By Lee Benson | Deseret News |
Published: Aug. 1, 2017 5:55 p.m.
Updated: Aug. 2, 2017 10:15 a.m.
DRAPER — It’s been 12 years now since she last laced up her basketball shoes and, yes, Natalie Williams has pretty much stayed true to her retirement day vow.
“I don’t plan on running again, unless something big and scary is chasing me,” she said in 2005 after she’d shot her last basket and pulled down her final rebound for the Indiana Fever, the WNBA team she’d joined after the Utah Starzz folded in 2002.
She was 34 years old — not exactly ancient, even by pro athlete standards. But it’s not the years, it’s the miles. And few athletes, male or female, had gone the distance quite like she had.
At Taylorsville High School, she led her teams to state championships in volleyball and basketball. At UCLA, she became the first woman in history to be named All-American in both volleyball and basketball the same season. After college she won gold medals playing basketball in two world championships and the 2000 Olympics. In nine seasons as a professional she was an All-Star seven times and was once league MVP.
And now? What’s the woman the state of Utah named Female Athlete of the Century and who is enshrined in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame doing now?
Watching everybody else lace up their sneakers and run.
After more than a decade of coaching club and high school basketball — helping Skyline High School to two state championships as an assistant and compiling a 55-11 record and two region championships as head coach for three seasons at Juan Diego High School — Williams has ramped up her game, establishing the Natalie Williams Basketball Academy at Sport City, the 80,000-square-foot mega-gym in Draper.
She has 14 youth teams and five elite high school club teams under her direction, in addition to scheduling camps and organizing tournaments. It’s a full-time job and then some, which is fine with Williams, who never had a problem staying overtime in the gym.
She looks at the beautiful, air-conditioned courts and dozens of girls shooting baskets at Sport City, and even if it wasn’t all that long ago, can’t help but compare today’s world for female athletes to the one she grew up in not that many miles — and years — down the road in Taylorsville.
“My first sport was softball at 8 years old; I didn’t start playing basketball until seventh grade,” she said.
She didn’t even know such a thing as summer camps existed until she was well into her teens.
When she got serious about volleyball during her high school years, she used to take the Amtrak redeye to Las Vegas on Fridays to join a club team there that would travel to Los Angeles for the weekend in order to play against elite level competition. On Sunday night she’d ride the train back from Vegas to Salt Lake City.
“My mom let me do that!” Williams exclaims.
Musing on all that, she gestures toward Ayla and Nation, her two youngest daughters. They’re 10 and 7. They’ve been playing basketball since they could walk.
Her hopes for her girls? The same as for everyone else at the Natalie Williams Basketball Academy: teach them how to win and how to lose, how to build confidence, how to be part of a team, how to have fun. And, oh yeah, how to play basketball the right way. If all goes really well, they’ll wind up with a scholarship that pays for their college education.
Williams has been there and done that. UCLA paid her way through college, getting a bargain in the process. Not only did their Utah recruit star on the basketball team, she led the Bruins to those two national championships in volleyball. On one memorable night, Natalie suited up for the basketball team early in the evening and later that night led the volleyball team to a win over USC.
Twenty-five years later, she says her only regret about college — and we’re not making this up — is not playing more.
“UCLA wanted me to play softball one year and I said no because I needed a break,” she said. “I wish I would have played.”
Her love for sports, and where sports takes you, is effervescent.
“You learn how to handle conflict, you learn how to handle pressure. Those are life skills sports teaches you,” she said. “You learn how to be gracious even in defeat, you learn how to communicate — with your coaches, with your peers — you learn about confidence and how to believe in yourself.”
She saw the world because of sports.
“I’ve been to Cuba, Argentina, Taiwan, Australia, Russia, China, Japan, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Slovakia, Siberia,” she said, ticking off the country names off the top of her head.
Playing in the WNBA — where her 8.3 rebounds-per-game career average still ranks eighth best all time — gave her a graduate course in Americana. “It’s remarkable where sports took me, the things I saw, the things I learned.”
The only drawback is that 38-inch vertical leap she used to have is more like .38 now.
“The worst thing is getting old and you can put that down,” she said, smiling, sort of.
“When you jump so high for so long you’ve eventually gotta come down. Who knows how many times I landed, but I have zero cartilage in both ankles and both knees. I’ve had two surgeries on my right ankle and it’s still not good at all. I do have dreams of running once in a while. I miss it. But the best I can do is quick walk. The girls know it. They know mom can’t chase them fast up the stairs.”
Still, she said she wouldn’t change a minute, or a second, and that’s the big draw for her to keep coming to the gym every day, even if she can’t run the floor like she once did.
Showing the way for others never gets tiring.
“I just enjoy teaching and coaching young kids and I really want to make a name for the Utah kids,” she said. “Utah as a whole is not known for having good quality recruits and I’m trying to change that.”
Nate Williams, the dad she didn’t meet until she was a teenager, is a regular presence in her life now. Her mother, Robyn, and Nate met at Utah State but did not marry. Shortly after Natalie was born in 1970, Nate finished his final season playing at USU and then embarked on his own pro basketball career. He spent eight years in the NBA, while Robyn moved to Taylorsville to raise Natalie alone.
It wasn’t until she was 16 that Natalie met her father in person. Their relationship has developed since then. Nate Williams was in Utah recently for a golf fundraiser for his daughter’s academy. He was there front and center last summer in Knoxville, Tennessee, when his daughter was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. So was Robyn, who lives in South Jordan with her husband, just around the corner from Natalie and the grandkids, and is a constant presence taking care of Ayla and Nation and the two older children, Sydney and Turasi.
“You know, it takes a village; that saying is true,” said Williams.
The same is true of her academy (nataliewilliamsbasketballacademy.com), where she has surrounded herself with a staff of coaches who will help her emphasize all the positives and sheer joys of the great game of basketball — while also joining her in enforcing her one hard and fast rule: No one is allowed to say “can’t.”
If you’re heard saying that four-letter word around Williams, that’s five pushups, for the entire gym.
“You can say you are not able, but not the ‘c’ word,” she said. “Because if you say it, you’re right.”
She sees such a bright future for the youngsters she’s coaching. The places they can go, the things they can do. If you make it to the big leagues these days, she marvels, “Your family can watch you play on their phone! That would have been fun for my family to do that!”
Beyond teaching basketball skills, she wants the girls who play for her to learn to enjoy the journey.
“Appreciate every opportunity you’re given; make sure you’re not just going through the motions,” she tells them. “There are amazing opportunities coming and you don’t want to miss any of them.”