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From This Point Forward
March 16, 2009
Why isn't the best player on the team with the best record in the best conference better known? Maybe it's because Louisville's Terrence Williams plays the most underappreciated position in the game
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March 16, 2009

From This Point Forward

Why isn't the best player on the team with the best record in the best conference better known? Maybe it's because Louisville's Terrence Williams plays the most underappreciated position in the game

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FOURTEEN LOUISVILLE CARDINALS, all in a row, stand as the national anthem plays. Thirteen are minding the words of Francis Scott Key, or at least pretending to. Terrence Williams is reciting the words of Terrence Williams. The monologue he runs through before every game begins with the same line: "We are here today for another beauty of work." Beauty, rather than body of work, because T-Will, as he's called down Derby way, wants to find beauty in the way he plays basketball. He is a 6'6", 220-pound senior who rebounds at such a rate (8.5 per game through Sunday) that some schools might have pigeonholed him as a post player; he slashes and scores well enough (12.8 points per game) that others might have made him a wing. But for fifth-ranked Louisville, Williams fills the rarest role in college hoops—that of point forward, which means he orchestrates the offense from the small-forward position, leading his team in assists at 5.1 per game, with a 2.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

There is beauty in what Williams has done this season, leading the Cards (25--5, 16--2) to the Big East regular-season title with grace and ebullience. Louisville coach Rick Pitino knows that the two logical candidates to run the offense, 5'10" senior Andre McGee and 6'1" junior Edgar Sosa, "would rather score than assist, whereas T-Will would rather assist than score," and that Williams's court vision is second to none on Louisville's roster. At his height he can see over perimeter defenders; he can rebound and start fast breaks without the delay of an outlet pass; he can take ball-handling pressure off the guards or simply slide over from the wing and initiate offensive sets.

A handful of other college forwards can do this—most notably, Tennessee's Tyler Smith and LSU's Garrett Temple—but none do it as well as T-Will. It is the role that fits him and fulfills him because, he says, "the feeling I get when I make a pass for an assist is like the one you'd get if you had a baby brother and every time he tried to walk, he fell down, until one time, he finally walked and you were there to see it. That's the kind of happiness I get from seeing other guys score."

The last line of Williams's pregame monologue is a request for all his dead relatives—his father, Edgar; his grandparents Mary Jackson and Bobby Perkins; and two cousins—to "watch over me as I have fun." Their names are tattooed on his left arm and concealed by a compression sleeve that he says he wears to keep connected to them, spiritually. Williams may well be the only player to wear a sleeve solely for that reason, but he has always been sartorially idiosyncratic. He often wears custom-made photo T-shirts as tributes to teammates and coaches (his Pitino shirt has a shot of his coach playing point guard at UMass in the early '70s), and he sometimes shows up for practice wearing two different-colored shoes. At Seattle's Rainier Beach High he would wear socks emblazoned with childhood icons (from Barney to Big Bird to SpongeBob) during games and carry his books in a Barbie backpack, just to be different. He wore a rotation of Mitchell & Ness throwback basketball jerseys that were in vogue then, but he would add his own curious touch by printing a picture of the player from the Internet and Scotch-taping it over the number on the front.

One of Williams's favorite throwbacks was a Magic Johnson model, honoring the oversized Lakers point guard who was the inspiration for Williams's passing passion. "My uncles used to show me old tapes of Magic," Williams says, "and I'd see the passes he'd make and think, 'That looks tight.'"

The true forebear of the point forward position, though, was far less famous than Magic. Mitchell & Ness never created a throwback for him, and Williams never saw him play. But he was cutting down the nets in the NBA the year before Magic even joined the Lakers, helping bring the one and only major league title to T-Will's hometown.

JOHN JOHNSON is seated on a ledge across from the home team locker room at Stanford's Maples Pavilion, resting his beaten-up knees—a badge of honor from playing 942 games over a 12-year NBA career. He is scanning a box score from the Cardinal's just-finished 85--50 rout of Cal State--Bakersfield, finding the number of assists (20) against turnovers (seven) to his liking. "They moved the ball well," the 61-year-old Johnson says to first-year Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins, who nods and says, "When we don't, we get stagnant on offense, and teams just lock down on us."

Johnson is waiting to talk to his son, Mitch, a 6'1" senior point guard, who had four assists and didn't turn the ball over in 21 minutes. During his junior year at O'Dea High, Mitch was named the MVP of the Class 3A state tournament after scoring 27 points in a double-overtime win over rival Rainier Beach and its star, Williams, in the title game.

John Johnson's role as a point forward began as an experiment in December 1977, after the Sonics lost 17 of their first 22 games and coach Bob Hopkins was fired. Lenny Wilkens, who had been the club's director of player personnel, took over as coach believing that Seattle had all the right pieces but was playing them in the wrong places. In the first week of the season he had sent two second-round picks to the Houston Rockets to acquire the 6'7", 200-pound Johnson, whom Wilkens, a Hall of Fame point guard, had played alongside in Portland two years earlier. Before Wilkens's second game as coach—a road date in Boston—he overhauled the lineup, benching every starter but center Marvin Webster. Rookie Jack Sikma, the team's No. 1 draft pick, was inserted at power forward; two young scorers, Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson, took over the guard spots; and John Johnson started at small forward, with instructions to help distribute the ball on offense. "I knew JJ had a great understanding of the game," Wilkens says, "and so, after he'd rebound, I'd tell our guards, Just take off, and he'll find you."

The Sonics beat the Celtics that night and won 42 of their final 60 games, reaching the NBA Finals before losing in seven to the Washington Bullets. Johnson averaged 2.7 assists that season; it wasn't until the following year that he truly became a point forward, leading Seattle in assists at 4.4 per game, while Williams and Dennis Johnson upped their scoring. They finished 52--30 and, in a rematch with the Bullets, won the finals in five games.

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