Dribbling out of football country

Navy: In football-mad Georgia, the locals wanted Chris Williams to catch passes, but the Mids' junior forward passed on that to play basketball in Annapolis.

March 09, 2000|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

From throughout the Southeastern Conference came the recruiters to entice Chris Williams. From the University of Florida. And the University of Georgia. Even from far outside the league. UCLA was in the mix.

Football, football, football they chanted in unison to Benedictine (Ga.) Military Academy's stellar wide receiver, a four-year letterman in the sport for a state power.

It turns out they were all barking up the wrong sport.

"Football was just something I didn't want to do," said Williams, perhaps the most gifted natural athlete on Navy's 23-5 men's basketball team. "Probably just because I started playing basketball earlier and enjoyed it more. I knew if I concentrated on basketball, I'd have more fun."

Right now, the junior small forward is having a ton of fun as the Midshipmen prepare to return to Easton, Pa., tomorrow for a rubber meeting with Lafayette to decide the Patriot League title and an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

Williams does not regret scrubbing football, nor a decision to attend the academy to study mechanical engineering when nearby Georgia Tech could have offered him a similar curriculum.

"The closest other match for me was Georgia Tech," he said. "My brother Claven was a Yellow Jacket and left there in 1992 with a degree in mechanical engineering. And my high school coach was good friends with Bobby Cremins.

"But the family thought coming here [Annapolis] was a good decision for me, especially with the education they have to offer. My dad is a retired Navy aviator and my uncle a captain in intelligence. They thought this was the place for me."

Navy coach Don DeVoe joked: "That he never really wanted to play football at the Division I level tells me a lot about his intelligence. We just kept hanging in there, and we got him."

Williams was among a six-recruit class that forms the crux of the current team. Included are three other starters -- forward Robert Reeder and guards John Williams and Reggie Skipworth.

"He is just blessed with a lot of quickness and good hands," said DeVoe of Chris Williams. "He does a lot of things for this team and usually doesn't leave anything on the floor."

A first-team all-league selection, Williams' playing style is the most flamboyant of anyone on the roster, and the coaching staff is well aware of it.

"Sometimes I get a little too loose and the ball pops out," he admitted. "Early in the season I was in danger of committing triple doubles in turnovers. But the last 10 games, I've calmed myself down."

He leads the team in that dubious category with 85 but is also second to Sitapha Savane in scoring (15.2 ppg), rebounding (6.2 rpg) and steals (54) and second in assists to Skipworth (53).

"When I go to the court, I just have a feeling that there is not a person who can stop me except myself," Williams said. "Unless I make a bad decision, I feel like I can score every time I touch the ball."

Because of his pell-mell approach, Williams has also been saddled with injuries. He underwent surgery on his left knee as a freshman and missed half the season. He missed a game last season because of a sprained ankle.

At Bucknell two months ago, he and Bucknell guard Brian Muckle were scrambling for a free ball when Williams' mouth slammed into the floor, chipping two teeth. In Navy's rout of Lafayette at Alumni Hall, he was on a breakaway when Leopard Greg McCleary slammed him into the stanchion, which led to four stitches in his head.

"Muckle and I are friends," he said. "But I'm not a friend of that guy from Lafayette who put me into the support. I thought it was a cheap shot."

So there will be an extra incentive for Williams in the championship game, which should attract a sellout crowd to the Kirby Center, among it Lafayette's rowdy "Zoo Crew."

Williams wasn't quite sure what to expect from the Midshipmen before the season, particularly after an 0-3 start. It turned out to be a mere adjustment period.

"This year we have a true post man [Savane], and we had to learn how to get good inside-out," he said. "Nobody in the Patriot League can stop him and we know when he gets going, it makes it a lot easier for the rest of us to score.

"The question before the season was, `Who's going to lead and make everything happen?' and how was the talent going to work together. Sitapha was that on the court and our other senior, Jeremy Toton, does a lot of motivating off the court that people don't see. It doesn't take a lot of seniors, just quality ones."

Navy's summer trip to Europe to play against professionals convinced Williams he may have a basketball future after the academy. It may play out that way.

"We didn't know what to expect, whether we'd go over there and get pummeled," he said. "But I was getting my points, and I knew I could play at that level either here or in Europe.

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