PHOENIX — Monty Williams isn’t the same man he was when his last NBA head-coaching gig with the New Orleans Pelicans ended.
As much as the game of basketball has changed, the man has changed so much more.
Williams introduced himself as the Phoenix Suns head coach on Tuesday coming off an assistant position with the Philadelphia 76ers. There’s a run as a San Antonio Spurs executive and an assistant gig with the Oklahoma City Thunder wedged in there since he was fired by the Pelicans in 2015.
But his journey since then is defined by the loss of his wife. On Feb. 10, 2016, Ingrid Williams lost her life in a car crash.
Williams’ speech at her funeral and his career arc that followed has built an aura around him that he admits is a bit weird. He’s just a guy about family, church and basketball.
But in joining the Suns, he is where he feels like he belongs — a servant in basketball terms, back as a head coach following the detour caused by his devastating personal loss.
“I always wanted to get back into this role but I never felt like I was entitled to be a head coach,” Williams said Tuesday. “I wanted to. Because of my family situation I didn’t know that I could. The things that allowed me to think that way was, one, my kids. When I was away from the coaching part of my life, I was just at peace with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do it again just based on my family situation.
“My kids, especially my daughters, weren’t happy with that. My oldest daughter kind of read me the riot act one day about getting back into coaching,” Williams added. “And then I had a conversation with (Spurs GM) R.C. Buford one day … R.C. looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Your kids won’t be happy if you don’t get back into coaching.’ Those two episodes really pushed me back into the mode of doing what I do well.”
Williams, who is now remarried, hasn’t lost sight of his dream — being a part of the NBA.
From Maryland originally, he attended Notre Dame before becoming the 24th overall pick by the New York Knicks in 1994.
Since, he has played with Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. Following his playing days, Williams has coached Brandon Roy, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
It helped in looking at the Phoenix head-coaching job that he sees some Roy in Suns guard Devin Booker and Robinson in Deandre Ayton, though Williams hedged that comparisons do those players little good.
In the end, prayer, his family and basketball all aligned to land Williams in Phoenix.
A reported candidate to take the Los Angeles Lakers head-coaching job, the Suns, led by general manager James Jones, pitched Williams. He bought in, knowing Jones and senior VP of basketball operations Jeff Bower from his past stops.
He also was sold by owner Robert Sarver, who didn’t pass the buck with excuses about the Suns’ past failures during a second interview. Williams told Bickley & Marotta on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station that former Suns owner and NBA figure Jerry Colangelo “pushed” him to work for Sarver.
What else was it that appealed to him?
“One, they hired me,” Williams said. “And I mean that respectfully. These jobs are hard to come by, there are only 30. And two, it was the people I was going to work with … and the players.
“But it’s an NBA job. I hope I’ve never lost sight of the fact that I’m in the NBA.”
Williams and Jones already have an established relationship. Their task is to rebuild a 19-win program from the bottom-up.
Cultural change that was promised but not given time to marinate has bitten the Suns time and time again this decade. The next step for Williams is imparting his lessons learned — in basketball and life — and mistakes made on his young players, starting with Booker and Ayton.
That, he reiterated at his introductory press conference, is his calling.
“We’re going to break bread and talk. We’ve texted,” he said. “This generation is so different. They Insta-tweet and Facefam … they got all these things they do, they’d much rather do that than talk on the phone. We’re going to spend time together, that’s a given.
“At the same time, I know that the summers are important but for us to get where we want to go, we got to spend a lot of time connecting. That’s going to take place this summer. James and I have already started planning touching guys this summer, you know, flying around the country and maybe even the Bahamas (to visit Ayton) to make sure that our guys know that we care about them but we also want to lay a foundation for where we want to take this place.”