For all that he has been through in his life, Williams betrays no trace of anger or self-pity over his early home life. "I never, never cried myself to sleep at night," he says, "and I never wanted to run away from home." The boy who emerged from the house on Reed Street was his mother's son. Possessed of an easy manner, a surpassingly generous nature and a will to sacrifice, he always eschewed the easy way to get where he was going.
If you look closely, you can find expressions of Williams's resolve in the way his teams play the game. As close as Smith and Williams are in the style of basketball they teach—and much of what Williams preaches in Lawrence has its origins in Chapel Hill—they disagree on one finer point of the game: Confronted by a screen, do man-to-man defenders switch or do they fight through the pick? With all the illegal moving screens being set these days, Smith argues in favor of switching. Not Williams, who says, "I don't want to give players the easy way out. That's lazy. Ever seen anybody screened when he is in a defensive stance? Get in a defensive stance and fight through it!"
This is vintage Williams, and it expresses, with simple eloquence, the approach he has taken at some of the crucial bends and forks of his life. At T.C. Roberson High, Williams found in Baldwin the father figure he lacked, the man who taught him how to play the game and gave the boy a sense of purpose and a belief in himself that he'd never had before. "I liked Roy's attitude, his competitiveness, the way he was always 'Yessir!' and 'Nosir!' and how he played both ends and tried to do everything you told him," says Baldwin. "Watch his teams play. That's how he was."
Baldwin hit all the right chords. "He was the first person to give me confidence," Williams says, "the first to really make me feel good about myself, the first to make me feel I could be somebody."
At Baldwin's prodding, Roy had decided by the time he was a high school senior that he wanted to be a coach. That decision was father to a passion. "It became the most important thing in the world for me," Williams says. "I woke up in the morning, and it was the first thing I thought about, and when I went to bed at night, it was the last thing I thought of." Again at the urging of Baldwin, who had attended North Carolina, Roy aimed straight east toward Chapel Hill, but because he had no money, it was the hardest of the three routes he could have taken to college. He was a good enough high school player that he could have had a ride at some smaller western Carolina school. He was also an excellent student and was tendered a full scholarship to study engineering at Georgia Tech, but he spurned that offer, much to the dismay of math teacher Rosa Lee Baldwin, whose lilting Southern accent belied her reputation as the toughest instructor at Roberson High. In class one afternoon she chided Roy for turning down the Georgia Tech scholarship, warning all the girls in class, including Williams's future wife, Wanda Jones, not to have anything to do with him. Williams, imitating her slow drawl, still recalls her remarks with relish: "Now, you grrr-lls, I don't want any of you grrr-lls to mess with Roy, cuz Roy is not gonna take this engineering scholarship cuz he wants to be a coach. An' one of these days, Roy is gonna come over to my house to borrow a loaf of bread...."
He could have used a loaf or two during his first year at Carolina, which he financed by patching together enough in loans and grants to make it through. In his second semester he began working four nights a week as an intramural softball umpire and thereby hit upon a way to subsidize his education. Williams later became an intramural official for other sports and then the supervisor of officials. He kept stats for Smith at home games and, with Smith's permission, began in his sophomore year to attend practices as if they were academic lectures: Sitting high in the bleachers, he was a lone and feverish scholar, scribbling notes on how Smith taught the game and orchestrated his clockwork practices.
In 1973 Charles Lytle, the principal of Owen High in Swannanoa, N.C., which is 10 miles east of Asheville, hired Williams as basketball coach, and the reaction was a harbinger of what would happen in Lawrence many years later. "I was laughed at when I hired him," says Lytle. "Everybody told me, 'He's nothing but a statistician at North Carolina!' But I've never known anybody who could motivate kids like he could."
During his five years at Owen High, he turned his teams into an extended family and tried to instill in his players the same sense of self-worth that Baldwin had imparted to him years before. He took them on steak cookouts, had them over to his house to watch television and fed them milk and doughnuts during off-season shootarounds. He and Wanda, whom he had married in 1973, right after getting a master's degree in education at Chapel Hill, packed ham-and-cheese sandwiches and drinks for road trips. "I felt like a part of his family," says one of his players, Porky Spencer. "My father drove a truck and wasn't around much, and Roy was my father."
The players began to sound like Williams after Baldwin got to him. "He always made you feel like you were somebody," another former player, Bobby Stafford, says. "I don't care how much you had or who you were. He made you feel like you mattered. See his players diving on the floor in Kansas? That's what he had us doing."
Smith had employed Williams at his basketball camp for several summers, and in 1978, when a position for a part-time assistant opened on his staff at North Carolina, Smith offered it to Williams. The job paid $2,700 a year. By then, the Williamses had an infant son and a mortgage to pay on their new house, and they both had good jobs—Wanda was a high school English teacher—that would pay them a combined $30,000 a year. When Williams mentioned the offer to Wanda, she groaned in protest. "That's the dumbest idea I've heard of," she said. "We've got a new baby. We just moved into this house. I'm from here. You're from here. Our friends are all here. For $2,700 a year?"