When New Orleans Pelicans forward Ryan Anderson came face-to-face with an inexplicable personal tragedy two summers ago, the first call he made was to his mom. The second was to Pelicans head coach Monty Williams.
The two men share a strong faith in Christ and, for Williams, it provided an opportunity to love a hurting brother and serve a friend in need.
“It wasn’t about me being a head coach and Ryan being one of the best shooters in the league,” said Williams, who’s coached New Orleans since 2010. “This was one of those situations where you’re talking about someone’s child, and on that day Ryan needed help.
“The only thing I could think about was I just wanted to make him feel better, and I couldn’t. What I could do was give him a place of peace where he could rest his head.”
The story eventually made national news, but even to this day Williams says he’s thankful God put him and his family in a position to care for Anderson.
“Monty is one of the most genuine guys I’ve ever met,” said Kevin Harvey, who serves as South Jersey FCA Area Director and Philadelphia 76ers team chaplain. “He doesn’t self-promote; as a matter of fact, he really shies away from the spotlight and desires to give glory to Christ through his actions and words.
“There’s a humility about Monty’s life that encourages me daily to decrease so that Christ might increase. I clearly see that in Monty.”
Looking back on those tragic events, Williams says he’s still humbled that Anderson—or anyone else, for that matter—would even think to reach out to him in their time of greatest need. It helps him realize just how much the Lord has done in his life, and that basketball has transformed into a vehicle for him to share Christ with those around him.
It wasn’t always that way.
Twenty-five years ago, when Williams was an ego-driven college basketball star, he knows for certain he wouldn’t have been on anyone’s speed dial in times of heartbreak.
“It’s just a testament to what God can do,” Williams said. “First Corinthians 1:27 tells us that God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. This means He can do anything He wants to do, with anyone He wants to do it with. I don’t care what your situation is—God can change any heart. I’m ‘Exhibit A’ of that.”
Williams grew up in Virginia living with his mother and father, and then also both sets of grandparents after his parents divorced.
“I had a strong mom who was so strong that she allowed me to go and live with my grandparents when I was 8,” he said. “My maternal grandparents played a huge role in my life over the next two years, and I was able to go to Winston-Salem, N.C., to spend summers with my paternal grandparents as well.”
Winston-Salem was where he began to learn about Christ.
His grandparents there were both pastors who had done missions work and “all kinds of other good things that I didn’t really understand when I was a kid.”
“Each summer, I just knew we were at church all day,” he said with a laugh. “Looking back on it now, those summers really had a profound impact on me.”
Two years later, Williams returned to his mom’s home and began playing Little League football. One day, his coach invited the entire team to church. That coach, James Westbrooks, is still a part of Williams’ life today.
“I had no idea what I was doing, to be honest with you,” Williams said, “but I asked the Lord into my heart and got baptized that Sunday. I’d love to say I really understood about sin and what the cross, crucifixion and ascension meant, but I can’t. What I did know is that God was bigger than me and that if I gave my life to God, my life would be better.”
Over the next few years, Williams gathered athletic acclaim throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. He was soon a ready-made college basketball star en route to Notre Dame, but his spiritual walk lagged behind. He planned to use high-profile college hoops as a stepping stone to what he thought was a certain professional future.
“I figured it would be a place where I could get a good job either playing ball or in the corporate world,” Williams said. “During that time, I didn’t have much of a relationship with the Lord. It looked like I did on the outside, but inside there wasn’t much there. I wasn’t in the Bible, wasn’t doing any kind of Bible study, and I wasn’t paying attention when I went to church.”
Basically, Williams—like so many other kids that age—was just planning to do “the college thing.” His mom had been pretty strict on him in high school, so he figured he’d go to college, have fun and do his thing.
“Basketball—the status, notoriety and desires that came with it—had become my god,” he said. “If anything fit my pursuit of being a great basketball player and making a bunch of money, then I’d do it.
“I had no idea that God had other plans in mind for me.”
Within a week of Williams’ arrival on campus, things began to change in his life. He met a fellow student, Ingrid Lacy, and the two crossed paths several times. He could tell that there was something different about her compared to the other girls he’d met at Notre Dame.
“After a month or so at school, it was like the Lord was telling me to pay attention to this girl, out of everyone on a campus of 9,000 or 10,000 people,” Williams said. “Ingrid was just different. At that point, all the other girls were interested in me for other reasons, mainly because I was the big man on campus.
“She didn’t really know anything about me as a basketball player, which was the coolest part. I was trying to find someone who liked me for me, so I never really talked about it.”
Ingrid also had a different composure about her—one that Williams wasn’t used to seeing. She was serious about her faith, so she and Williams began to talk—a lot—and soon built an incredible friendship.
“A lot of our conversations were faith-based, but she helped me with so many other things, too, whether it was time management, studying, or just being a normal cat,” Williams said. “The next thing you know, I was falling in love with this girl, but I knew it was going to be different because she had different priorities. She was serious about her faith, and I had no idea how big a role that would play in my life.”
Williams planned to go pro after his sophomore year at Notre Dame, but his dreams of money and fame soon came crashing down. A routine preseason physical at the beginning of his sophomore year revealed that Williams suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy—a heart disease that stopped his basketball career after just one year of college ball.
After a press conference announcing his retirement, Williams went straight over to Ingrid’s room. He’d been keeping his heart problems to himself up to that point, so he spilled the beans, and he can still hear Ingrid’s immediate response.
“The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘Jesus can heal your heart,’” Williams said. “I‘d read all the Bible stories in the past and had listened to a bunch of sermons in church about God, but they were just talks to me; I never really took them as truth.”
So the once-heralded star was now a “normal” Notre Dame student, and Ingrid’s mom recommended a local church for her daughter and Williams to attend together.
“It was at that time that the Lord started to do some things in my heart that were really important,” Williams said. “As much as I needed my physical heart to be healed, my emotional heart needed it even more—and it all started with that one sentence Ingrid said to me when I told her about my heart condition.”
For the next two years, Williams continued dating Ingrid and attending classes, but he grew more and more frustrated because the game that was once his life’s focus had been ripped away from him.
His heart had become hardened, as he put it, because basketball was his god. He’d been so focused on becoming a big star and making a bunch of money that he didn’t care about anything else.
“It’s a dangerous place to be,” Williams said. “If James 1:17 isn’t a part of your life—if you don’t know that every gift comes from God, and you think that it comes from you— then you become your own god.”
Throughout his health issues, Williams had countless people praying for him—friends, family and fellow church members—that God would “fix” his heart so he could play again.
“I believed for two years that God would heal my heart,” Williams said. “We’d gone to church regularly over the years, and we had the elders lay hands on me; the Bible says to have elders lay hands on the sick and they would recover.
“But the skies didn’t part, and I never got hot and passed out with gold dust coming from the ceiling,” he laughed. “For two years nothing happened, so I just continued to go to class and continued to believe that, one day, God would heal my heart.”
As he was preparing to graduate from Notre Dame, Williams got a phone call from an athletic department staff member, who encouraged him to go through a strenuous series of tests at the National Institute of Health.
After three long days, the doctors came in and told Williams they couldn’t find anything wrong with his heart. And at that moment, Williams knew the healing work the Lord had done.
“The power of prayer is amazing,” he said. “I had so many people praying for me while I was in Bethesda. When I got the good news, my mom was at the hospital, so we called Ingrid. All of us were crying together, so thankful that I’d get a chance to play again.”
Williams played two more years at Notre Dame, earning honorable mention All-America honors his final season after averaging 22.4 points and 8.4 rebounds. He was selected by the New York Knicks with the 24th overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft, and two picks later the Knicks added more young talent in Florida State star—and Heisman Trophy winner—Charlie Ward.
Ward and Williams decided to do something entirely uncommon among NBA athletes: room together on the road.
“At first we did it to save money,” Williams said, “but we actually became each other’s accountability partners. While other guys were out doing their thing, we’d be up all night doing Bible studies and talking about the Lord and what He was doing in our lives.”
Ward, along with Ingrid, provided two mature examples for Williams, who admits at that time he wasn’t where he needed to be in his pursuit of God.
“Having Charlie there meant so much to me,” Williams said. “I was so blessed to be drafted with Charlie.”
As single, high-profile 20-somethings with more money than they knew what to do with living in the Big Apple, that one-on-one accountability was critical in keeping their minds right.
“The Bible says to make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lust, and over the years I’ve learned I need to have accountability partners to help keep me out of situations where I’d be provoked to sin,” Williams said. “The NBA itself is tough enough, but when you’re a young NBA player in New York City, you can really get yourself into a lot of trouble if you’re not fully committed to Christ and submitting to Him.”
Williams and Ingrid married after his rookie season with the Knicks, and the newlyweds spent a half-season living in New York before he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs. After following God halfheartedly for years, it was in Texas where Williams truly realized what having a relationship with Christ meant.
“That trade ended up being the best thing that happened to our marriage,” he said. “At the time, I wasn’t ready to be a mature husband for Ingrid. I talked the talk, but I still thought it was all about me—since I was the NBA athlete, and I was the one making the money.”
However, the newlyweds began attending services at Eagle’s Nest Christian Fellowship, where they took what Williams referred to as a “game-changing” class for young married couples.
“That class, man,” he said, “That’s where I learned how to be a husband, how to be a father, and how to treat my wife biblically. I started to take my relationship with the Lord really seriously and got serious about my Bible study, prayer and understanding the things of the Lord.”
And for the first time, Williams understood that basketball could never fill the God-sized hole in his heart.
“God showed me He had a purpose for my life that was far bigger than basketball, but that basketball could be a vehicle for me to share Him with others,” Williams said. “After that, basketball wasn’t who I was, but it was part of the total package I could become in Christ.
“The Lord was so gracious and patient with me to recalibrate my thinking and my heart to help me understand that I’m here to give Him glory and live my life for Him.”
Williams played a total of nine seasons in the NBA, culminating in an injury-filled season with the Philadelphia 76ers. He retired in 2003, but not before becoming involved with FCA in the City of Brotherly Love.
“FCA’s been a huge part of my growth and my journey with Christ,” Williams said. “Kevin [Harvey] is so passionate about the Lord, and he really challenged me and my 76ers teammates to get involved and make an impact where we could.
“When you see people like him with FCA, and they’re out there sharing the gospel and impacting lives for Christ, it just draws you to it, and you want to be a part of it.”
Following retirement, Williams began his coaching career as an intern with the Spurs during the 2004-05 season. A successful stint as the Spurs’ summer league coach followed, which led to an assistant coaching position with the Portland Trail Blazers.
In June 2010, Williams was named the fifth head coach in New Orleans franchise history. Over the years, he’s been equally lauded for his work with young players as well as a willingness to lead and represent the Pelicans organization —and Christ—in a positive way.
“Monty has a strategic presence for the Lord, and he’s a natural mentor,” said Bil Gebhardt, senior pastor at New Orleans’ Fellowship Bible Church. “Professional sports in America gives us a great deal of entertainment, but very few role models with proven character.
“Men like Monty are both needful and rare. He has great concern about his players’ on-court success, as well as the choices they’re faced with off the court.”
Since taking the job in New Orleans, Williams has been active in the local community. He focuses his time on prison ministry, as well as outreach to military families, senior citizens and disadvantaged youth. In September 2011, he traveled to South Africa as part of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, and he still works with Ward to distribute shoes and athletic equipment to impoverished communities in South Africa.
“Monty is a great ambassador for Christ in the NBA,” said Ward, who retired in 2005 after an 11-year career. “He strives to apply godly principles in coaching and mentoring his players.
“Monty may never know how many seeds he has planted in all the organizations that he’s been a part of, but I believe God will reward him with a peace that surpasses all understanding.”
In addition to his international charitable work, Williams is making a global impact on the court, serving as an assistant coach for Team USA Basketball under head coach Mike Krzyzewski. But despite the honors he’s received, Williams is sure that his worth isn’t defined by a potential 2016 Olympic Games gold medal or a future NBA ring. God’s got plans far greater than what he can comprehend.
“God has called me to serve right where I am,” he said. “He’s called me to be obedient, show up on time, and do my job to the absolute best of my abilities. In the midst of that, He has used me to do some things I know I couldn’t do on my own.
“Looking back, I had no idea that He was going to be forming me into the image of His Son. I just wanted my life to be better. And He has made it better—He’s just done it in a way that I couldn’t have ever imagined.”