Monty Williams is thankful for the hardships and triumphs of his NBA journey
The 2022 NBA Coach of the Year reflects on his faith, the death of his wife in 2016, returning to coaching and what it would mean to win an NBA championship
PHOENIX — Coach Monty Williams was very emotional after his Phoenix Suns lost in the 2021 NBA Finals, and that self-pity continued for about two weeks as he relaxed in his offseason country home in Texas. Then, suddenly, another emotion hit the man of strong Christian faith.
“I was so selfish the way that I thought about it. I felt like we deserved to win,” Williams told Andscape last month. “And it had to be the Lord just taking me through this quick process of ‘Look at all the things that have happened. It’s selfish for you to think you have a right to win. You should be thankful for everything that’s happened here in Phoenix. The guys you get to coach, the people you’ve met, the money you make. And for a short period of time, you guys are in the NBA Finals. Are you kidding me?’
“And I didn’t really get to that point until I got back to Texas and everything kind of settled down. Our house is out in the country. I had a lot of time to think and pray. I became way more aware of my hypocrisy. Here I am again, this reputation for all this stuff, and here I am internally feeling like I deserve something. It took me about a week or two to get to that point where I was like, man, I should be way more grateful and thankful than I am right now.”
The reigning Western Conference champion Suns failed to close out the Dallas Mavericks during a 113-86 Game 6 loss in Dallas on Thursday night, and Phoenix’s title aspirations are on the line Sunday as they face superstar Luka Doncic and the visiting Mavs in a deciding Game 7.
“We just did not have the focus and determination that it takes to win a game like this on the road, but we will have it the next time we step on the floor,” Williams said after Game 6.
In the following Q&A, Williams spoke candidly with Andscape about the origin and continued growth of his Christian faith, how he questioned his faith during the tragic death of his first wife, Ingrid, how San Antonio Spurs CEO R.C. Buford convinced him to return to coaching, how he became very emotional after the National Basketball Coaches Association named him Coach of the Year for a second time, respecting people from other religions, and much more.
“I think when you lead with service and love, it allows for you to have a relationship with people. And if you’re going to be in this business, you’re going to have to figure that out.”
How do you use faith in today’s NBA with respect to different religions and political correctness? How do you incorporate it with your team now?
Early on in my career, I probably used faith in a way that separated me from people as a player. Probably looked at myself as different just because I was a professed Christian. And when I look back on that, I’m unbelievably ashamed of that approach. Now I’ve learned that with my faith, the two things I have to do is serve and love. And that allows for me to relate to people who aren’t like me, to make them somewhat comfortable, even though they may know that I may have a different value system than them.
If I lead with service and love, it’s not as divisive as you would think. I’m well aware that when you profess that you’re a Christian, people look at you a certain way. And it probably has affected me in many ways. But I think when you lead with service and love, it allows for you to have a relationship with people. And if you’re going to be in this business, you’re going to have to figure that out.
When did your Christian faith start?
From my grandfather, James Williams Sr., who was a pastor in North Carolina for 50-plus years. He was all over the place. The main church that I remember was Cleveland Avenue Christian Church in Winston-Salem. That was where I kind of formed my foundation as far as memories with my granddad because he took me to vacation Bible school, we went to Bible camp. I was at church pretty much all day with he and my grandmother. And back then, Cleveland Avenue Christian Church was in an area that was basically in the ’hood.
It’s actually where [Suns guard] Chris [Paul’s] family grew up, around that church. [My grandfather] was the first example that I had of somebody that I looked up to that was talking about God, living a life that had an unbelievably high moral compass. But I don’t think I took my faith seriously, even though I got saved when I was 10. I didn’t take it seriously until I was 18 and the doctors told me that I had a heart condition, and I was probably going to die if I kept playing basketball. And I met this girl [Ingrid Williams] who became my girlfriend, and I watched her live it out every single day. … And she was one of the first kids I’d met that was my age that was living it out. She ended up being my wife of 20-plus years. She probably changed me more than any one person.
I recall sitting with you in the coach’s office for an interview after what would be your last game coaching the New Orleans Pelicans after being swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. You were really stung by fans near the bench heckling you while your family was in earshot. Shortly after, you were relieved of your duties by New Orleans. How did you get through being fired as a head coach?
For some reason, and it had to be the Lord, I’ve grown into this perspective that nothing in my life was happening without God’s approval. And he’s not surprised by anything that’s happened to me or happening around me. So, I knew that that door had closed. I may not have liked how it closed. I didn’t like whatever happened. And I’ve shared this with very few people, but when I got fired, I was on my way home. I just called Ingrid and I said, ‘Hey, I just got fired.’ She’s like, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘I got to get the kids.’ The kids were in school. She was well aware of social media. She’s like, this is going to hit quick. So, she went and got the kids out of school before it got out.
And that drive from the practice site to my house, all I could think about was Matthew 6:33. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.’ And I had to admit to myself that as much as I wanted to believe that I did all I could do in every area of my coaching, I had to admit that I didn’t. It was a really profound, strong feeling that was on my heart that I knew that the Lord was impressing upon me. And it forced me not to blame. It forced me not to come up with all kinds of excuses about the organization and this person or that person. I had to look at myself. And I don’t think I would’ve had that perspective if I didn’t have Jesus in my life.
It kept me from being sore about it. And then the next level was gratitude. Real quickly, before you know it, an hour had passed. My pastor came by the house, Ingrid was at the house with the kids. The next thing you know, all these cameras from the New Orleans media came and they were on my porch. And had I not gone through that quick process, I probably would’ve said something real stupid. But the only thing that I could express at that time was gratitude.
What level of faith did you have as an NBA player?
My rookie year, we couldn’t have our own rooms unless you paid for it. The NBA hadn’t progressed to the point where everybody got their own room. And they said, ‘Well, if you want a free ride on the road, you got to bunk up with somebody.’ So, the other draft pick that year [by the New York Knicks in 1994] was Charlie Ward. And we ended up bunking together all year.
It was God. I was picked 24th, he was 26th. We had the same faith, even though he was way more mature. I was like in kindergarten, and he was mentally status [in] grad school. And I was watching him the whole time. We went to practice together. We worked out together. … We ate together. And then we’d go to our rooms, and we talked about the Lord. We talked about our shortcomings. I shared with him things I was struggling with. He shared with me, and we became accountability partners. And that year really formed my habits because I’m just going to be straight with you. I left college, and I heard about the NBA. And I was like, you know what, I’m going to explore and experience it.
I wasn’t married. And I’m careful with how I say these things because I don’t want to come off as judgmental. But that time with Charlie helped me to form my habits because I was going to just do whatever and just see what it was like. I was so tired because [then-Knicks head coach] Pat Riley, we’d have like 3½-hour practices every day. But I had Charlie Ward.
“When people hear that you’re a Christian as an athlete, I think they think we just sit and go, ‘Oh, you’re this and you’re that,’ and we point fingers. I’m like, ‘Oh no.’ If it wasn’t for Jesus, man, I’d be a train wreck. On my best day I’m a mess.”— Monty Williams on his faith as an NBA player
That time with Charlie had a huge effect on me. He, along with, at that time, my girlfriend [Ingrid Williams] who became my fiancée that year, they had no idea how much I was watching them and how their lifestyle was a challenge to me because I knew I wasn’t like that. … And they didn’t judge me, Ingrid and Charlie. They knew that I was really immature in my faith. They knew that I was shallow, and they didn’t judge me. And it really helped me to this day to not be judgmental to people that may not be anything like you.
When people hear that you’re a Christian as an athlete, I think they think we just sit and go, ‘Oh, you’re this and you’re that,’ and we point fingers. I’m like, ‘Oh no.’ If it wasn’t for Jesus, man, I’d be a train wreck. On my best day I’m a mess. You may think I’m just saying that just to have lively debate and conversation. Like, no, no, I’m straight telling you, they didn’t judge me. Ingrid and Charlie just embraced me, walked with me and as I began to mature, the older I got, I really appreciate it. That’s the kind of grace that I want to extend to people that aren’t like me.
You had a Muslim teammate with the Orlando Magic in Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Abdul-Wahad once said that former Magic head coach Doc Rivers stopped team prayers before games because it made him feel uncomfortable because they weren’t of the Muslim faith. What do you recall from that and what did you learn?
It didn’t bother me at all because I was not that immature where I couldn’t respect somebody who thought differently or had a different value system or a different religion. And what people didn’t know, Tariq and I were the best teammates, and we were starters at the time. So, we worked together a lot. I respected the heck out of his discipline. He was really disciplined in his faith. And there were times where we would have conversations and we would just agree to disagree, but it was cordial. And I always respected, No. 1, he had game. And, two, I just had a respect for his discipline. But when Doc did that, I totally got it.
The one thing that John 3:16 says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave.’ That’s my job. Like, if you’re different, if we have a different religion or different value system, that may be the case. But my goal is to show you that I love you no matter what. And again, I go back to what Ingrid and Charlie did for me. They loved me through all my immaturity, through all my whatever that was, they still loved me. And so, it gave me a chance to be that to Tariq.
Your faith obviously was challenged the most in Oklahoma City while you were an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder. How were you able to not question your faith after your wife tragically died in 2016 in a head-on collision car crash in Oklahoma City while driving three of your children?
That’s the thing, I did question it. But I think what people have to know is if God is God, he can handle our questions. And even if he gives us the answers, it doesn’t mean we’re going to understand. I did question it. I didn’t question his love for me. I didn’t question his plan for me. I just questioned why that happened to my wife. Why did that have to happen to my children? Why didn’t it happen to me? That was my question.
I would much rather have her here than her gone. My kids got to deal with me. I’d much rather it had been me. Those are my questions. My questions weren’t like, ‘Why does bad things happen to good people?’ That wasn’t even, didn’t cross my mind. First of all, the Bible says no one is good, and I agree. So, I couldn’t even go there. That wasn’t part of my questions. My question was, ‘Why didn’t I take my kids to that game?’ My questions were, ‘Why couldn’t they have left a minute later?’ My questions were like, ‘Why did that particular lady have to do that?’ Those were my questions. … I was just hurting, and I just couldn’t figure out why did that have to happen to that girl. Why did it have to happen?
At the time, nobody knew this, but there was a number of teams that had already contacted my agent [for head coach openings]. And they were basically winding up. And two weeks later, the accident happened. And the other crazy part was I was in Phoenix before I went to OKC. That was the road trip. Phoenix to OKC. The accident happened the next day. So, when the Lord brought us back here, I was like, ‘Wow, Phoenix?’ Because it’s a part of my memory base for that whole two- or three-day period.
You left coaching and went into the Spurs’ front office for two years before getting back into coaching as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2018. Where were you mentally when you returned to coaching?
I told Lisa this recently, my [second] wife, that if I hadn’t have met her, there’s no way I’d be able to do this. I was in a place where there was just no way I was going to trust anybody around my kids. I was like I’m, done. I told Pop [Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich] and [president] R.C. Buford that. I’ll never forget, me and R.C. went in the office. I was doing management and just trying to figure out, I’m on the road, I’m at Michigan State practices, Rice [University], I’m in Michigan, I’m all over the place. I’m scouting and going overseas.
And I’d come back, I told R.C., ‘I just don’t think I can coach anymore.’ And he was just like, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I can. I can’t leave my kids.’ And he was just like, ‘Your kids wouldn’t want you to do that. They know you, and they know what makes you happy. And if you stop, they’re going to feel like it’s going to be their fault.’ And so, I had to start to process like OK, ‘What does that look like?’ No. 1, I can’t see myself getting married again and two, I can’t, I don’t think I could ever trust anybody with my kids. And then just like that, I met Lisa.
And it was just like, holy smokes, a totally different mindset. You try to transfer being with Ingrid for 26, 27 years and then all of a sudden … I can’t even explain it. She’s just been an angel. She’s an absolute angel, man. I won the [2022 NBCA] coach of the year award. I found out when I was in L.A. at the Clippers game when I got the call that I won. And I just, I broke down and started crying. I remembered my mindset that I was never going to be able to do it again. And if I hadn’t done it again, I never would’ve gotten the chance to experience all of this. It was overwhelming. … And I called Chris [Paul]. And Chris came in there and sat with me for a while and I told him about the award. I was messed up. Because my whole mindset before was I can’t do it.
I had two Chick-Fil-A’s lined up I was going to buy in San Antonio. I was going through the process of taking those classes and all that. I was done. I couldn’t [coach]. There was just no way I was going to be able to, because my kids needed a dad. They needed a home. And I couldn’t provide doing anything else. And when I met Lisa, and the sacrifices that that girl has made for our family are just, you can’t even imagine. I wouldn’t be here had she not said I got this. She’s been doing it ever since.
What is your daily routine when it comes to faith?
I wake up every morning at 5:30, 6:00 [a.m.] and I get my coffee, take the dogs out and then I just study. Sometimes I do [devotionals]. Sometimes I’ll do ‘The Bible in the Year.’ And it’s not because I’m well versed in Scripture or anywhere close to a theologian. But for me, it sets the course of my day. Just being able to go to the Lord with anything that I need wisdom on or just confessing some things I’m dealing with usually. A lot more junk that you would imagine. That’s where I start my days.
These jobs are unbelievably taxing. And it’s the one thing that just calms me down, gives me a base for the day, and it goes back to Matthew 6:33, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.’ And every day, I try to start in my word, trying to find some direction or some wisdom on how to handle my day.
Can you imagine if you get the championship, just what your emotions could be like?
The one thing that that situation taught me is that I just can’t go there. You know, we all think about it, but I can’t stay there. Because I got to live right here in the moment, like the day by day. Every one of us thinks about what does that look like at the highest level of your vocation, and you achieve something. Like, we’ve all done that. Whether it’s [the] Nobel Peace Prize or whatever the case may be, we all have thought about it, but I can’t live it just because, for me anyway, it takes away from enjoying where you are.
And I can’t control that. All I can do is do the best I can. But I would imagine, I mean, it would be emotionally far greater than anything I could describe. These last six years have taken a lot out of me. It’s hard to even describe that. But it has been a taxing six years since Ingrid died. The emotions that go with it, I can’t even describe it. And so, if we were to be able to do something like that, man, I’d probably be on emotional overload for a while. I can’t even imagine.