Hixon took him out for the final minute along with fellow seniors Allen Williamson and Peter Kaasila, plus DIII player of the year Aaron Toomey, so they could begin celebrating.
“At one point he called a 30-second timeout,” Hixon said. “I asked him why and he said, ‘Coach, I just need 30 seconds.’ He didn’t want to come out, so he called time to get a rest.”
Workman’s story is one of those DIII stories that is remarkable. He grew up in Northampton, Mass., right in the shadow of Amherst, and began going to Hixon’s basketball camp when he was 6. “Two sessions every year,” he said. “I think I paid for his kids’ college educations.”
But his basketball dreams were shattered as a high school junior when he had surgery on both his hips and figured his playing career was over. “I was too young to be bitter back then,” he said. “I loved to play but I just figured I couldn’t anymore and it was time to move on.” He smiled. “If it happened now I’d be bitter. I’m older.”
He was going to go to South Carolina, because that’s what you did if your last name was Workman: his grandfather and father both went there. He had no idea what he wanted to do when he got there. He only knew what he didn’t want to do: follow his dad into the restaurant business. His dad owns Jake’s Restaurant in Northampton, and Willy spent enough days and nights working as a busboy to know he did not want to go in that direction.
Before he could head south, though, a strange thing happened: his hips began to feel better after his second surgery. He started to run a little and then he found his way to a basketball court. “I remembered how much I loved it,” he said. “I wondered if maybe I could play again somewhere.”
Deerfield Academy, a 600-student boarding school about 15 miles down the road from Northampton, proved to be the place. Workman enrolled there and Hixon found him.
“We were probably a little bit lucky,” Hixon said. “Deerfield’s not a basketball factory so he flew a bit under the radar and that gave us a chance to get him.”
A lot of the best DIII players had the chance to play DI as a preferred walk-on or on scholarship at a smaller school. Toomey, Amherst’s junior guard, is an example of that. He grew up in Greensboro, N.C., and several Big South schools told him he could come as a preferred walk-on. He decided to go the DIII route and combine a top- notch education with the chance to win a championship. On the day he decided to go to Amherst he sent Hixon a text that said: “I’m coming to Amherst. Let’s go and win a national championship.”
Sunday, they did exactly that. For the players on both teams, the chance to play in an NBA arena in front of a crowd of 6,284 in between the DI Final Four and the title game was a thrill that most never expected. “Everyone who ever plays basketball dreams of playing in the NBA someday,” Workman said. “This was about as close as any of us will ever come.
“The lights were very bright but the basket was still 10 feet high, the free throw lines were 15 feet from the basket and we had each other. That was enough.”
Ironically, the bright lights dimmed, a la this year’s Super Bowl, four minutes into the second half with the game as close as it got all afternoon — Mary Hardin-Baylor had cut Amherst’s lead to 43-39. Toomey noticed the change in lighting, glanced at the ceiling, hit a three-pointer and ran back downcourt pointing his arm at the lights.
“It was weird,” he said. “I saw the lights dim and I didn’t know what to do. So I took an open shot.”
“He shot the lights out,” Workman joked.
Amherst finished the season 30-2, winning its last 24 games. It was Hixon’s second national championship (the first was in 2007), and what was apparent was that his team could shoot, defend and also have fun.
On Saturday night, the teams playing in both the DII and DIII title games were introduced across the street at the Georgia Dome during the DI semifinals. When the DIII teams came out, they were applauded politely until Toomey ripped open his sweat top to reveal a Syracuse shirt underneath. “My dad went to Syracuse,” he said. “So I decided to wear it. But it was Willy who convinced me to take it out and show it to the crowd.”
“You can’t describe it until you see it,” Hixon said. “He does things you’re not supposed to do — like doubling the post when we aren’t doubling the post. Then he makes a steal and you say, ‘Okay, good play.’ ”
Before the season began, Hixon asked his players — as he always does — to answer some off-the-wall questions that have little to do with basketball. One of them was, “What is your greatest fear?”
Workman’s answer was direct: “That the ring-maker will get my ring size wrong.”
He will get his ring now and, almost certainly, it will be the right size. Few college basketball players have ever deserved one more.
For more by John Feinstein, go to www.washingtonpost.com/feinstein.