When it was all said and done, the biggest story of the 1997-98 boys' basketball season turned out to be the little guys.
Guards not only ran the show, they were the show throughout the county. See them run, dribble, penetrate, pass, lead. See them take up seven slots on The Times all-county boys' first team.
And none stood taller than 6-0 senior T.J. Williams of Santa Margarita, The Times Orange County player of the year. Thomas Joseph (but never call him that) Williams was, in the words of Woodbridge Coach John Halagan, "the best player on the county's best team."
On the surface, his stats--13 points, 8.5 assists--seem modest. Much of that is by design. The Eagles (31-2) did not depend on one marquee player. Instead they were a seamless unit, which readily passed to the open man on offense and covered for teammates on defense.
According to Williams: "You could have picked any one of our starters [as player of the year] and they would have deserved it."
But Williams' importance to the Eagles, who won their second Southern Section Division II-AA championship in the past three seasons and won their first state Division II title, cannot be overemphasized.
Even though the other four Santa Margarita starters (including fellow all-county selection Dekker McKeever) were considered interchangeable in Coach Jerry DeBusk's system, Williams--the point guard--was the spark plug that made the engine run smoothly.
"He averages 13 points, then averaged eight assists," DeBusk said. Take in the 16 points [from the assists] the others get plus his, and there are 29 points out of our working group.
"Our team averaged 68 points, and he is accounting for almost half."
Need further proof? After opening the season with 21 consecutive victories, Santa Margarita had its only lull of the season when Williams was hurt.
In January, Williams injured his right knee in the same area he had torn his medial collateral ligament the previous year. He did not start against Newport Harbor, which handed Santa Margarita its only Sea View League loss. Williams returned for the next game, tallying 14 points and nine assists in a victory over El Toro. Despite the sore knee, he had 21 points in an upset loss to Servite at the Nike Extravaganza.
"We did not know [Williams] wasn't playing until game time, so we did not adjust the game plan," Newport Harbor Coach Larry Hirst said. "I think our win was a combination of his absence and because we had a well-played game.
"But he is their glue and catalyst. He is smart enough to know who is hot and who's not. He has that natural feel for when his teammate has an advantage over a defender, and gets him the ball in the right spot. But if you back off him to cut off the pass, he will shoot it over you. And if he's got his shot going, you can't defend both."
This was Williams' third varsity season, his second as the starting point guard, and the first he felt at ease with the Eagles' system.
"I knew how Coach wanted us to play and how much potential we had as a team," said Williams, who is headed for Cal Poly Pomona. "What makes us good is we have eight great players. But the point guard should be a leader.
"My role is to get the ball to the shooters, run the floor and get it inside to our big people. I'll shoot when I'm open, but that's a fourth option. I have to make sure the other guys get going first."
Williams said there is no one outstanding feature to his game--"I'm not the quickest, strongest or fastest guy," he says--but what he lacks in athleticism he makes up for it with court savvy.
"I know how and where to get the ball to the guys. Sometimes, it seems I can see things before they happen," Williams said.
It's easy to understand why Williams acts like a coach on the floor. He is a coach's son. His dad, Bob, played at St. Francis College in Pennsylvania, and coached Williams and McKeever in youth leagues.
"With the knowledge of the game he had when he came here, it was evident he had been coached," DeBusk said.
"This season has been the culmination of the three years. We could not have, in the opinion of the coaching staff, gone out and beat Inglewood, Compton and Fresno without him. In our system, the point guard position is such an important part. The guard has to be on the same page as the coaches."