Monty Williams’ long road back to being a NBA head coach after being fired from New Orleans in 2015 is checkered with tragedy, uncertainty and humility.
Speaking with the media Tuesday for the first time since becoming the Suns’ head coach earlier this month, Williams said there were times he believed he would never be a head basketball coach again.
“I always wanted to get back into this role but I never felt like I was entitled to be a head coach,” Williams said. “Just because I was fired in New Orleans doesn’t necessarily mean I’m owed the right to be a head coach. I wanted to, but because of my family situation, I didn’t know if I could.”
The death of Williams’ first wife, Ingrid, surely brought him closer with his children and was the driving force in his decision to take a year away from the NBA following her death in February 2016. Williams at that time was an assistant with the Thunder, building his way back to consideration for head coaching jobs around the league. The accident made him worry that the demands of the job would be too severe to commit himself after the tragedy.
Yet conversations with the people closest to him gave Williams a refreshed sense of purpose.
“I was at peace with the fact that I might not be able to do it again just because of my family situation,” Williams said. “My kids, especially my daughters, weren’t happy with that.”
So Williams’ daughters opened up to their father, demanded that he return to the career that fulfilled him — the career Williams said was his focus even as a kid — to be in the NBA. Not even to coach, but just to be there, part of the group, competing.
The journey back to being a head coach again — ready to lead and be a “servant” to the organization, as Williams put it — included a pit stop in the Spurs’ front office. It was there that San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford looked Williams in the eye when the topic of Williams’ future came up and said, “Your kids won’t be happy won’t be happy if you don’t get back into coaching.”
Williams, a former NBA player, called coaching his truer “calling,” and his daughters and Buford were key to reminding him of that.
Then came the matter of actually securing an interview. Head coach openings, after all, aren’t posted on Indeed. They are based often on longstanding relationships and respect from peers and opponents. So, it was in Phoenix.
For Williams and general manager James Jones, the trust started to form in Portland years ago, when Jones was a role player and Williams an assistant.
“James was huge for that particular situation,” Williams said. “Not only could he shoot, James never ran away from big shots.
“We had highly talented, highly skilled, highly competitive young guys, but we couldn’t win the way we wanted to because those guys didn’t understand the day-in, day-out professionalism.”
Speaking with Jones, assistant general manager Trevor Bukstein and senior vice president Jeff Bower only made Williams more comfortable, more sure this was the right choice.
The bigger sell, then, was not Jones, whom Williams repeatedly praised for his basketball IQ, but owner Robert Sarver. It was a matter for Williams of investigating for himself the sour perception the league holds of Sarver. He was pleasantly surprised with what he saw.
“My conversations with Mr. Sarver, I saw someone who didn’t duck tough questions,” Williams said. “We both had tough questions for each other, and in this day and age where people throw each other under the bus, make excuses, blame, I didn’t see that.
“I saw a man who really wants to bring success to this city, and I mean that with all of my heart, or I wouldn’t have come ... For him to take ownership of his past was huge for me because I had to do the same thing. I saw a man who’s passionate, a man who cares about the city.”
Williams joins the Suns at an inflection point for the franchise. Some locally have shouted for the NBA to step in and curb Sarver’s most spontaneous tendencies. A roster full of high draft picks has won just 40 games combined the past two seasons. There is a laundry list of mistakes that planted Phoenix in this position.
Jones reiterated he is looking forward. Williams on Tuesday didn’t act like a man worried about job security, and he is armed with a five-year deal that speaks for itself in terms of the organization putting its money where its mouth is. Sarver, by several accounts, is repenting.
Many things led the Suns to this position, but if the situation in Phoenix is to change, it may be less about those past mistakes and more about the series of events that placed Williams at the end of the bench at Talking Stick Resort Arena.