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Faith and Sports

Sixers assistant coach Monty Williams: ‘God makes me look much better than I deserve’

Athletes believe they can overcome anything, he says, but that’s not the case

A look at the intersection of sports, faith and religion

Monty Williams was hesitant. He instinctively shied away from an exchange that would turn his personal thoughts on faith into a “glorified modesty-type thing.”

“I always tell people God makes me look much better than I deserve, and that’s just where it is for me,” said the Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach. “I don’t like coming off with the fake humility stuff.”

Less than an hour had passed since he’d finished practice at the team’s training complex in Camden, New Jersey. Now, he was talking not so much about basketball but about those times that faith kept him afloat.

“There’s a lot of times within the faith, as a Christian, that most people think we walk around like we have it together, and I just got to be straight with you,” said Williams, 47. “The longer you’re walking with the Lord, it’s the exact opposite. It’s like way on the other end. I need the Lord because I don’t have it together. I am broken. I am flawed no matter how I’m viewed.”

Williams’ initial introduction to faith came through his grandfather, James Williams Sr., who was a pastor at Cleveland Avenue Christian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He still plays an integral role in his grandson’s life.

As a child, Williams regularly attended vacation Bible school during the summer, and every Sunday morning he was alert and ready for Sunday school. As he matured, he realized there was a lot more to faith than going to church.

“There was a relationship involved with God that allowed me to delve deeper into some heavy questions and ask myself what did I believe even before I knew what to believe,” he said. “I had to figure some things out, and then you realize you can’t figure it out. It’s all about faith.”

As his career path changed from player to coach, he leaned more on his faith.

“Whether it’s winning or losing or getting a contract or not getting signed by a team and all the in-between, my faith allows me to hopefully have something to hold onto that’s much bigger than sports,” Williams said.

“You realize you’re not the cat’s meow. Most athletes, we feel like we can overcome and withstand anything. There’s been a few times in my career where I couldn’t change the consequences with lifting more weights or getting more shots or whatever the case may have been. And that’s when you realize how small you are and how much you need a relationship with God. And I felt like that was where I started to grow.”

A 6-foot-8-inch small forward, Williams averaged 30 points and 16 rebounds as a high school senior at Potomac High School in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. He went on to play for Notre Dame, averaging 22 points and eight rebounds as a senior. He was selected by the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1994 NBA draft. He married his college sweetheart, Ingrid, after his rookie season.

Over his nine-year NBA career, he played in 456 games and averaged 6.3 points while suiting up for the Knicks, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers. His coaching career includes time with the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans, Oklahoma City Thunder and 76ers.

Five children (Janna, Micah, Faith, Lael and Elijah, now ranging in age from 8 to 20), eight cities and 26 years of marriage make up the triad that represents his life with Ingrid. The couple wrote a faith-based book in 2010 with another couple, Dave and Kaci Bullis. Called Look Again 52, which refers to the number of weeks in a year, the book provides scriptural readings for every day of the year.

His faith has evolved over time.

“I had the idea that because I was faith-based, things would work out well for me,” he said. “I thought that being a man of faith, that was a byproduct of that. Having been around a little bit, I’ve come to realize that my faith is something I can hang on to in the good and not-so-good times, and it allows me to deal with both the success and the failures and the in-between. It’s not a good-luck charm.”

The hardest time in his life came in February 2016, when Ingrid died from injuries she suffered in a car accident in Oklahoma City.

“Nobody’s strong enough to get through that, not on their own, and I certainly did not,” Williams said. “I had a lot of people praying for me. If not for the grace of God, I probably would have been more frustrated than I was. …

“She was the greatest example of faith that I’ve ever been around because she was my best friend. It was what attracted me to her when I first met her. So to lose her to a senseless car accident was by far the toughest thing I’ve ever had to deal with and am still dealing with. That’s something that I’ll never be able to explain or rationalize. I just have to trust God that he’s going to get us through it all, and he has.

“The problem is what you see on TV is usually painted a certain way, so I was probably painted stronger than I really am. The reality is it’s been a struggle to deal with something like that, and to not only deal with it but have to raise five kids in the process. That part no one can do on their own. If it wasn’t for the grace of God and him putting really good people around me and helping me, I wouldn’t be here today for sure.”

Williams continues to provide a faith-based household for his children, and he encourages them to establish their own relationship with God.

“My older girls know, and they’ve known since they were teenagers, that they can’t live on my faith,” he said. “Earlier, when we were doing devotions at home, we would go to church and we would go to different faith-based activities. They’ve reached an age where I have to be straight with them, like, ‘This is my faith. You have to have your own faith.’ ”

Williams and his family are nondenominational Christians and attend Fellowship Alliance Chapel in Medford, New Jersey, outside Philadelphia.

He uses the Holy Bible app daily and has friended other family members, coaches and NBA players.

“I use it every day because I like the Bible plans that they have on there,” he said. “They’re pretty encouraging, and sometimes they punch you in the mouth. But I learn more about the Lord, I learn a lot about myself. It’s a really cool way to connect with other believers and other people in general who are just like me, just trying to live this thing out in a real way, but do it in a way that would glorify God without being offensive or goofy to other people.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.