Monty Williams believes divine hand carried him through tragedy, to Pistons

by | Jun 18, 2023 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

You think this is hard? Getting fired from an elite NBA team right after the playoffs?

That’s not hard.

Finding a new job? Not hard.

Moving to a new city? Not hard.

Taking on a struggling franchise that has been losing since the Obama administration?

Not hard.

No. This is hard. Tiptoeing across a hospital corridor, seeing your young daughter on a gurney looking half-dead, seeing two of your other children struggling with injuries, being told you can’t see your wife because she’s is in critical surgery after the car crash and may never be able to speak to you again. Then, as the long night passes, being told maybe, maybe, things are turning the corner, then suddenly maybe not.

“We’re losing her, we can’t stop the bleeding …”

That’s hard. Having to make a decision about life support when the doctors say “We can’t do anything else”? That’s hard. Having to tell your five children their mother is gone? Having to navigate what tomorrow looks like after the love of your life is ripped out of your existence forever? That’s hard.

Monty Williams has been through all that hardness and more. It changed him. How could it not?

“It was like a bomb went off,” he says of the accident that took his wife, Ingrid, in 2016. “When you lose your best friend, when you lose your soulmate, in the blink of an eye, because somebody is high on drugs and doing something they shouldn’t do … it does something to your heart that only the Lord can fix and bring you through.”

So, having steered those rocky waves and emerged on the shore as one of the most respected coaches in today’s NBA, the upheaval of Williams’ last few weeks — from being fired in Phoenix to taking time off to deal with his new wife’s cancer to being suddenly hired by the Detroit Pistons in the richest NBA coaching deal in history — may sound crazy to most of us, but it’s almost tame to him. And, as with much of Monty Williams’ life, he’s convinced a divine force played a part.

“If I shared with you everything that has happened between the time I got fired and now, you’d be blown away by how much God’s hand is in all of this.”  

‘The man I wanted to emulate’

To fully understand why Monty Williams says this, you need to go back to an earlier time, and several people who formed the person he would become. Williams is like a sponge for other people’s goodness; he gravitates to it like a cow to green grass. Before he started shaping young hoop stars, Williams was shaped by others. And before he dreamed of being a head coach, or an Olympic assistant, or even an NBA player, a first-round draft pick, a college star, or a high school standout — all of which he was — Monty Williams dreamed of mowing lawns.

“I wanted to be like my grandfather,” he says. “He was my hero.”

Phillip Samuel worked days as a caretaker at a historical museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia (home to George Washington’s mother and one of the most lopsided battles of the Civil War), and in the afternoons and evenings, he cut lawns. Young Monty tagged along with him.

The product of a divorced home, and some rocky moments between his parents, Williams fused to the stability his grandfather provided, and learned that love is often best expressed in time spent, something he would later apply to his coaching.

Samuel not only spent time with his grandson, he gave him his first job, gave him loose change to go to the store, built him a go-kart out of spare parts, and constructed his first basketball court, a wooden backboard in a dirt field.

“He had such an impact on me. I loved his spirit. I loved his countenance. He was the kind of person if we were coming back from his second job of the night, and somebody was on the side of the street out of gas, he would stop, pick them up, and take them to the gas station. He was the man I wanted to emulate.”

Everything his grandfather did, Williams did. Grandpa cut his own hair? So did Monty. Grandpa wiggled his jaw from side to side? Monty did the same. The imitation worked both ways. Later, when Williams became an NBA player with the New York Knicks, his grandfather would wear Monty’s shoes. They were three sizes too big for his feet, but Samuel would stuff socks in the toes just so he could walk in them.

That’s how much they loved each other.

“People say I’m pretty calm on the sidelines,” Williams says. “I would imagine I get that from him.”

Falling in love with a Michigan girl

The second biggest influence was a woman named Ingrid Lacy, whom he met early in his freshman year at Notre Dame. He was struck by her looks for sure (“The most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. Her eyes were captivating.”) But again, what fused him to her was her heart. And her faith.

“She was the first person I met who was really living her faith outside of the church.

“Up to that point, my idea of faith was having a great basketball game and saying ‘thank God’ for the win, then, after the camera was off, go out and live like a hellion.

“I had a mom who was really strict in high school. So I was gonna go to college and just live it up because I was finally out of her clutches.”

But he quickly found himself in Ingrid’s, and that set him on a whole different path. She was from the small lakeside village of Paw Paw, Michigan, and he became familiar with the state as he went to visit her there, or her relatives in Benton Harbor, or her summer job at the Warren Dunes. They even went to church together in Kalamazoo.

Williams was a rising star at Notre Dame. But before his sophomore season, after a routine physical, doctors diagnosed him with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the left ventricle of the heart. He was told that he should never play basketball again, lest he risk dying of a fatal heart attack.

He left the game for two years.

Playing career a blessing in disguise

During that time, he and Ingrid grew closer. She became a respite for the anger he was feeling having been ripped from the game he loved, even though he never showed any symptoms. When he was eventually cleared to return to basketball after new science emerged regarding his condition, the shadow of his heart would still envelop him.

Despite averaging 22.4 points in his final season in South Bend, and being considered by many a lottery pick talent, Williams fell to the 24th overall selection, by New York, in the 1994 NBA draft due to concerns that he could be the next Reggie Lewis, and die on the court.

“Again, God’s hand was in that,” Williams says now. Because two picks later the Knicks chose Charlie Ward, the Heisman Trophy winner from Florida State, who would become Williams’ roommate and one of his best friends, and another example of faith and goodness that he would gravitate toward.

“My NBA path didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” Williams admits. “But it went the way it should have.

“I originally wanted to go to a bad team so I could just hoop, you know? But I kept going to teams like New York and San Antonio, teams that were playing for something. So there was no room for young guys to make mistakes.

“I watched some of my contemporaries. They got to go play for bad teams and really put up numbers. I was on teams that were playing for championships almost every year.”

He wound up playing nine seasons as a small forward, averaging just over six points and just under 17 minutes a game. But what he lacked in numbers, he made up for in observing high-level coaching. Playing for top-tier names like Larry Brown, Doc Rivers, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich, Williams was able to absorb the finer points of directing the game, and came to realize he might possess some of those qualities himself.

“Doc Rivers was the first person who told me I was going to be a coach,” Williams recalls. “I thought he was nuts.”

‘What do I do now?’

He wasn’t. Williams showed so much promise as an assistant with Portland, that he became the then-youngest coach in the NBA when he was hired to lead the New Orleans Hornets in 2010. In his first season, he took them to the playoffs. He would coach five years before being let go.

Then, while serving as an associate coach with Oklahoma City, tragedy crashed his life. A woman with a dog in her car and methamphetamine in her bloodstream was driving at crazy speeds when she crashed head-on into Ingrid Williams’ vehicle, which was carrying three of the Williams kids.

Suddenly, a life of faith was put to the hardest test.

“I was angry at God,” Williams admits. “Because, for one, He’s my father, and kids get angry with their fathers a lot. I’m not ashamed to admit that.

“I didn’t question God. But I had questions for God. I know He loves me. I knew He loved her. My only questions was why? Why couldn’t she have left a minute later? Why did that lady have to do that? And you know, I was a man in my 40s, so the biggest question was, ‘what do I do now? I got five kids by myself. What do I do?’ ”

The first thing he did was forgive the woman who killed his wife. In an emotional speech at an Oklahoma City church, Williams encouraged mourners to pray for the woman’s family.

“In my house,” he said, “we have a sign that says, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ We cannot serve the Lord if we don’t have a heart of forgiveness.

“That family didn’t wake up wanting to hurt my wife. Life is hard. It is very hard, and that was tough, but we hold no ill will toward the (woman’s) family.”

Coming to Detroit wasn’t an easy choice

Then came Williams’ next act. After juggling his children, his personal life and his grief — “I went a year without even realizing I was dealing with PTSD” — he eventually returned to coaching as an assistant, and in 2019 was given a chance to head coach the Phoenix Suns, where he turned a losing franchise around, got it to the NBA Finals within two years, won coach of the year honors, and even led the Suns to a sterling 64-18 record in the 2021-22 season.

But after losing, you want to win, and after winning, you want to win it all. Williams and the Suns didn’t do that. Last month, after Phoenix exited the playoffs in the second round, Williams was fired by the Suns’ new ownership.

We had just found out that Lisa (his new wife) had breast cancer. So, in my heart, I was thinking I may have to take the summer off. Then I got the (firing) call and it shocked me.”

The first thing he did was contact his five kids, so that none of them would hear it from the internet. The next thing, he says, was to be grateful. After all, he reminded himself, just a few years earlier, he didn’t know whether he’d ever be able to coach again. Gratitude was something he preached to his players. He needed to practice it himself.

Still, the last thing he expected was to be coaching again. Not quickly, anyhow. The Pistons had expressed interest — along with several other teams — but given his wife’s health, and the fact that Phoenix was still paying him, Williams was in no hurry to get on another bench. Teams eventually moved on to other candidates, figuring Williams was out of play.

But this is where timing was fortunate, and where Tom Gores, the Pistons’ owner, made a masterful move. He was impressed with Williams, both professionally and personally. He realized what the man was going through, and why he was in no hurry to return to work. He told his front office that the normal ways of negotiating a deal would not work.

“Normally, you ask an agent what’s it going to take?” Gores says. “But I told Troy (Weaver, the Detroit GM) ‘The man is in the middle of taking care of his family, they’re going through challenges, we can’t ask the man what it takes.’ ”

Instead, the Pistons came to Williams with a fully baked proposal — a contract ultimately worth $78 million, the richest in NBA history, and the opportunity to use Gores’ connection in the medical world and even his private plane to assure that Williams wife would be well taken care of.

The offer couldn’t have been better. Nor could the timing. Lisa received some positive news regarding her health that loosened the possibilities of Monty’s work future. And then the Pistons called. Williams thought about his previous connections to Michigan, the summers he spent there during college while dating Ingrid, the later times he spent visiting her family. He felt a certain divine spark. And within a matter of days, he went from not even considering coaching this year to agreeing to the Pistons’ unique offer and starting afresh.

“God’s hand,” is how Williams refers to the series of events. It is something he’s likely to reference often as he steers his new team.

“What I hope Monty brings is really humanizing our franchise,” Gores says. “Having the ability to impact people from a life basis, above and beyond basketball. Of course we want to win, but what really got me with Monty is how he can take our franchise to that level and truly impact people.

“He has this great ability to reflect, but not get caught in the reflection.”

Well put. Monty Williams has seen a lot and lived through even more. He jokes that he looks calm on the sidelines not because he’s so in control but “because sometimes I’m not quite sure what to do next.”

But if he’s not certain of where the road is going, he’s sure a divine hand is steering. You think this is hard? No. Believing that everything that has happened, all the grief, all the glory, is for bigger reason? That’s hard.

The new Pistons coach does that every day. No wonder his grandfather had to use extra socks as stuffing. Those are some pretty big shoes Monty Williams is wearing. 

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!