Two and a half years ago, Norfolk (Va.) State senior Corey Williams was unloading frozen foods from trucks at an Elizabeth, N.J., Shop Rite from midnight until 8 a.m. In the afternoons he slept, and following dinner with his mother, Altamease, he played basketball at a neighborhood recreation center until it was time to go to work. "Basketball was an escape for me," Williams says. "It kept me off the streets and out of trouble."
Still, playing pickup ball seemed like a waste of Williams's ability, considering that he had been a star at Essex (N.J.) County junior college in 1988-89, when he averaged 23.7 points and 11.9 rebounds a game. At 6'8" and 210 pounds he had the ability to be a Division I player but lacked the grades. So instead he played in church and rec leagues. During the summer of 1992 he banged against local legends such as the New York Knicks' Anthony Mason and the Orlando Magic's Anthony Avent in a New Jersey pro-am league and gained some much desired respect. He also earned another shot at a college degree.
Williams's play in the league impressed Ed Butler, a New Jersey scout, who recommended him to Norfolk State coach Mike Bernard. When Bernard saw Williams play, he offered him a scholarship. "To be a park legend is fine," says Bernard, "but I know a lot of players who are still park legends and nothing more. Corey needed to get out of that environment so that he could showcase his talents."
Showcase them he did. After sitting out a year to get his grades up, he averaged 23.0 points and 7.9 rebounds a game last season for the 27-6 Spartans, who have four starters back this year. His performance even drew NBA scouts to Norfolk.
Watching the 25-year-old Williams mature has been gratifying for Bernard. "When Corey first got here, he would try to take advantage of everything he could," Bernard says. "Now I think he is more concerned with being responsible."
Williams's newfound maturity is something that Sharon Moore, a Norfolk Community Hospital administrator, can attest to. She spotted Williams and was struck by his resemblance to her lanky son, Aaron. Williams was taller than Aaron, but he had the same gait, the same smile. "I told him I'd like him to meet my son," says Moore, "that I wanted my son to have a big brother."
Williams agreed to meet them for dinner. He greeted Aaron with a playful headlock, and they have since become like brothers. Says Aaron, who is a 6'5" freshman at Deep Creek High in Chesapeake, Va., "Now I have someone to look up to."
Similarly, Williams has his own hero—Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls and Central Arkansas, the patron saint of small-college NBA hopefuls. But Williams will have to learn the value of defense if he wants to follow in Pippen's footsteps. "Corey's biggest problem is he sometimes wants to go back to the sandlot days and do the freak passes, the flip passes," says Spartan assistant coach Mel Coleman. "He likes to go into what I call his junk bag."
Says Williams, "The playground will always be with me, but I've matured a lot since I've gotten here. Being at Norfolk State has given me the chance to travel and see what else is out there."
Williams (left) and Aaron are now fast friends
The Top 10
1 Norfolk State
2 Philadelphia Textile
3 Indiana (Pa.)
5 Virginia Union
6 Fort Hays State
7 North Dakota
9 California (Pa.)
10 Southern Indiana