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A reporter tossed a standard question at coach Monty Williams after the Phoenix Suns won the NBA Western Conference finals, asking how he managed to be a tough coach and a sympathetic mentor.
“I tell every new player … that the essence of my coaching is to serve,” said Williams, the National Basketball Coaches Association’s 2021 coach of the year. “As a believer in Christ, that’s what I’m here for. … I tell them all the time, if I get on you, I’m not calling you out — I’m calling you up.”
That message meshes well with what superstar Chris Paul writes on his sneakers game after game: “Can’t Give Up Now.” That’s a pop- ular gospel song with this chorus: “I just can’t give up now. I’ve come too far from
where I started from. Nobody told me the road would be easy and I don’t believe He’s brought me this far to leave me.”
Williams and Paul have known each other for a decade, with professional and personal ties strength- ened by pain and frustration. While Paul’s on-court struggles are well documented, it’s impossible to understand their bond without knowing the details of his coach’s life as a Christian, husband and father of five children.
“The real reason to watch” the playoffs this year, said former ESPN commentator Jason Whitlock, in his “Fearless” podcast, is “that God has placed a messenger inside the NBA’s secular madness. Monty Williams might be the most important man in sports. The 49- year-old former Notre Dame and NBA player is the leader and example that America needs right now.”
The coach’s story “belongs in a new Bible,” said Whitlock. “Five years ago, a 52-year-old white woman high on meth drove her car headfirst into the car driven by Williams’ wife, Ingrid. Three of Williams’ children were also in the car. The white woman died at the scene. … Ingrid Williams died a day later. Williams’ children survived.”
Williams was a promising Notre Dame freshman when Ingrid — before their mar- riage — stood by him after doctors said he had hyper- trophic cardiomyopathy. Long before experts cleared him to play, Ingrid kept praying and offered this message: “Jesus can heal your heart.”
Drafted by the New York Knicks, Williams began — with a defibrillator court-side — a nine-year NBA career that led to coaching. He quickly became known for his ability to inspire hope and teach leadership.
Speaking at his wife’s funeral, Williams shared biblical promises that “God is good” and that “in all things, God works for the good of those who love him.” His wife would punch him if he started whining, he said, while admitting that he “didn’t like this part” of God’s plan.
Then Williams appealed for prayers — for the family of the woman who killed his wife.
“We cannot serve the Lord if we do not have a heart of forgiveness,” he said. “That family didn’t wake up wanting to hurt my wife. Life is hard. It is very hard and that was tough, but we hold no ill will. … We, as a group, as brothers united in unity, should be praying for that family because they grieve as well. So, let’s not lose sight of what’s important. God will work this out.”
After quoting those lines, Whitlock told listeners to ignore those claiming there are no role models in sports today.
“I love what Monty represents. … I hope that the mainstream media picks up on his story,” he said. “Monty Williams knows a lot about faith and the power of faith. … I think there’s a lot to be learned, there’s a lot to be mined from the mind of Monty Williams.”
But part of his message to players, Williams told The Undefeated website in 2018, is that he doesn’t have all the answers.
“There’s a lot of times within the faith, as a Christian, that most people think we walk around like we have it together, and I just got to be straight with you,” Williams said. “I need the Lord because I don’t have it together. I am broken. I am flawed. …
“Whether it’s winning or losing or getting a contract or not getting signed by a team and all the in- between, my faith allows me to hopefully have something to hold onto that’s much bigger than sports.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.