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Roy Williams' Hard Work: A Life On and Off the Court

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A little while before last week's release date, I got an e-mail from Algonquin Books asking if I'd like to review Roy Williams' biography. I said sure, and soon enough I was taking a copy out of my mailbox and placing it on the bedside table. It promptly sat there for a week and a half, as my free time was taken up with the Duke game and the start of basketball season, but with those behind s and the day off work I was able to read through it and put together some thoughts.

First of all, I don't know how much of the writing fell to co-author Tim Crothers, but the voice of the book perfectly captures Roy Williams. Which means if his folksy press conferences annoy you, so will the book, peppered as it is with dadgums, goshes, and blesseds. And if that Coke commercial of a few years back grates on you, than you really should put the book down. Coca-Cola, always spelled out in full, is almost a minor character in the book, from the dimes his mother would give him on through his drink of choice on the recruiting trail.

If that doesn't keep you away, however, the book's a great read. It's not a bid to launch Williams on the corporate motivational speaker circuit, like so many coaches' books are. Beyond the constant theme spelled out in the title, there are no lessons to take back to middle management. It's just a few chapters of his childhood in Asheville and his college life in UNC, followed by scenes from twenty-six years of coaching. There's one chapter on his coaching philosophy, titled matter-of-factly Philosophy sandwiched between his to UNC championship teams, but other than that it's just talk about games that stick with him, moments on the recruiting trail, and points in his life he finds particularly amusing, important or difficult. Entire seasons pass by in the course of a page or two, followed by pages devoted to a single player. And Williams remembers every player, listing them in an appendix at the end of the book not unlike the old Carolina media guides use to do for Dean Smith's players. And as much as he oves them he has no problem being hard on them in print:

My second day back at North Carolina, I wanted to watch the players work out for a few minutes, just to see what they had. I brought them in to do a little run-and-shoot workout. It lasted 28 minutes. That's all it was. Two guys threw up. I mean the were pathetic. Damion Grant got a rebound and was supposed to make an outlet pass, but the first time he tried it he threw it 10 feet over the guy's head. The second time, he was standing 10 feet in front of the backboard. He was supposed to throw it off the board to rebound it and he missed the backboard.

I walked through the locker room and I overheard Byron Sanders talking to a teammate. "I know one thing," he said. We're going to be in shape because he tried to kill us."

It was 28 minutes. I was just dumbfounded that kids who wanted to be good basketball players were that out of shape. I was thinking, "What in the world have I gotten myself into?"

The book makes an interesting companion piece to Michael Jordan's Hall of Fame acceptance speech as well. Williams and Jordan have the same ultra-competitive streak driving them; the book even makes an explicit connection between the two. And like Jordan, Williams remembers every failure and every time someone thought he wasn't good enough, and it eats at him. He's annoyed that he didn't get the ball for the last-second shot to win the district finals in high school, like the play was drawn up in the huddle. He remembers no one thinking he could beat LSU and UNLV in the fall of 1990, he can tell you why his teams lost every game, big and small over the last twenty years. It's the type of mentality that wins championships, and somehow I don't think Williams will get the media grief Jordan did.

Overall, the book is an entertaining read, peppered with observations like this on the Heels loss to Maryland last season: "We turned the ball over. We took stupid shots. We had to make five dumb plays in a row to give them any chance to win, and we made all five." The coach, come to think of it, has a future in blogging.

As someone who doesn't really like coaches biographies (see the previous motivational speaker comments) this book sat on a table longer than it should because I didn't want to have to say bad things about it. Happily, it turns out I don't. It's a fun book to read, filled with self-deprecation, good quotes, and the kind of stories you'd like to stay up over a beer listening to. It's packed with asides – Williams has been offered 12 NBA gigs, including the '04 Lakers job before Krzyzewski – and eminently quotable. I've resisted overexcerpting it in this post, but I'll leave you with this little bit of advice Coach Smith gave Williams: "Don't quit as early as I did."

There may be a second book in this after all.