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Former St. Joseph's star a force in youth basketball

HAMPTON, Va. - It's 12:05 p.m. on a sunny Friday, and Marcellus "Boo" Williams Jr. is sequestered in his State Farm agency office on Coliseum Drive.

Big Five Hall of Famer Boo Williams coaches a game at the Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, Va. (Photo by Jesse Hutcheson)
Big Five Hall of Famer Boo Williams coaches a game at the Boo Williams Sportsplex in Hampton, Va. (Photo by Jesse Hutcheson)Read more

HAMPTON, Va. - It's 12:05 p.m. on a sunny Friday, and Marcellus "Boo" Williams Jr. is sequestered in his State Farm agency office on Coliseum Drive.

Across the parking lot, a lunchtime crowd forms at Hooters Restaurant. But as on most days, the laid-back 51-year-old, who also runs the renowned Nike-sponsored, nonprofit Boo Williams Summer League Amateur Athletic Union program, doesn't have time for lunch.

The busy St. Joseph's University and Big Five Hall of Famer already had to postpone an 11 a.m. meeting. And, Williams might have to postpone or cancel one or two more.

While conversing with a visitor inside his cramped office, three out-of-towners await him in the lobby.

"There's never a day I get up and there's nothing to do," Williams says in his distinct Southern drawl while patting the three stacks of phone messages on his desk. "You look at all these phones messages, some of these aren't even going to get a return call."

Welcome to the world of the most famous Big Five player to never be a big-time professional athlete.

"Boo Williams is the most powerful non-collegiate, non-agent person in youth basketball in America," says Mike Flynn, of the Philadelphia Belles, a Nike-sponsored girls' travel team, and a longtime associate of Williams.

Few would argue.

Thirty-four years after Philly legend Sonny Hill introduced him to top-flight community-based basketball, Williams runs what is regarded as the nation's premier youth organization.

Over its 29-year existence, the BWSL has produced the likes of Allen Iverson, Scottie Reynolds, J.R. Reid, Alonzo Mourning, Joe Smith, J.J. Redick, Greivis Vasquez, Bryant Stith, and LaKeisha Frett.

Much more than just a coach, Williams is the AAU chairman for both boys' and girls' basketball and is on the USA men's basketball development national team committee.

One of his proudest accomplishments is his Boo Williams Sportsplex, a 135,000-square-foot, $13.5 million facility in Hampton Roads.

Williams, however, says he owes his success to Hill and the Sonny Hill League.

"If I was never in Philadelphia, I would never have started my summer league program," he says. "My idea was from my mentor, Sonny Hill."

Community-based ball

When it comes to talented post players, Williams was one of the Big Five's best from 1977 to 1981.

"We were fortunate at St. Joe's to have him as a student-athlete," Hawks athletics director Don DiJulia recalls about the 6-foot-8 power forward. "He was a leader from Day 1. He was a magnet that kept the team close. He was a go-to guy."

As a result, Williams led St. Joe's in scoring for three seasons, and his 1,554 points are good for 13th on the team's all-time list. His 838 rebounds are 12th-best in team history.

"In '81, we beat DePaul [in the second round of the NCAA tournament] and we finished eighth in the country," says Williams, who was inducted into both the Big Five and St. Joe's Halls of Fame in 1987. "We lost to Indiana with Isiah Thomas in the next round. That's the year they won the title."

While his collegiate career was exciting, Williams was just as thrilled to play in the Sonny Hill League during the offseasons. Actually, it was in that league - not with the Hawks - that he was introduced to big-time basketball.

As was the custom at St. Joe's at the time, Williams and his college teammates played in the community-based league before the college season started. As a wide-eyed incoming freshman in 1977, Williams had the experience he said he'll never forget.

"When I first left [Hampton's] Phoebus High, I went to play in the Sonny Hill League, and on my team was Buck Williams," he says. "And our first game was against Lewis Lloyd. Back then, Gene Banks was in the league. Clarence Tillman, too."

Buck Williams was a standout at Maryland before having a 17-year NBA career. Lloyd, a product of Overbrook High and Drake University, went on to play seven NBA seasons. Banks, a West Philly High and Duke standout, had a six-year NBA career. Tillman, another West Philly product, played one season at Kentucky before transferring to Rutgers.

The league provided Boo Williams a footing in terms of what the Philadelphia basketball culture was at the time.

"It gave him an opportunity to have a very fine college basketball career," says Hill, who recalls Williams being a nuts-and-bolts type of player.

While honored, Hill isn't surprised that Williams credits him and his league for his success.

"We thank him in the fact that he's willing to say, 'I got it from the mecca,' " says Hill, who has been running his league since 1968.

"If you talk about the mecca of basketball culture in America - not in the greater Philadelphia region - in America, when you say, 'Sonny Hill League,' all heads turn," Hill says.

A league of his own

Another goal for Williams was to give a Hampton area known for producing talented football players some exposure for its basketball players.

So Williams, who played professionally in France and Germany, started a four-team Boo Williams Summer League in 1982 after raising $400 to form the league.

"A lot of people said this town was too small to have a successful league," he recalls. "I remember Howard Garfinkel of Five-Star Camp saying, 'Boo, you're crazy. Those boys down there don't play no basketball. It ain't no way in the world.' "

But Hill supported him.

To help introduce the Hampton area to big-time basketball, Hill traveled to Hampton with a Sonny Hill League all-star team featuring Rico Washington to face select BWSL players.

"We played at Hampton University, and the gym was packed, because people weren't used to that," Williams says. "Then, the following year, they came down with Pooh Richardson and Bo Kimble and all of them."

After that, looking for exposure for his elite players, Williams formed a traveling all-star team nicknamed I-95. During those early years, the all-star team's frontcourt consisted of future NBA players Reid, Stith, and Mourning.

"We called it the I-95 because we would travel and play in Baltimore against Dunbar and Lake Clifton kids and go to D.C. or go to Philly or go to New York," Williams says.

Back then, the BWSL all-stars had a shoe-string budget, and Williams maxed out his credit cards while getting his players exposure.

"It was like the Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars," Williams says, referring to the movie about barnstorming baseball players. "It was times when we had 15 people in a van plus me. Tight! They can tell you some stories."

Folks started to take the BWSL seriously when its first legitimate standout, Reid, was named the 1986 Gatorade and USA Today player of the year, in addition to being one of the most heavily recruited players at that time.

Nike started sponsoring his team a year later, when Mourning was a high school junior. Back then, the sneaker company furnished a team struggling to make ends meet with sneakers, T-shirts, and sweatshirts. The BWSL league became the first team in the South and one of the first 10 AAU teams nationally to receive a sneaker deal.

Initially, Williams balked at the deal.

"I was skeptical," he says. "I was like, 'I'm doing all right.' "

But Williams' coach at St. Joe's, Jim Lynam, and Sonny Vaccaro, then a Nike representative, were friends. As a result, Vaccaro, regarded as the godfather of grassroots hoops, started a relationship with Williams after speaking at a BWSL banquet.

"Boo and people like Boo - and there were only a few of them at that time - were the ones that I said, and obviously Nike backed me, was a good person and this is how we are going to develop our youth programs," Vaccaro says.

Elite program

These days, the BWSL is composed of 200 teams, with players ranging in age from 8 to 19. The organization attracts players from all over Virginia and neighboring North Carolina, Maryland, and Washington.

"Fifteen years ago, we just stopped doing the [intramural] league, because everybody was playing AAU, and it was getting too big," Williams says.

That might be an understatement.

The BWSL is now arguably the world's most renowned AAU organization. Williams has taken teams to international tournaments in Paris, South America, and in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia. Williams has also coached the USA junior national select team to a 99-79 victory in the 2004 Nike Hoop Summit.

"Probably one of the most intriguing things about Boo Williams is you would think Boo is a sort of country Virginia-type guy, who would seem to be very laid-back and not worldly," Flynn says. "However, Boo is a master of understanding the nuances of power basketball and politics."

Because of his global ties and recognization, international teams have participated in some of his events in Hampton Roads.

Most recently, the 16-and-under Ukrainian girls' national team participated in the Nike Premier Showcase during Easter weekend. Then, the 18-and-under Russian national team competed in the Southern Hoop Group Jam Fest two weekends later.

Williams also advises Nike on marketing strategies and has developed seven national players of the year. Two of his former athletes, Smith, in 1995, and Iverson, in 1996, were back-to-back No. 1 picks in the NBA draft.

"I tell you guys in Philly, there will never be another Allen Iverson," Williams says of the former 76er. "Iverson is probably the most talented kid we ever coached, because he did less. He had natural talent.

"Most guys like Alonzo Mourning would work hard. Iverson would eat a hotdog and hamburger and start playing. I never coached a kid that could stay up all night and play."

On the boys' side, Williams has produced 13 McDonald's all-Americans. His latest was James McAdoo, a 6-8 senior power forward at Norfolk Christian (Va.). McAdoo, the nephew of former NBA great Bob McAdoo, earned co-MVP honors at this year's McDonald's and Jordan Brand all-American games.

On the girls' side, senior forwards Elizabeth Williams and Cierra Burdick were first-team USA Today selections and McDonald's all-Americans.

In all, more than 400 of his athletes have earned college scholarships.

The BWSL has also produced 15 Division I college women's head and assistant coaches - including his sister Terri Williams-Fournoy, the head coach at Georgetown University.

"Players from the Washington, D.C., area and southern Virginia yearn to play on Boo's teams," says Norm Eavenson, a recruiting analyst for Bob Gibbons All Star Sports.

To give back

Folks familiar with Williams say that through the years his motive has stayed the same. Despite running Nike's premier program, his main quest is to promote youth and give back to the community.

Other than saying he receives sneakers and products, Williams wouldn't disclose how much money Nike feeds into his program.

"Anything I get from Nike, I give to the kids," Williams says.

A Nike grassroots official also declined to give financial figures.

"Boo got in on the ground floor of Nike's grassroots efforts, and there's no denying he's tethered to the swoosh," says David Teel, a reporter at the Newport News Daily Press who has covered the BWSL since 1984. "But unless he's got accounts in the Caymans or cash in the freezer, he's not using the kids for personal gain."

Nor does Williams expect handouts from former players once they make to the pros.

Still, folks have questioned his motives, like they have those of other AAU and high school coaches whose programs are subsidized by shoe companies. Is he selling recruits to the highest bidder? Is he on Nike's payroll?

"I'm a State Farm agent," Williams says. "If I worked for Nike, I wouldn't have to sell insurance."

However, Williams doesn't like what some of the new crop of AAU coaches are doing.

"Some of the people that get involved, they don't do it for the right reason," Williams says. "They just try to get a budget. They hang around the kids."

Williams' crowning achievement is the sportsplex that carries his name.

The 4,000-seat facility, which opened in 2008, has eight basketball courts, a six-lane track, eight volleyball courts, and four hockey rinks, along with fitness and training centers. It is the largest facility of its kind in a 200-mile radius.

"We needed to build a facility, and it took us 10 years to do so because you got to get investors," says Williams, who had to convince the bank that the sportsplex would pay for itself. "You got to convince your city to get involved."

In addition to hosting 40 AAU basketball tournaments, the facility is home to 37 high school indoor track meets and various gymnastics, wrestling, volleyball, and weightlifting competitions.

"There is no one in the country that has helped youth basketball more than Boo Williams," Duke coach Mike Krzyewski said in 2008. "His work has been pure. Boo wants each youngster, regardless of his talent level, to develop their potential as a person and a player."