It has been three years since Illinois great Deron Williams made his way back to Champaign and 13 years since he led the school to the National Championship game against North Carolina.
Williams said he is frequently reminded of that magical shot he buried against Arizona to essentially put his team in that championship game.
“With social media now, I pretty much get to relive it,” Williams said. “It’s definitely a special moment in my career, on any level. Definitely a shot I will always remember and constantly reminded of when I come here.”
Williams declared for the NBA Draft after that season, and he was drafted third-overall by the Utah Jazz.
He went on to have a very successful professional career, playing 12 seasons in the NBA. Williams was selected to three NBA All-Star games and won gold medals in 2008 and 2012 as a member of the Team U.S.A. Basketball team.
But this year is new for Williams as for the first time in what probably feels like forever, he is not playing basketball.
“I definitely miss competing, definitely missed being out there,” Williams said. “But there’s a lot things I don’t miss. I don’t miss the travel. I don’t miss being away from my family for so much time.”
Instead, Williams has taken the time to pursue things of his own interest, such as traveling on his own time. He prefers that over getting in at three in the morning and having a team meeting at 10 a.m.
Williams has also taken this time to invest more into his podcast called Ballers and Brawlers. The podcast consists of himself, UFC veteran Sean O’Connell and former MMA fighter Johney Riche. Guests have included Houston Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson, NFL wide receiver Victor Cruz and NBA veteran Ronnie Price.
Williams sat in on the Illini’s practice on Monday and spoke to the players personally, something head coach Brad Underwood was very appreciative of.
“That was unbelievable. He was incredible with me, he was incredible with our guys,” Underwood said after Tuesday night’s win over Rutgers. “He’s done things that everyone in that locker room aspires to do and dreams about... To me, he’s the ultimate winner.
“For him to wear the same jersey as our guys is pretty special, and for him to be back meant a great deal.”
Williams shared his backstory and journey with the team, while also sharing what made his Illinois team back in 2005 so successful.
“I talked to the guys a lot about (culture change),” Williams said. “The coaches can only do so much, say so much, it’s got to be on you guys. You guys got to want to change, you guys got to want to win. I talked to them a little about what made us successful, like I said, our unselfishness and all we really wanted to do was win.”
All in all, Williams said his return back to Champaign has been great, citing how he strongly approves of the job Underwood and Director of Athletics Josh Whitman are doing. He went as far to say that he wasn’t very fond of the last athletic director — Mike Thomas.
Williams also rounded out his visit by stopping by the Illinois wrestling and men’s golf teams. Wrestling was one of the first sports he got involved in and he enjoys golfing very much.
Williams’ visit ended on a high note. He sat courtside and watched while Illinois played its most complete game of the season, dominating Rutgers, 91-60.
The last message Williams left for the team was that winning solves all.
“We knew that if we took care of winning, everything else would take care of itself,” Williams said. “The NBA, all that stuff would take care of itself and it did, I’m proof of that.”