New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green’s son has taken a unique path to the NCAA tournament
After a challenge from Green, Ross Williams went from NAIA to Division II to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Ross Williams was riding Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s bus back to school after earning a ticket to the NCAA tournament when a FaceTime call he was waiting for suddenly arrived. With a smile on his face and pride in his heart, New Orleans Pelicans coach Willie Green offered congratulations in a beautiful father-son moment.
While Green isn’t Williams’ biological father, the fifth-year senior guard views him as his beloved dad due to the love, guidance and memorable experiences he has given him since marrying his mother in 2010.
“I always thank him all the time,” Williams told Andscape in a phone interview. “Biologically, anybody can be a father, but it takes a real stand-up dude to be a dad. And the moment that he’s come into my life, he’s been a father figure. And I couldn’t ask for a better role model, the way that he treats my mom, the way that he treats my younger siblings, the way that he treats me, the way that he treats the people that he works with. He’s just a stand-up dude and he’s always been there for me and has been instilling morals in me since I was a kid.
“And, yeah, that’s my dad. I don’t look at anybody more of a father figure than him. I love him. And I know that he’s not my biological father. But as far as a father, he’s all I know.”
Five years ago, Williams only had one full basketball scholarship offer from NAIA Menlo College (California). That lack of interest, however, did not keep the 5-foot-10 guard from dreaming big about playing Division I basketball. Williams played two seasons at Menlo College and two at Division II Colorado Christian University before actually realizing his dream by using a COVID-19 year to accept a full Division I scholarship to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as a graduate senior.
Williams’ story became even more remarkable when Texas A&M-Corpus Christi earned its way into the NCAA tournament by winning the Southland Conference tournament with a 75-71 championship game victory over Northwestern State on March 8. The Islanders will play Southeast Missouri State in the South Region’s First Four game on Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will play No. 1 seed Alabama on Thursday in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I really think this is a great opportunity to shock the world,” Williams said.
Green, who played in the NBA for 12 years and didn’t make the NCAA tournament when he starred at Detroit Mercy, was the proudest papa to see his son overcome extreme odds to earn a spot in March Madness.
“When they got into the NCAA tournament, I realized that Ross accomplished a dream of his,” Green said. “As a dad, I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
Williams, born on July 17, 2000, says he doesn’t have a relationship with his biological father but hopes he will in time. Green stepped into his life around 2006 when he started dating Williams’ mother, Terrah Green, in Detroit. The Green family now includes Willie, Terrah, Ross, daughter Aliyah (a daughter from a previous relationship for Green) and son Mason.
Before Green’s arrival, Williams said that it was “me and my mom against the world.” That changed when Williams was about 7 years old and he met Green at the youth basketball day camp he once hosted in Detroit. Green made a point to meet Williams during the camp and explained to him that he was dating his mother. That made for interesting conversation after Williams’ mother picked him up from the camp.
“I’ll never forget it,” Williams said. “My mom dropped me off at his camp. I had just started playing basketball. To me, I was just getting dropped off at a summer camp. I had no clue that he was talking to my mom. And I had no clue what was going on behind the scenes. And I just remember meeting him and him coming up to me and saying hello.
“And all the kids were looking at me crazy and said, ‘You know we’re at his camp?’ I had no idea. I was oblivious to the whole thing. But he was supernice and explained to me that he was talking to my mom, and I just didn’t really think anything of it.”
On the first meeting between Willie Green and Williams, Terrah Green recalled: “Willie comes up and introduces himself at the camp, it was like, ‘Hey, Ross, how are you doing?’ He goes, ‘Oh, I’m great. I’ll tell my mom I bumped into you.’ And Willie, he got the biggest laugh out of that. It was so funny. Yeah, it was really cute.”
Willie and Terrah Green got married in 2010, and Williams had a permanent father figure in his life. Williams and Willie Green bonded quickly through basketball and with the quality time they spent together. It didn’t take long for Williams to start calling Green “dad.”
“Ross was looking for that father figure, and Willie is just such an amazing man and just took him under his wing,” Terrah Green said. “And he’s always treated Ross like he was his own. And so, their bond has grown over the years. The respect has always been there. He couldn’t wait to call him dad.”
Green played for the Philadelphia 76ers (2003-2010), the New Orleans Hornets (2010-2011), Atlanta Hawks (2011-2012), Los Angeles Clippers (2012-2014) and the Orlando Magic (2014-2015). He went on to become an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors (2016-2019) and the Phoenix Suns (2019-2021) before being named the coach of the Pelicans in 2021.
Although the Green family moved a lot, Williams truly enjoyed attending at NBA games, being in locker rooms. Hanging around NBA stars such as Allen Iverson, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry was daily life. One of Williams’ fondest memories was being present in the visiting locker room in Cleveland after the Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the 2017 NBA championship. He enjoyed championship parades around Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, with the Warriors after they won three NBA titles during Green’s time with the Warriors. More recently, Williams has built a friendship with Pelicans guard Jose Alvarado.
“One of my fondest memories is meeting Allen Iverson and being able to be in the locker room with him and crack jokes,” Williams said. “I was able to be around Chris Paul and get a chance to spend a lot of time with him and his family. Jamal Crawford has always shown love. Royal Ivey always hung out with me and showed me a good time.
“My fondest memory is definitely when the Warriors won the championship in five games and finished it in Cleveland. My dad came and got me and took me in the locker room when everybody was spraying the champagne. That’s definitely a memory that I have etched in stone in my mind forever.”
In 2016, Williams transferred to California high school boys basketball power Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) when Green took a job with the Warriors. LA Clippers head athletic trainer Jasen Powell is an O’Dowd graduate who recommended to boys head basketball coach Lou Richie that he bring Williams in.
Green recalls Williams initially being told that he would likely be on the junior varsity team due to his lack of height, size and strength. Williams, however, earned a spot on the varsity team thanks to his leadership and nonstop energy on both ends of the floor. Green kept motivating Williams to continue to work hard and prove the skeptics wrong.
“O’Dowd was definitely a great experience for me. I needed, at that time. I needed to be pushed and I needed to be around players like that,” Williams said.
Said Richie: “I told him on the first day that he was a Division III player like me when I was a junior. Now prove that you can be a Division I player like me. He stuck to the plan.”
Williams started as a senior during the 2017-18 season and played with four seniors who landed Division I scholarships and one who landed a Division I football scholarship. The only school that Williams caught the eye of was Menlo College after he played well at a tournament in Hawaii. The 2018 Second Team All-West Alameda County selection chose Menlo College while his teammates signed with Power 5 schools Washington, Alabama, Utah and California-Berkeley. Williams believed he was underrecruited, and the only other option he had was playing at a prep school.
“I knew that I wanted to continue to play basketball at the next level, and I knew that I just needed somebody to give me an opportunity and to take a chance on me,” Williams said. “God blessed me with two people that were willing to take a chance on me.”
Williams didn’t play much while coming off the bench for Menlo College during the 2018-19 season. That lack of productivity on the NAIA level didn’t offer any notion that he had Division I talent. Afterward, Willie Green brought him to the Warriors practice facility to work out and play one-on-one.
Unimpressed with a lack of improvement in Williams’ game and strength, Green offered tough love on his son. Green played very physically against Williams and said he didn’t believe he had the dedication to be a great college basketball player. Green said he felt bad afterward, but he believed the tough love was necessary.
“I was bullying him, and he almost started to cry. And I just told him, I said, ‘You talk all this stuff about how good you want to be and what you want to do. You don’t work hard enough,’ ” Green said. “That’s why I kind of pulled his averages out at the time. I said, ‘That’s why you are averaging what you are averaging in the NAIA, so that’s why I’m doing this to you.’ And from there, something just clicked.
“I was making my point that day that, ‘Yeah, you’re doing it, but you got so much more in you, and God has so much more in you but you’re not going to reach it because you got to get into gym, you got to work at it because you want to be the best you can.’ ”
During the physical game, Williams’ ego was broken. But after Williams’ anger dissipated, he realized it was a “reality check” he needed if he wanted to become a standout college basketball player.
“He just went at me. Backing me down to the post, shoulders to the chest, busted my lip,” Williams said. “He’s just telling me the whole time that I’m not nothing right now because I don’t work hard enough and questioned if I was working on my game. He said that I am where I was supposed to be at, and if he were my age, he would’ve worn me out even worse. Just really killing my confidence. But, man, after that night, I went home and cried so bad. I didn’t know if I wanted to touch a basketball at that moment. I was [angry] with him, and we didn’t say many words over the next couple of days …
“That’s something that I’ve always been really, really thankful for my parents, they’ve always kept it real with me, and they always gave me a reality check when I needed one. That fight that he put in me that night, man, that fueled me for everything.”
Said Green: “To his credit, he’s been the hardest-working young guy I’ve seen in a long time since then. He just stays in the gym.”
Afterward, Williams said, he was fueled to work on his game every day during the summer of 2019 in Detroit. The hard work paid off as he became a 2020 NAIA All-American and an all-conference selection as a sophomore with Menlo College. Menlo College men’s basketball coach Kaniela Aiona, however, took a job at the University of Hawaii at Hilo in May 2020. After Aiona’s move, Williams decided to challenge himself further as Richie’s connections helped him transfer to Division II Colorado Christian.
Under the tutelage of coach Liam Simmons, brother of Brooklyn Nets forward Ben Simmons, Williams excelled at Colorado Christian, earning back-to-back Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference All-Conference honors. The two-time RMAC Player of the Week led the team in scoring with 19.6 points per game as a junior and 19.8 as a senior.
“We played Northern Colorado my first year at Colorado Christian, and I gave them 20. And after that I believed I can play on the Division I level. I just needed somebody to give me a shot,” Williams said.
Williams graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Colorado College in 2022. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Williams was also granted an extra year of eligibility and put his name in the transfer portal. To his delight, several Division I basketball programs showed interest, including Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, his dad’s alma mater Detroit Mercy, Southern Miss, Southeastern Louisiana, North Alabama, Eastern Illinois, Troy, and Southern Utah. Williams accepted a Division I scholarship with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, a 2022 NCAA tournament qualifier. It was music to Williams’ ears that Islanders coach Steve Lutz said he had to earn any playing time he received.
“Since my Bishop O’Dowd days, man, competition excites me and I wanted to come put myself in the fire and have to compete and prove myself every day,” Williams said.
Said Lutz after signing Williams: “He is a great young man from an exceptional family who has the ability to impact the game with his shooting and scoring. I believe the Islander nation will enjoy watching him play in our quest to win the Southland Conference and make it back to the NCAA tournament.”
Williams became emotional before his Division I debut. Texas A&M-Corpus Christi lost 63-44 at Mississippi State on Nov. 7, but Williams was finally a Division I basketball player after traveling a challenging road. After learning about Williams’ story of going from NAIA to Division II to Division I, that emotion made sense to his teammates.
“When you talk about something, you pray about something, you work so hard for something and you finally get it and finally put that jersey on and go out there and you’re on that court, you finally feel like you’re where you belong. It’s a surreal feeling,” Williams said. “And I can’t tell you how much that moment meant to me when I stepped on that court at Mississippi State.”
Green said that despite his busy schedule with the Pelicans, he did his best to watch all the Corpus Christi games or follow them on the ESPN app and ESPN+. He usually talks to Williams after every game, and he is still stunned by his successful road to Division I basketball.
“I have to pinch myself,” Green said.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi entered the SLC tournament championship game in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on March 8 as the No. 1 seed with a 22-10 record (13-4 in conference). Terrah Green and her younger son Mason drove from New Orleans to attend the game. The Islanders faced second-seed Northwestern State, who they had beaten twice this season.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi lost SLC Defensive Player of the Year and All-Conference First-Team selection Terrion Murdix to a knee injury three minutes into the game. Northwestern State jumped out to a 26-10 lead, but A&M-Corpus Christi went on a 21-5 run to tie the game at 31 at halftime. Williams scored six points, including a 3-pointer with 6:35 remaining to give the Islanders a 60-54 lead, and Islanders held on for a four-point win and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Afterward, a delighted Williams ran around hugging several teammates before going into the stands to hug his mom. As the Islanders took pictures wearing their SLC champions hats and cut down the nets, Williams became emotional when the confetti started falling on his title team.
“When the clock finally went off, I mean, it was just dreams coming true from working hard,” Williams said. “And I immediately just thought to all the nights and the early mornings in the gym and the conversations that I had with past coaches about how one day I was going to play in March Madness. Being able to make that happen is just truly amazing.
“And then I just thought, ‘Where’s my mom?’ so that I could go hug her, because without her and the sacrifices she’s made for me in my life, none of this would be possible. But immediately there was just joy. I was just so blessed and so thankful to be in this position.”
Said Terrah Green: “It just is a tribute to his grit and determination, his tenacity. We’re proud of him … He’s had so much heart. And he outworks and outcompetes. That’s what Ross does.”
Willie Green watched Williams and the Islanders secure an NCAA tournament berth from his office at the Smoothie King Center before the Pelicans’ 113-106 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on March 8. Green hopes to make it to the NCAA tournament game, but the Pelicans host the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night. If Texas A&M-Corpus Christi wins Tuesday, Green has a shot at attending the game against Alabama on Thursday, as the Pelicans play in Houston on Friday and Sunday.
“When they got into the NCAA tournament, I realized that Ross accomplished a dream of his. As a dad, I couldn’t be prouder,” Willie Green said.
Said Williams: “I was definitely teasing him because, unfortunately, he was never able to make it to the NCAA tournament [as a player]. So, I definitely took that chance to rub that one in his face. He was laughing. But first and foremost, he was just telling me how proud he is of me and how I just don’t quit. And he was like, ‘you just keep proving people wrong, keep doing the impossible.’ ”
Williams hopes to continue to play basketball as a professional, either in America or abroad. He also is expected to complete his master’s degree in international business from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi this year. Green hopes his son is able to land an NBA summer league roster spot, but his preference is that it’s with anyone but the Pelicans due to the pressure that would come with it. Green also has told Williams to “follow basketball as long as you can.”
“You got all your life to work. Even if you stop playing at 30, you got 30 years to work a job. That’s going to be there. This won’t. So, if you do want to try and go play, if there’s a platform to do it, go and do it. Go see the world, whatever it is, go after it. And then once it is over, you can make decisions after that,” Green said.
Considering how Williams went from being hardly recruited out of high school to Division I, it’s hard to doubt his pro basketball dream.
“From my story, people can learn to never quit and to not ever let anybody tell you what you can and can’t do,” Williams said. “I’ve always had to go through obstacles. I’ve always had people telling me no. But at the end of the day, if you believe in yourself, anything is possible. And if you surround yourself with people that are going to tell you the real and not just tell you what you want to hear, then success is inevitable.
“And I just want people to know that you could do anything that you put your mind to. And that success is just really just embracing failure and being able to fall down nine times and to get up 10.”
Said Green: “We know how hard he’s worked, and then his journey. That’s rare that you go from NAIA to D-2, and then finish up in then D-1. God has been good to Ross. We’re grateful, man.”