Features

Straight shooter

Sports | NBA lottery pick packs big game, big money, and old-time religion

Issue: "Salting Hollywood," Sept. 3, 2005

Marvin Williams sank into an arm chair at Microsoft's Xbox headquarters and stretched his million-dollar legs. The 6-foot-8 basketball prodigy, selected No. 2 overall in last month's NBA draft, filled the role of resident superstar a bit sheepishly as he competed online with video-game junkies for the software company's Game with Fame promotional program.

Several newspaper photographers and one local TV station shoved cameras in Mr. Williams' face. A handful of youth-league basketball players loitered nearby, hiding grins beneath an affected cool and stealing glances at the purported savior for the struggling Atlanta Hawks.

Dressed modestly in blue jeans and a cotton shirt, Mr. Williams seemed oblivious to the attention as his fingers shuffled furiously to control the digital athletes in ESPN's latest NBA simulation. In reality, however, he was well aware of the media presence-and the world's ever-widening window into his life.

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As competitors from around the country took turns exposing Mr. Williams' virtual shortcomings, the soft-spoken 19-year-old demonstrated restraint beyond his years. "Golly," he finally blurted after someone named Dominique in Arizona scored for the umpteenth time. Several ensuing outbursts proved no more objectionable.

Mr. Williams' "yes sir, no sir" respect in addressing reporters confirmed an uncommon discipline neatly folded within his personality. More than mere country manners, this public display was intentional. "Somebody's always going to be looking at you, so you can always affect somebody's life whether it's just being nice to somebody or helping somebody out," he told WORLD.

Since dominating local courts in the small naval town of Bremerton, Wash., Mr. Williams has understood his power to influence. While helping the University of North Carolina Tar Heels claim a national championship this past March, he joined several teammates in offering regular pre-game prayers. Millions of dollars later, nothing seems to have changed. "God blesses us all everyday," Mr. Williams said. "Without Him, none of this would be possible, so you've definitely got to give Him the glory."

Maintaining such humility in the coming years may prove more difficult. With a soft outside shooting touch and explosive moves around the rim, Mr. Williams figures to join the NBA elite-thus entering a culture dominated by vanity and self-promotion.

But those who know Mr. Williams well are unconcerned. "God has gotten him to where he is today, and he knows where his strength comes from," said his mother, Andrea Gittens, whose longtime financial struggle to raise her three sons alone after divorce is now over. Marvin Williams Sr. will move to Atlanta, but Ms. Gittens intends to remain close to family and church in Bremerton despite her son's recent financial boon.

A part of Mr. Williams seems intent on staying home as well-or at least taking something of the area with him. Unlike many of his fellow first-round selections, Mr. Williams has not yet purchased a new car or overly accessorized with expensive jewelry. "He's always going to be the same person," said longtime friend and Bremerton High teammate Phil Houston. "He's not going to change."

Organizations such as Pro Basketball Fellowship (PBF), which oversees the NBA's chaplaincy program, exist to help players navigate the challenges of road life. In his one year of college, Mr. Williams attended church with teammates and coaches-a much more difficult proposition during the 82-game professional season when hotels and locker rooms often serve as makeshift chapels. Amid such chaos, the balancing influence of Christian community is vital. "I'm sure there are a lot of guys that do believe in God and do pray," Mr. Williams said. "I've just got to find them."

His search shouldn't take long. Devout Christians dot the league on almost every team, according to PBF executive vice president Claude Terry. Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, considers his public platform a pulpit for explicit evangelistic use. Mr. Williams is not likely to follow that lead, much preferring the medium of exemplary living to that of sermonizing. "He just tries to be Marvin," his mom said. "If he comes off as a role model, then that's just another one of his callings."

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