People Whispered of death and thought he didn't hear. They talked about how Monty Williams was too young and top foolishly brave to understand that heart disease might someday kill him the way it killed Boston Celtic star Reggie Lewis in 1993 and Loyola-Marymount All-America Hank Gathers in '90. They talked about how young athletes deny their mortality for the love of a game, in this case basketball, and for the dream of what that game can someday bring them. In silent rage, he listened.
Williams was about to start his sophomore season at Notre Dame when he was told after a routine physical that he had an irregular heartbeat. He was then sent to a cardiologist who determined that Williams suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the left ventricle of the heart, and that he should never play basketball again because intense physical activity could lead to a heart attack, perhaps a fatal one. He sat idle for two angry years but then rejoiced in a very controversial new view of HCM that allowed him to resume his career in 1992.
Then, despite having played so well his last two seasons with the Fighting Irish that he was ranked third among the small forwards available in June's NBA draft, he wasn't chosen until late in the first round, largely because some teams feared he would suffer the same fate Lewis did. Finally, the New York Knicks risked the 24th pick on him.
Williams is just 23 years old, but he's already close friends with mortality. "I've always been around the reality of death," he says, standing in the foyer of his modest rented house in a wooded suburb north of New York City. "A lot of people in my family have passed away. I've always hated death. But to say I don't respect death, that's wrong."
Tears form in his strong eyes when he talks about his cousin Raymond Robinson Jr., who was three years older than Williams and lived just down the street in the Washington suburb of Oxon Hill, Md. "He got involved with drugs and with people selling drugs," Williams says. "Then he tried to get out of that life, but they wouldn't let him." Robinson died in 1989 when Williams was a senior in high school; the official cause of death was an asthma attack, but Robinson's family is certain he was poisoned by dealers. Williams walks to a wall near the front window and points to a laminated newspaper clipping hanging there, an obituary for his paternal grandmother, Josie Mae Williams, who died in February 1993 at the age of 58 in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Williams says he can remember the moment, in June 1986, when he heard that former Maryland star Len Bias, idol to a generation of D.C.-area kids, was found dead of a cocaine overdose. "Two of my high school buddies and I had spent the night together," he says. "I was 14 years old. We were all lounging across the bed in the morning when we heard it. We couldn't move."
Once, during Williams's two years of imposed sabbatical from organized basketball, an old coach at Potomac High, Todd Bozeman, who is now the coach at Cal, was dogging Williams for playing pickup games.
"What the hell are you doing playing ball?" Bozeman asked.
Williams replied, "If there's a place I want to die, it's on the basketball court."
In recalling that conversation with Bozeman, Williams says, "Believe me, all of that has changed. I do realize the importance of life."