College Basketball

Ex-Charlotte 49ers star Henry Williams never lost faith in wake of life-changing diagnosis

The rapidly blinking message light on his office telephone caught Henry Williams’ attention.

Williams had just finished preaching at Charlotte’s New Zion Missionary Baptist Church one Sunday afternoon in August of 2009.

On his phone were 15 urgent voice-mail messages – all from his doctor.

A few weeks earlier, Williams had gone in for a routine checkup. He had always been healthy. In fact, he had been an elite athlete for much of his life. With the Charlotte 49ers in 1989-92, he was one of the country’s top college basketball players and is still the program’s all-time leading scorer.

Williams called Dr. Kathleen Doman back.

“Are you all right?” he recalls Doman asking. “Are you feeling dizzy or faint?”

“I’m fine,” Williams said. “I just got finished ministering to about 1,000 people.”

“Get yourself to the emergency room immediately,” Doman said.

Results on tests for Williams kidneys’ creatinine level – an indication of kidney function – had come back and they were life-threateningly high.

“A 1.0 or a 1.5 level is normal,” said Williams. “Mine was 32. Dr. Doman said that’s a dead man’s number.”

Williams and his wife Katrina drove to the urgent care center at Novant Health University. He was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease, which occurs when kidneys are no longer able to function well enough to sustain life.

The only treatment, he was told, is regular dialysis or transplant.

A hospital counselor spoke to Henry and Katrina and told them their life was about to change. The counselor said the wait for a transplant could be lengthy. Until that happened, Williams would require treatment that would have him connected to a dialysis machine for eight hours a day.

“She talked only about all the negative things we could expect, that we would go through a period of mourning,” said Katrina. “We were completely stunned.”

Henry Williams had other ideas.

“I didn’t want to hear it,” he said. “I was healthy. I worked out. I ran. I still played some pickup basketball.

“My first thoughts when I got the diagnosis were, ‘It can’t end like this. This can’t be the end of such a good story.’ ”

Basketball and religion

Williams’ mother and grandmother raised him in a tough neighborhood in northwest Indianapolis. Religion – not basketball – was the central part of the household.

“They didn’t know anything about basketball, except it was good when it went through the hoop,” said Williams. “My grandmother was always preaching to me. She was very spiritual.”

Williams kept a daily journal when he was in elementary school.

“I would write like I was having some kind of conversation with someone,” he told the Observer in 2004. “I’d always ask for guidance. It wasn’t the typical 7-year-old conversation.”

Williams was also developing as a basketball player. He was a heavily recruited star who as a senior led Ben Davis High to the final eight of the Indiana state tournament. He received scholarship offers from Big 10 schools, including Indiana, but said he didn’t want to play for then-Hoosiers coach Bob Knight.

When Williams picked Charlotte in 1988, he had a plan for his future, in part because of the arrival of the city’s new NBA franchise.

“I would go to UNCC, play three years there, get drafted by the NBA – hopefully by the Hornets,” he said. “I’d make my money, retire and raise a family.”

He was an instant sensation at Charlotte. In his third game with the 49ers, he scored 20 points against West Virginia on national television.

He also met Katrina at UNCC. They attended church together and Williams became increasingly committed to his faith.

“When I came to Charlotte, playing basketball was the No. 1 thing,” he said. “At the end of each day, though, I’d always have my Bible open. The guys would ask about it. I’d say it’s just a ritual for me. But I’d always wanted to be involved in the ministry.

“The church was a safe haven for me. In church, you can’t take out your frustrations physically like you can in basketball. It was a different kind of outlet for me.”

Dealing with rejection

Williams ended up staying at Charlotte for four seasons. Always playing with great poise and elegance, he averaged 20.2 points for the 49ers, setting a career scoring mark of 2,383, including 308 3-pointers. As a senior, he led the 49ers to the Metro Conference championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament.

And he was tough: He took 64 stitches to his forehead during a game and played less than 36 hours later. The 49ers retired his jersey March 7, 1992, before his senior season was over.

Williams also played for the United States in the 1990 Goodwill Games.

“Henry is an exceptional player,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said at the time. “I love Henry. If he was a little bit younger, I’d adopt him.”

The San Antonio Spurs took Williams in the second round of the 1992 NBA draft, the 42nd overall pick.

He remembers playing well in San Antonio’s training camp. As the only draft choice on the roster (San Antonio didn’t have a first-round pick that year), Williams got plenty of tutoring from veterans such as David Robinson and Sean Elliott.

“The NBA game was easier for me than college because there were no restrictions,” Williams said. “It was an open court. You just use your ability.”

One day in October of 1992, while sitting in his hotel room before practice, Williams saw on the television news that the Spurs had cut him.

He was staggered, not because he learned the news on television, but because it was the first real rejection he’d ever had as a basketball player. Instead of hearing from Spurs coach Jerry Tarkanian, Williams said he spoke to general manager Bob Bass, who told him that he had been caught up in a “numbers game.”

“(Bass) gave me a speech: ‘You’re talented and don’t stop playing basketball,’ ” Williams said. “But here I am, a successful college player, playing on junior Olympics and Goodwill Games teams for Coach K with guys like Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner, and this happens. It was impossible.”

Jeff Mullins, Williams’ coach at Charlotte and a former NBA player, wasn’t completely surprised. He had worried that Williams, not a natural point guard, would be branded as not quite big enough at 6-foot-2 to play shooting guard in the NBA.

“People thought of him as a ’tweener,” Mullins said. He talked to Williams about other pro basketball options.

“I’d done some clinics in Europe and seen some of the American players over there,” said Mullins. “Especially in Italy, I was so impressed with the quality lifestyle they’d created over there. There were some wonderful opportunities.”

The Spurs assigned Williams to their Continental Basketball Association team in Wichita Falls, Texas. He was good enough to play in the CBA’s all-star game.

A few days after the all-star game, the Italian team Scaligera Verona called, offering him $20,000 (about a year’s salary in the CBA) to fill in for an injured player for a month.

“That was the most money I’d ever seen in my life,” Williams said.

The next day, new Spurs coach John Lucas (Tarkanian had been fired after 20 games) called, asking Williams to come back to San Antonio.

“I told John that I had an offer here from Italy for $20,000 for a month and was (the Spurs’ original) two-year contract still on the table?” said Williams. “John, said, ‘Ah, no, we can’t do that.’

“I said, ‘John, I’ll see you when I get back.’ ”

Williams wouldn’t be back for 10 years.

Italy’s Michael Jordan

In Italy, Williams became a star.

Using his sharp shooting skills and athleticism, he averaged 20.2 points (exactly what he averaged at Charlotte) in a decade-long career with four teams – Scaligera Verona, Benetton Treviso, Virtus Roma and Basket Napoli.

In 1996, his fourth year in Italy, he was the Italian League’s most valuable player for Treviso. His earnings rose to as much as $3 million per year.

“I’m driven because I’m mad,” he said of his success in Italy. “I had gotten cut and I never get cut. I’m already teed off and I’m giving it to (the opposition) because I should be playing against (NBA stars like) Isiah Thomas.”

He was hailed in Italy as the country’s Michael Jordan, whose years in the NBA paralleled Williams’ time in Italy.

A magazine headline about Williams proclaimed: “Il Nuevo Ri” (The New King).

A business deal

The NBA kept calling. He heard from the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks, whose coach, Pat Riley, offered him a spot on the roster so, Williams said, “they would have a long-distance shooter for Patrick Ewing.”

Williams resisted the NBA’s lure. He still had a plan.

“When I got cut in San Antonio, I had no business acumen,” he said. “If you didn’t have that, you weren’t going to make it. That taught me quick. (Riley) offered me the minimum, but I told him I had a three-year deal on the table in Italy for more than that.

“And if I make $1 million in Italy, that’s probably $2 million (in the U.S.) based on the tax situation. I can come home some day and have all of it. It was a business deal for me.”

There was something else keeping Williams in Italy: he loved living there.

“Nobody wakes up and says they want to be a really good player in Italy,” Williams said. “It’s either the NBA or the NFL. But after a while, I thought this could be my calling.”

Williams, who married Katrina in 1995, had his choice of villas for free wherever he played. He was supplied a car and only paid for his meals and travel.

He learned Italian and made friends wherever he went.

After his first season in Italy, he was packing his gear in the locker room, preparing to return to the United States. Williams didn’t know if he would be back; he still had hopes of playing in the NBA.

His teammates gathered around him. We don’t want you to go, Williams remembers them saying.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because you are our friend,” they said.

Williams also continued to pursue his other calling. In 1996, four seasons into his career as a pro basketball career, he became an ordained minister.

A new calling

In 2002, at age 31, Williams retired from basketball. He had avoided major injuries and had earned millions in Italy.

“I could have played four or five more years,” he said. “But my goal was to be financially stable, which is what I had achieved. And I didn’t want to be one of those guys whose kids never saw him.”

Henry and Katrina moved back to the Charlotte area. They began raising a family: Kristen (who was born in Italy), Lauren and Brice. Williams stayed busy. He invested in real estate, opened a now-defunct software company, operated a vending machine company and helped Katrina run a family-owned shoe store.

He was also involved with his church, New Zion Missionary Baptist in northwest Charlotte, which now has a congregation of about 800.

When New Zion’s minister left in 2004, several church members approached Williams about filling in temporarily until a new preacher could be found. Five weeks later, he was elected as New Zion’s new minister.

“When he came in, he was so filled with the spirit,” said New Zion deacon Mike Robinson. “You didn’t think of him as a former star. He brought the word so strong, that’s how we looked at it. He was a young man with a message.”

Daily treatment

Williams threw himself into his new job.

He spent hours each week away from the church, counseling and ministering to people in the community. He found time to spend two seasons as a television commentator for Charlotte Bobcats games. He enjoyed the routine pleasures of being a dad, such as driving Kristen (now 17), Lauren (15) and Brice (13) to school.

Then came the telephone’s blinking message light that summer afternoon in 2009.

Williams, now 44, said he has never gotten an explanation from doctors of how he got the disease.

“To this day, we still don’t know how I got it or why I have it,” he said.

Williams is on a kidney transplant list at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem and is hopeful. Rather than go to the hospital for daily dialysis to have his blood filtered, he purchased his own dialysis machine.

The procedure takes eight hours each day. The cord is 30 feet long and allows him freedom of movement. He usually is tethered to the machine overnight while he sleeps.

The treatment is effective. Williams, who lost 25 pounds after he began the dialysis, still drives his kids to school. He still preaches every week.

Preaching the word

On a Saturday in September, Williams, dressed in a black suit without a tie, doesn’t stay behind the pulpit for long as he starts to address the New Zion congregation. He walks up and down the aisles as he preaches, sometimes mixing humor with the message.

After he gets a subdued response from the congregation, he says, “I used to get more than that when I was shooting jump shots. Come on now!”

Vince Coakley, then a candidate for U.S. Congress, had asked to speak to the New Zion congregation. In introducing Coakley, Williams gives a snapshot of his own style and philosophy as a minister.

“Sometimes I deal with hard questions,” Williams says. “What’s going on in other cities or other countries. I’m not afraid to challenge or break tradition. It’s done to give you better hope, better insight.

“I don’t just teach the Bible. In this world, we have to have some kind of practicality. So I talk with you about politics, banking systems, religions. I question things in the Bible. I make sure I understand things that might be controversial. I don’t preach black or white. I preach people.”

Return to the 49ers

Williams is also reconnecting with his alma mater. Although he lives in Huntersville and his church isn’t far from the UNCC campus, he didn’t have the time to have much contact with the school.

That’s changed. When 49ers athletics director Judy Rose told a recent gathering of former basketball players of Williams’ condition, several of them surprised him by attending a sermon.

He has made several visits this fall to UNCC, where daughter Kristen is a freshman on the 49ers’ track and field team. Earlier this month, Williams was hired as the 49ers’ basketball team’s director of player development.

“I’m looking forward to talking with him,” said 49ers guard Pierria Henry. “He’s come to practice with open arms. He has a good heart.”

Henry said his teammates are aware of Williams’ standing on Charlotte’s all-time scoring list.

“Buckets,” Henry said with a laugh. “He’s just buckets.”

Said Williams: “I can help them with leadership, their spiritual life, any kind of normal advice. It’s a wide spectrum. But it’s a kind of mentoring that’s right up my alley.”

As long as he maintains his dialysis routine, Williams said his prognosis is excellent and he can maintain his normal, busy lifestyle.

“There’s a repetition to it, just like shooting free throws,” Williams said of being on the machine. “I can walk around with plenty of freedom. It doesn’t prevent me from doing anything.”

He receives monthly checkups.

“The doctor just told me, ‘Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it, because you’re doing well,’ ” he said.

He’s learned that the plan he carved out early in his life hasn’t always followed the path he imagined.

“My life is about a few things I’ve done well,” Williams said. “I picked the right school. I played the right sport. I married the right woman. I have my faith. Those choices got me to where I am today. They’ve allowed me to handle anything that might come my way.”