If you wanted to name a local college athlete with the worst run of luck over the last, say, century, Penn basketball player Jelani Williams is at least a candidate for top honors.
“I just thought that he would be the guy we’d build the program around,‘' said Quakers coach Steve Donahue.
That’s how highly Williams was thought of as a point guard prospect. That buzz preceded his arrival. Three years in, Williams hasn’t played a minute yet. Three ACL tears, going back to his senior year in high school, changed the game for him.
The guard from Washington was medically cleared to play on July 7, one year to the day after his last ligament tear.
At some point, maybe this man can need to teach a class on patience, on living in limbo, not letting his personal circumstances consume him. Even now, he’s cleared to play, but what does that mean exactly?
“Nowhere I could really go to get a workout,‘' Williams said of spending much of this summer dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. “Definitely frustrating. I think where it’s different in my circumstance, I’ve been in such a place. Basketball is still huge in my life, but I’m also at a place where I’m used to waiting. That adversity, it’s not new to me.”
Williams added, “We’re in a public health crisis. I’m not one to think my circumstance is bigger than what this country is going through.”
Donahue said Williams came in the door from Sidwell Friends with a sense of perspective.
“Even his sophomore year, he was taking the train up from D.C. and looking at the Palestra,” Donahue said. “You just sensed a maturity about him, even at this age.”
Make no mistake, Williams is a team leader, especially this summer when hoop teams across the country met via Zoom and talked about the social justice landscape.
“It was obvious to me, with his time away from basketball, he just got a different set of eyes on things,‘' Donahue said. “A lot of kids are all about themselves. He just really educated himself, so he could speak intelligently about all the issues.”
That included what Williams was looking for from his college, including his administrators, coaches, and teammates. The son of educators, Williams said he grew up hearing about the power of knowledge and the power of his words. If his ability to play a sport opened doors “that most people can’t get into” -- it also created a responsibility for him to speak out. George Floyd’s death did not start the conversation in his mind.
At home this summer, Williams said he attended Black Lives Matter protests “literally every day for two or three weeks, just trying to be part of the cause, feel the pulse of the people.” The first day, Williams said the group he was in got barricaded in from all sides by law enforcement and couldn’t move along Pennsylvania Avenue, so the entire group sat down on the street. That’s when the flashbangs started.
On June 1, Williams said he got a text from his mother to get out of there, that they were about to clear the streets. She was watching on television. That was the day President Donald Trump crossed that same street after protesters were cleared out with tear gas. Williams had been in that crowd.
“It was more me witnessing the violence than being a victim of it -- but I think that’s just as traumatic, honestly,‘' Williams said.
At Penn, there have been panel discussions within the athletic department, Williams said. Donahue said Williams has been a powerful voice pushing his teammates and the coaches. He’s one of the leaders helping launch Black Student Athletes at Penn, a group that intends to have its own physical meeting space. An Africana Studies minor, he’s sent links to teammates and coaches to read up on history.
“When it first hit, I talked to coaches [of other teams], they said no one knew exactly what to say,‘' Donahue said. “His ability to articulate what he wanted from the group, his teammates -- his white teammates and white coaches, his Black teammates -- he had us understand that this was really important to him, and we needed to recognize this.”
“You look at the power structure,‘' Williams said, referring to coaches and administrators within the Ivy League. “There are only two Black head [basketball] coaches in the Ivy League. … We’ve been able to challenge that.”
Williams added that Donahue and his assistants have been strong advocates, publicly and privately. He also talked about larger issues, such as Penn not contributing PILOT payments (payments in lieu of taxes) to support city schools. What he said attracted him to Penn in the first place, its place as an enclave within the city, now has him questioning the university’s role in Philadelphia.
“There are families who don’t even know what Penn is, and we’re down the street,‘' Williams said. “They don’t even think of us as an opportunity. That says a lot.”
Williams made it clear that the Palestra remains a powerful draw in his life, that he couldn’t be more excited to play the game. He did play for the Quakers when they took a summer trip to Italy in 2018.
“Thought he was our best player on that trip,‘' Donahue said. “Can’t tell you how excited he was.”
Soon after, another ACL tear. Donahue said he feels Williams has continued to grow as a player. No expectations. “I just want to get him healthy,‘' Donahue said. “It’s not like his body has gotten worse. It’s actually gotten better.”
Don’t think this process has been easy. Williams will take you through it. Each injury different, he said, in terms of the recovery process. When he tore his left ACL in practice the day after Christmas his senior year of high school, he had surgery in early January, he went at the recovery hard, “really locked in.”
Then he injured his right knee. Surgery in August of 2018. At that point, he described his mental outlook as “so twisted. I was just frustrated.” As a result, for the recovery, “I wasn’t completely locked in. I kind of rushed the process. I was going through the motions.”
When injuries hit the Quakers’ backcourt, that made it harder to sit and watch, Williams said.
Cleared to play in 2019, Williams said he tried to push his body hard -- “pretty aware, didn’t feel like I was physically ready to go. I was probably overworking my body.”
When he tore his right ACL again -- “just a basic move. I planted to go between my legs, it caved on me … At that point, I went back into that depressed state, for lack of a better word. Really down on myself. I kind of decided to take the first semester off from school, be at home, not have to deal with the stress of classes. That was honestly the biggest decision I made through the whole process, to get me over the hump, get motivated.”
He knows all the stages. Patience In a Pandemic 101. Williams could teach that course, among others.
“I know my time is coming,‘' Williams said. “I feel it.”