Two decades ago, when Monty Williams was a forward with the Orlando Magic, he was pulled over by an Orlando, Florida, policeman for speeding on a freeway. Williams remembers being afraid, given the long history of Black men dealing with police brutality. Fortunately for him, the encounter had a positive outcome.
“I just kept shaking my hands out the window,” Williams, who is now the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, told The Undefeated recently. “Finally, he got out of his car and he walked up to the car and he said, ‘Man, can you just get out of your car, please?’ I got out. I gave him my license. He recognized who I was and he said, ‘Listen, man, we’re not all like that.’ I felt embarrassed. Then we just sat there and talked. It was really cool. I had apprehensions. He was actually Hispanic. He just said, ‘Look, we’re not all like that, man. You’re the one, you’re speeding. It’s not like I just didn’t have anything else to do and I wanted to pull you over.’
“Looking back on it, I think he reduced [the ticket]. But he also understood my fear. That was the thing that came out of that conversation.”
With worldwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd on May 25, Williams has discussed his experiences with his family and his team in recent weeks. He also plans to keep the conversation going with the NBA season set to restart in Orlando on July 30. The Suns, who are six games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the West’s final playoff spot with eight games remaining, are among the 22 NBA teams participating.
Williams, 48, spoke to The Undefeated about the Suns resuming their season, his experiences with racism and the police, and more.
Despite the long odds, why are you excited about the Suns being in Orlando?
We’re a young team building a program. It would not help us at all to sit from March until maybe December, January. … To be able to get back into the gym for the last month and to be able to communicate with our guys about social justice along with concepts and things we want to do as a team, it’s been a good process for us.
We have a lot to gain from being in Orlando. It’s going to be a hard deal. But of all the teams there, we have a chance to benefit the most just because we’re such a new program and young team. …
And with everything that everybody’s gone through, from the pandemic to watching police brutality, inequality in our country, to be able to get together and have these conversations in a safe place, I value that as the coach, as a person.
How much did you miss coaching?
I haven’t stopped. I’ve been driving our guys nuts. We send out film stuff. I’ve been in conversations with all of our guys from time to time. I haven’t done all the Zoom chats that I’ve been hearing about from other teams. I don’t want to bore the guys. … But I’ve had a lot of good talks with all of our guys individually, on the phone. It’s been really cool to be in my workout area and look at my phone and one of the players is trying to FaceTime me.
Our conversations have been more than just basketball. I’ve been talking to our guys about the situations in our society, whether it’s police brutality, the coronavirus, all the stuff, and then their personal lives.
Is there anything that your team would like to do in terms of having your voice in Orlando?
There’s so much on the table. I don’t know. I think the league is going to be a part of allowing coaches and players to speak freely. I know the coaches association, we got a few things that we’re trying to do. We have a leadership group that’s heading this diversity and social justice reform led by Lloyd Pierce. Those guys, we get on the phone every Monday and we talk. I think once we get down there, there’s going to be some things, I’m not quite sure what, whether it’s PSAs or group discussions or having people come in and speak. The time will be used wisely so that people can have a place to learn and also express themselves.
When you saw the George Floyd video for the first time, what was your reaction?
When I watched that officer look back into that camera, that was a moment for me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that in my life, as it relates to social issues. I heard my grandparents tell me stories about what it was like when they grew up. I know where my family comes from. The Williams plantation in Lenoir County in North Carolina.
But when I watched that officer look back into that camera and the look on his face, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that and how I felt watching him with a nonchalant look as if he was untouchable. That just sticks out to me more than anything.
Why do you think the response from the world and white America is different now?
I think there’s a young generation that’s willing to step up and say, ‘Man, that’s wrong.’ Whereas before, generations may have been a bit more hesitant because they may have worried about their job or their place in society, whatever the case may be.
It’s beautiful to watch. All ethnicities, men and women, standing together and willing to say this is messed up. I don’t know if we had that when I was growing up. We always had a movement, whether it be the NAACP or it was a section. You know what I’m saying? I don’t think it was this broad across our nation.
What have you discussed with your five kids in terms of social injustice, police brutality, the Black Live Matters movement, etc.?
The conversations have been me posing a question and just listening to them talk. I make them sit and watch with me. … To hear them speak about what they’re feeling, it’s important for me to just be quiet. I’ve tried to pour as much as I can into them. …
I’m excited but I’m still very concerned when I look at the leadership in our country. I still see this segment of our society that does not recognize that there’s things that need to change. That part is concerning when you’re raising young African American men in this social structure called America. Nobody in America should have to ask themselves are they really American. And what does that really mean? For the first time in our lives, we’re asking ourselves are we really free. Are we really living in a free society. If you look at the history of our country, a lot of our answers, if we were really honest about it, probably would be no. That’s pretty sad when you’re raising young African American men.
Why was it important for you to put out a personal statement about your thoughts on George Floyd after he was killed?
I could hide behind the privilege that I’ve been given. I’m a head coach in the NBA making more money than I deserve, living in some gated community and I felt like that I was a bit [insulated] from what was going on. I did not want to get 10, 20 years down the line and look back on this and look my kids in the eyes knowing that I didn’t do or say anything about what was going on with the small platform that I have.
I wanted to say something. I didn’t know what to say and had to kind of organize my feelings a bit. That was it. I really wanted to be able to be a part of this movement and also be able to look at my kids and say, ‘Hey, your dad had a drop in the ocean.’ At least I threw my drop in there to try and be a part of this movement.
Did you have any tough experiences with police or racism during your youth?
I grew up in Virginia. That was the origin of slavery in this country. I heard the stories when I was small. I listened to my grandparents. I listened to my mom and my aunties or uncles and cousins who were older than me. They would talk about things. Then, when you’re growing up there and somebody calls you a derogatory name, it puts meat on the bone of those stories. You start to think, ‘Man, this is what they dealt with – on a lesser scale, but still bad.’
Then, as I got older and started living on my own a little bit, I had a few encounters with policemen that I just thought were unnecessary. At the same time, I’ve had encounters with policemen that were unbelievably professional and off the chart. I haven’t lost sight of that.
Where’s your comfort level on being in the NBA bubble during the pandemic?
I tried to educate myself as best I can. I’m comfortable with the environment because I’m going to try to do everything I can to keep myself safe. I’m not going to let my guard down because I’m in the bubble. It’s incumbent on everybody to take that approach.
We’ve seen these spikes in these countries and out West because I think everybody kind of lets their guard down as soon as the numbers come down or there’s no command to wear a mask. For me, I’m OK because I’m going to do everything I can to probably be over the top as far as wearing a mask and washing my hands and trying to be safe.
How tough will it be to be away from your wife and kids?
I did this one time with the USA [Basketball] when we were in the World Cup. The World Cup is so much longer than the Olympics. I remember being in Spain and I was just walking the streets. I was just missing my family, man. I was in tears … like, ‘God, I miss my family.’
We’ve been together every day now, going on four months. So just like that, we’re going to have this separation for about five weeks. That’s going to be hard. I know it’s coming, but it’s going to be really hard to be away from them that long.
How will the spotlight in Orlando help Devin Booker and the Suns become more familiar to NBA fans?
Book and Ricky [Rubio], those guys I think they’re going to get a chance to solidify their bond. I think Book is probably chomping at the bit to be able to play on national TV. People know who he is, but he’s going to get a chance to really imprint who he is on a big stage where basketball is going to be front and center all around the world. That is something that really excites him and all of our guys. He made the All-Star team and now I’m sure he wants to go out there and show everybody that he’s All-NBA.
What is going to be your biggest form of entertainment when you have downtime?
I’m going to fish. When I played in Orlando, I fished at the Disney property. I was there in Orlando three years, so I fished those lakes before. I’ll be fishing and reading.
Those lakes in Florida carry largemouth bass. They have some of the best fishing in the country in Florida. Whether it’s Lake Toho or Okeechobee or one of those lakes. You can catch a four- or five-pound bass in a rinky-dink pond in Florida because they’re just all over the place.
I’m looking forward to getting my work done and meeting and doing stuff with the players, and I’m sure I’ll have time to just go wet a line from time to time.