Lou Williams was proud to be the voice for the Clippers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the player who acknowledged the slain civil rights activist in front of a Staples Center crowd before a game against Houston.
His teammates beamed as the reticent Williams spoke, all of them happy basketball fans got to hear a proud man deliver a message of unity. The same message that the 6-foot-1 guard has often conveyed to the Clippers during their troublesome season.
Williams has epitomized what the ultimate caring teammate is about and has taken pride in his significant role in keeping the injury-plagued Clippers from falling into the abyss. The Clippers had fallen to 8-15 after 23 games following a nine-game losing streak, but are looking to get back to .500 if they can snap a three-game losing streak when they play at Memphis on Friday.
Williams was raised both in Memphis, where King was assassinated, and in the Atlanta area, where King was born, giving him a unique perspective on the subject of the iconic figure and fulfillment that he got to voice his thoughts.
“Obviously it means a lot, especially with the times now,” said Williams, who played at South Gwinnett High in Snellville, Ga. “People always say history repeats itself. You kind of have an opportunity to live through some of the language and hate that your parents and your grandparents lived through. It’s not as severe, obviously, but you get a taste of it.
“So, this year, out of a lot of years in my career, it was important to just briefly say something to the crowd.”
In his first season with the Clippers, Williams has left an indelible impression upon them because he has never wavered in his faith with the team.
He has been a mentor to rookies Jawun Evans, Sindarius Thornwell and Tyrone Wallace. He has been a sounding board for veterans Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Perhaps most important, Williams steered the Clippers after they reached the depths during that nine-game losing streak and when body after body succumbed to injuries.
His strength immediately caught the attention of Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who unabashedly said Williams “has been a godsend for us.”
“It’s been a surprise because I didn’t know Lou,” Rivers said. “It’s another example of how we do in this league. We don’t know guys. We see guys skip around. We see the type of scorer they are. So you form your own opinion of a lot of guys, but then you coach them or you play with them as teammates and they are completely different.
“And Lou has been that for me. He’s been wonderful off the floor. And what I like most about Lou is he was the best when we were the worst. I’m not talking about his scoring. I’m talking about his word and his actions. I thought he was the absolute best when we were at our absolute worst. And that says a lot about a teammate.”
Whether coming off the bench with the self-proclaimed “Goon Squad” or starting, Williams has been an unyielding force for the Clippers with his defining play.
He scored a career-high 50 points against the Golden State Warriors this month. He has posted 30 or more points in 14 games this season, tied for the fifth-highest total this season with Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Lou Will is killing,” said Houston guard Chris Paul, who was traded last summer to the Rockets for Williams and others. “When I watch the Clippers play, it’s Lou Will and sort of knowing what he’s going to do, but you can’t stop it. Lou just plays the right way. He plays with a great pace and I think their team feeds off that.”
The Clippers know that if Williams wasn’t producing career highs in points (23.2), assists (5.1), three-point shooting (40%) and free-throw accuracy (90%), they would be in a world of hurt in this turbulent season.
“I knew his game a little bit, but I didn’t know how good of a passer he was,” Griffin said. “Not that I didn’t think he could pass. I knew he was a scorer and a bucker-getter. But he’s a playmaker and he’s a better defender than I thought he was. It’s good to see him up close every day. It’s been impressive.”
None of what Williams has done is a surprise to Utah coach Quin Snyder.
The two worked together at Philadelphia and Atlanta when Snyder was an assistant coach with both teams and Williams was carving up opponents for the 76ers and Hawks.
“In this league, you either do something great or you do a lot of things well. He does a lot of things really well that helps a team win. That’s why Doc is playing him the way he is,” Snyder said. “When I look up and see the numbers it’s, ‘Oh!’ But it’s not surprising to me at all.
“He’s just got a natural knack to score. I used to kid him all the time that he’s a better passer than people realize. He’s such a good scorer that that makes sense. But he’s a really willing passer and a great teammate. I can’t say enough about him and I’m happy for his success.”
His past success as one of the NBA’s supreme sixth men has caused Williams consternation that unnerves him even now.
Williams lamented how he has been traded to NBA championship-contending teams as a hired gun after he’s put forth an effort for another team.
The Lakers were not going to the playoffs last season so they traded Williams to the Rockets. He was traded by the Hawks to the Toronto Raptors in the summer of 2014.
Williams, who was not selected for the All-Star game, said he’s aware teams are contacting the Clippers about trading for his services.
“I’ve been in this thing for 13 years. In the past few years, my good play has been rewarded with a trade,” he said. “For once, I would like it to be rewarded with confidence in knowing that I’m somebody that can be a positive person on your basketball team. I don’t want to play this well to make somebody else a championship contender. I want to play this well to build a championship contender where I am.
“I keep getting used as a pawn in these trades, as rental pieces to try to make some other team that has short-term goals of championship runs right now. And that’s OK. But at the end of the day, I pour my heart and soul into the team that I’m on. I’m a loyal person. That’s just how I am. So until somebody says different, I’m all about the Clippers.”
The flip side, at least, is that Williams said his representatives and the Clippers have been talking about a contract extension.
Williams, in the last year of his deal that pays him $7 million, can sign a maximum extension with the Clippers of four years for $42 million.
“I don’t know how far the talks have gotten,” Williams said. “I’ve just been focused on the basketball part. But I know both sides have had positive talks.”
Nevertheless, Williams is at peace with what the NBA has done for him and his family. He still appreciates the game and how much joy it brings him.
“I’m still not used to being in the NBA,” he said. “Before games, I walk up and down the sideline and I just give myself a moment to just to soak it all in, just look around the crowd and try to stay in the moment. I’ve never gotten used to it. So it’s something that I can share with these guys. Just always enjoy the moment and be fans of the game.”
When: Friday, 5 p.m. PT.
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570.
Update: The Grizzlies average just 99.3 points per game, next-to-last in the NBA. But in two wins over the Clippers, they have averaged 114 points per game. Memphis is ranked 27th in the league in field-goal percentage (44.4%) and three-point shooting (34.9%).
— Broderick Turner