Thursday December 19, 2013Like Father, Like Daughter: Rodney Williams Returns to UF to Cheer Daughter Ronni
Former Gators basketball player Rodney Williams is a regular at women's games to watch daughter Ronni, a UF freshman.
Former Gators basketball player Rodney Williams is a regular at women's games to watch daughter Ronni, a UF freshman.
Florida freshman Ronni Williams scores a basket Tuesday in a win over Saint Francis.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The tall man in the orange dress shirt and black overcoat walks quietly toward his seat, about a dozen rows up the bleachers behind the Florida bench.
Hardly anyone notices other than a few of the regulars who sit nearby among the sparse crowd.
His wife takes a seat on the row below him. He sprawls his 6-foot-7 frame out and leans on the bleachers behind, his eyes directed toward the court. They are here to watch the Gators women’s basketball team play Saint Francis on Tuesday night at the O’Connell Center.
The surroundings are familiar to 50-year-old Rodney Williams. Thirty-two years ago Williams was the target of college basketball coaches from coast to coast.
Lefty Driesell chased him. So did Digger Phelps, Lute Olson and Ray Meyer. Williams, a sinewy and athletic forward/guard from Daytona Beach (Fla.) Seabreeze High, was one of those “can’t-miss” prospects.
He was twice an All-State selection in high school and, according to Street & Smith Magazine’s recruiting analysts of the day, compared favorably to the top players in the 1981 recruiting class, including a kid from Wilmington, N.C., named Michael Jordan, whom Williams had played against in all-star camps.
In newspaper accounts from that time, Williams most often drew comparisons to DePaul star Mark Aguirre, the National Player of the Year in the 1980-81 season and No. 1 overall pick in the 1981 NBA Draft.
“You wouldn’t believe the college coaches we’ve had in this office,’’ Williams’ high school coach, Marshall Bradley, told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that spring.
Williams eventually narrowed his college destination down to Florida and Duke
Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had recently completed his first season at Duke, had recruited Williams for a year and wanted the player nicknamed the “Slamming Stick” so badly that he agreed to come and speak at Seabreeze’s Sand Crab Awards Banquet.
News broke during Krzyzewski’s trip to Daytona that Williams had already given Florida coach Norm Sloan a verbal commitment in February and that he would sign with the Gators. Bradley was unaware and told the press he was not too happy about the awkward circumstances.
The story caused a stir for a few days but Williams kept his commitment to the Gators, saying he wanted to stay close to home so his parents, Perry and Eunice, could make the trip to Gainesville to watch him play regularly.
Family was important to Williams. He grew up in Daytona Beach and life revolved around his immediate and extended family in the area. That has not changed, which is why Williams and his wife, Renee, were in town Tuesday night to watch the Florida women cruise to a 105-71 victory over Saint Francis.
Every time Florida’s freshman center grabbed a rebound or scored a point or did anything of note, Williams, seated upright and with his hands clasped once the game tipped off, would instantly clap and lock his eyes on No. 1.
Ronni Williams, like her dad more than 30 years ago, arrived on campus this summer as one of the top recruits in the country.
There is no mistaking the resemblance between Ronni and Rodney. They both have charismatic smiles and their eyes sparkle in similar fashion when they concentrate to answer questions about each other.
Rodney sees other similarities as he watches Ronni, the only one of his five kids to play basketball on a competitive level, run up and down the court.
He sees some of old No. 30 for the Gators, his jersey number at Florida.
“We spent a lot of time together. She would play tackle football if we let her,’’ Rodney said. “I knew she was competitive when as a toddler, you would go to throw a piece of trash in the can and she would try and block it.”
As Ronni’s interest in basketball blossomed Rodney became her coach in youth leagues. Once the games were over they often practiced more when they got home.
“He basically taught me how to play the game,’’ Ronni said.
When it was time for Ronni to start high school, she was already on the radar of Florida coach Amanda Butler and many others around the country.
At Atlantic High in Port Orange, Williams dominated opponents while averaging more than 20 points a season all four years. She was named a McDonald’s All-American as a senior and became the highest-ranked player – rated the 13th overall prospect in the country by ESPN.com – to ever sign with the UF women’s program.
In the first 10 games of her Gators career Williams is averaging 10.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, primarily coming off the bench as she transitions to the college game.
In Rodney’s eyes, his daughter’s career is off to the kind of start he envisioned. He knew there would be growing pains as she moved to the next level. He had certainly experienced them. Still, Ronni’s overall game is ahead of the learning curve and her skill set is more complete than most incoming freshmen in the women’s game.
That was the plan in all those father-daughter training sessions.
“I didn’t want to have to wait for someone else to give me the basketball when I played. That’s what I tried to instill in her,’’ Rodney said. “You might be a big body and you might end up being a post, but we are going to teach you to handle the basketball.
“It’s a lot easier to teach a kid at a young age how to handle a basketball and then teach them to go inside on the post versus waiting until they post up all their lives and then you are teaching them how to handle the ball. We did just the opposite. We made her a guard before she knew anything else. When she played for my teams, she handled the point and ran all the plays. She was the quarterback out there.”
In Tuesday’s win over Saint Francis, Ronni had the kind of well-rounded game she has produced consistently in her brief time with the Gators. She had 12 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals – she could do without the four turnovers – to help the Gators improve to 7-3.
And she didn’t foul out, a rarity thus far.
The next day before practice, Ronni contemplated her performance through the first 10 games at UF. She leaned heavily on something her father told her prior to the season.
“He told me just to relax and play my game,’’ Ronni said. “Don’t let the hype get to you, which I don’t. I’m doing OK. I think as the season goes on I will get better, when I’m able to really relax and do what I know how to do.”
About midway into the first half Tuesday, Ronni hit a short jump shot for the 100th point of her brief college career. Rodney clapped as Florida started to pull away and Ronni began to work up a sweat.
The next points Ronni scored, she surpassed her dad's career total (100) at Florida.
Rodney Williams arrived with the hefty expectations that come packaged with all those headlines he earned as a prep standout. The potential for something special to happen hung in the air under the O’Connell Center’s Teflon-coated roof when Williams and his roommate, fellow incoming freshman and starting center Eugene McDowell, debuted in the fall of ’81 along with another big man, 6-foot-9 center/forward Randall Leath.
The trio of newcomers in the frontcourt offered Sloan, in his second season back at UF after a 14-year stint at N.C. State, a more talented roster than in the 12-16 season of 1980-81.
The season soon turned into a mess. The Gators finished 5-22, lost 14 consecutive games during one stretch, and Sloan often transformed into Stormin’ Norman when dealing with the players.
Williams played in 26 games as a freshman and averaged 2.8 points and 2.0 rebounds. The next season improved for the Gators – they finished 13-18 – but not for Williams. He was one of multiple players who missed the first four games of the season due to disciplinary reasons and when he returned, Williams was often stuck on the bench.
However, the lowest moment came late in the season when his father passed away. Perry Williams, one of his son’s biggest fans, a major reason Rodney chose to come to Florida, was gone.
Basketball suddenly didn’t seem that important.
In need of a fresh start and to be closer to his family Rodney transferred to Stetson after his sophomore season, playing in only 41 games for the Gators. He had to sit out due to NCAA transfer rules during the 1983-84 season. Williams later suffered two knee injuries at Stetson, limiting his effectiveness when he finally returned to the court.
Back on the court, Williams faced his former UF teammates twice, once at a tournament in Orlando early in his first season at Stetson – Williams had a game-high 12 rebounds in a 70-54 loss -- and the final time, a 69-66 loss at the O’Dome his senior season.
Williams’ career never took off as expected. As a junior he led the Hatters in rebounds (5.4 per game), his most significant contribution listed among the year-to-year leaders in Stetson’s media guide
Still, same as when he picked Florida over Duke, Williams left UF because he thought it was the best decision for his life at the time. A lot of years have passed since then. Nothing has changed. His family needed him and he returned home.
Asked what he considers the highlight of his playing career, Williams draws from his time at Florida.
“Just getting to play in the SEC,’’ he said. “You were playing the best players that were out there. I think the assignment I was given when I had to guard Jeff Malone and Dale Ellis and guys like that, those I remember.”
Williams fondly recalled his time with McDowell, his former roommate who still holds the O’Connell Center record for most points by a Florida player (40 vs. Biscayne in December 1982). McDowell passed away from an enlarged heart in 1995.
“That was devastating,’’ Williams said. “He was so young.”
Williams had offers to go overseas to play professionally after graduating from Stetson. Instead, he embarked on a career in banking. He later shifted to municipal government work in his hometown and in 2005 joined the City of Orlando as director of parks and recreation.
Even before Ronni joined the Florida women’s program, Rodney had been back to the O’Connell Center several times over the years, most of them to bring Ronni to games.
He finds comfort knowing his daughter is where he once was – minus the wooden bleachers and rubber floor at the O’Dome when he played.
“It’s exciting to come back to the O’Dome, which we named it back in the day,’’ he said. “The most excitement I’ve had was when my mom was back in here for the very first game [Nov. 8] when they played Bethune-Cookman. That was the first time she had been back in here since I played.
“This is home. To get to come back and see her excel with the Gator program, it’s a dream come true.”
Ronni is living her own dream. She has heard the stories and seen news clippings her grandmother showed her from Rodney’s playing days.
They seem surreal to her in some ways. What is real is her dad’s connection to Florida and his ability to relate to her situation. He was once where she is.
In front of packed Atlantic High gym last spring, Ronni made the announcement that she would attend Florida rather than Georgia or Florida State.
“When I made my decision, his arms shot straight up,’’ Ronni said. “That’s one of the reasons why I stayed at home. I enjoy looking up into the stands and seeing my mom and dad and rest of my family watching me play.”
Like father, like daughter.
“It’s a really tight family unit,’’ Butler said. “With the way we’re trying to build and improve our program, families are just so important. They are the type of people that other families are attracted to.”
What advice did Rodney offer before the season?
“I tell her let it come to you,’’ he said. “You are starting all over. Remember your ninth-grade year. You were a freshman coming into Atlantic High School. They already had a superstar and it was their program. Come in and play your role and then work yourself into the game. Don’t come in expecting what you did in high school when you left. If it happens, it happens.”
The Gators host Tennessee State on Friday in the first round of the Gator Holiday Classic. They play again Saturday.
As usual, Rodney and Renee will drive up from Orlando to watch Ronni play. They plan to stay overnight and catch both games. Ronni said her 83-year-old grandmother Eunice, Rodney’s mom, might also make the trip.
She hasn’t been back since Ronni scored 15 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in her UF debut against Bethune-Cookman.
If she does, Ronni might look toward the stands more than usual.
“We are really close. That’s my right hand,’’ she said. “She told me [when I left for college] that if anything was to happen, she wants me to stay. She doesn’t want me to leave. That’s what I’m going to do, stay here and finish out.”