Story by Shane Mitchell
Photos by Holly Warfield
“I don’t know how much more I can be surprised these days,” Tracy Williams says, a sly smile slipping across his face, with a confidence that only a man who had seen it all could possess.
That level of confidence was confirmed by the air about him when he stepped into the room. Standing at about 6 foot 7 inches, he was dressed from head-to-toe like he had made a living off success. The former Harlem Globetrotter folded his black suede shoes across his lap and crisp white pants, and casually propped his hands on the table. A thick, black leather star-covered letterman jacket coated his broad frame. While his calm demeanor told the story of a man who knew success, the humility in his tone spoke of a man who had learned far more, and was still learning.
That and the drive that had been instilled in him during his time as a basketball player here at JMU, inspired him to return and complete the degree he never finished. He could give back some of the love and guidance that paved the way for a career that would take him across the globe from his hometown in Beaufort, North Carolina, and make him an international celebrity. “When I think of the moments that define me as a person, I think of this tournament back during my freshman year at JMU up in Rochester, New York. We were down by 31 at the half and my coach, Lou Campanelli, told us not to look at the scoreboard, to keep fighting. So I didn’t look up,” Williams says. “With about a minute left, they call a timeout. I turned around and saw on the scoreboard that we were up by 6 with 50 seconds left. We held on, and now, when I’m at a low point, I remind myself that I came back from 31. I’ve lived, and when it’s gotten hard, I tell myself that.”
From 1987 to 1994, Williams performed in one of the greatest spotlights in all of basketball as a Harlem Globetrotter. Performance taught him a lot about fame and the duality that comes with the world knowing your name. “When we went places, man, we saw things on the road. It was difficult,” Williams says. “There’s a lot you don’t know as a fan and there’s a lot you can’t say you’ve seen until you’ve been there. A lot of the guys I played with got involved with drugs and women, and lost sight of what we were there to do.”
His eyes drifted to the table before him for just a moment, and then his face lit up again, and he continued,
“You know, fame is like a double-edged sword: it can cut out a place in life for you, or it can cut your head off. It’s a beast. It either eats you alive, or you learn to make it hunt for you. I’m one of the lucky ones who figured that out before it ate me alive.”
Williams says that playing for the Globetrotters required not only time, but patience and dexterity, as well. “It was crazy. We were playing 325 shows a season, practicing everyday,” he says. “You know, in the NBA, a guy can miss a shot or two, and it’s expected. He can miss a 3-pointer. The crowd expected every half-court shot, or trick shot, we threw up to go in. A lot of the time, it was just a business. There would be days that I’d throw a trick pass to somebody that I hated at the time.” It was during this polarizing time of adoration and isolation that Williams says he grew most, grateful that the cruel, darker temptations of fame weren’t able to consume him, and that enough faith and support was able to shape him into something greater.
“Before you’re a pro, before you really see that life, you want it and you tell yourself, ‘I’m young, I can’t be touched. I don’t see what they’re saying about all those dark things,’” Williams says. “Then, the whole world is watching, and everything’s on that stage, and there’s nobody to tell you ‘No.’ I’ve watched a lot of guys I knew get in too deep, and there’s a lot of things I can’t really say too much about, and after all of it, I knew that positive energy in my life.”
After years spent afar, it was his desire to make a lasting impact that brought him home. “My wife, Tina, and my two daughters stood beside me through all of it. I love them all so much, and I can’t thank my wife enough,” he says. “She was with me, patient, and always there. I say that 90 percent of everything I am, I owe to her and God. Casey Carter [Associate Assistant Director for Student-Athlete Services], here at JMU, her too. She deserves a statue when she leaves. Me and all the other athletes owe her a lot.” Now, Williams has returned to JMU to pursue a degree in business management, and his dream of being a Division I men’s basketball coach. Looking to graduate within the next two years, Williams has already seen many of the complications that can arise from choosing to return to something he’d left for 30 years.
“It’s difficult at times, you know, being my age, and trying to get back into it. It’s hard getting study groups together, or keeping up with the fast-paced college environment, but it’s all I want to do,” Williams says. “I’ve learned a lot, and my only hope is to give some of that back, and teach and mold leaders. It’s the least I can do for everybody who molded me.”