A Dog's tale
‘Temba’ (meaning ‘hope’ in Zulu) is the nickname he was awarded while in South Africa last year with the NBA’s ‘Basketball without Borders’ program.
And while either moniker is flattering to Williams, his honor from the latter has given him a new purpose, a commitment.
“It reminds me of all the blessings I have,” says the former Toronto Raptor hired this winter by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment as a Raptors community representative. “I need to try to do anything and everything in my power in order to uplift that word of hope.”
And that’s exactly what he’s doing in his career after basketball – instilling hope. That’s why he and his wife, Nikkollette, recently donated a cafeteria and washroom to the impoverished South African community, Kliptown. That’s also why he left the game he loved, despite interest from a third of the league’s teams, to spend time with his family and to reach out to others.
“There is more to life than dribbling a basketball,” says the 33-year-old. “Even though that brings a lot of joy and a lot of excitement.”
Williams retired after being released by the New York Knicks in August, 2005. He made the decision a long time ago that there would be more to his life than basketball. That’s where the ‘JYD Project’ came into play.
The project, a non-profit program designed to inspire and motivate youth and adults in the Toronto area, was founded by Williams and his brother, Johnnie Williams III, in 2001.
The Williams brothers spend the better part of their off-time descending upon schools with simple messages such as “Listen to your teachers,” “Do your best,” and “Be yourself.” The project runs eight separate programs, all targeted to assist youth.
Williams’ passion to help students isn’t due to any trouble he had in school as a youngster growing up in Maryland. After being ignored by most colleges despite standing out at Magruder High School in Rockville, he had to rely on grades more than skills.
“I was a student first and a basketball player second,” says the 6-foot-9 forward who played guard in high school 16 years and seven inches ago. “I had to have the grades to get to Georgetown.”
Georgetown didn’t make the commitment until Williams had spent two seasons at Montgomery Junior College in Germantown, Maryland. Not only was Williams one of the rare pro basketball player not to receive a scholarship out of high school, but he is one of a dying breed who stuck around long enough to earn their degree.
Williams claims the highlight of his career came on February 22, 2001, the day he was traded to Toronto along with Detroit Pistons teammate Eric Montross. Instead of taking a few days to pack up and move on, as many players do after being dealt, Williams got in his 2000 Cadillac Escalade and made the four-hour trek from Detroit to Toronto.
The Air Canada Centre crowd was so pleased with Williams on that winter night that he received the first standing ovation of his NBA career.
“I’m not an All-Star, I’m not a superstar,” he says, still astounded by the events five years later. “It was like an out-of-body experience. That showed me that people value people too. They value the person that was outside of the basketball court.”
It was that respect that brought Williams to love the city of Toronto, just as the city embraced him both on and off the court.
“I got offered more money by other teams, but I turned it down,” says Williams, adding that he still finds himself promoting Toronto to others.
When he was traded from the Raptors to the Chicago Bulls in 2003, he said it was the hardest part of his career. It wasn’t the idea of playing in Chicago – a city he still loves – that was hard, but instead the feeling of leaving his adopted home city.
“Coming from the turning point in my career, that was the most heartfelt adjustment that I had to make,” he says.
When Williams left town, MLSE Chairman Larry Tanenbaum told the power forward he would bring him back to the team once his playing career came to an end.
“Larry Tanenbaum had always told me that whenever I got finished playing, he’d be calling me,” says Williams.
Tanenbaum followed up on that assurance in January, when he made him a Raptors community representative.
“I think he was a guy who really caught everyone’s imagination here,” says Tom Anselmi, MLSE executive VP and COO. “In the short time he was here, people really liked him.”
According to Anselmi, Williams will make seven or eight trips to Toronto from New York over the next several months.
Williams said the offer came much sooner after his retirement than expected. And although it was quick, the timing wasn’t perfect. After holding on to his Toronto home for almost two years after he left the city, Williams sold it last summer.
He insists his new position with the Raptors won’t hurt the progress of the ‘JYD Project.’
“The Wheels are forever turning,” says the confident philanthropist. “We still have a lot of people who come out and volunteer and help.”
The wheels are rotating faster for Williams’ multiple projects under his own corporation, Romie Enterprises. He is currently working on a clothing line (still exclusive to him and several friends) and a record label.
“The affects of being traded multiple times makes for a more challenging business experience,” says Johnnie Williams. “For many players, their brand is connected to the NBA and the team they play for. Once traded, you lose major momentum in your personal brand and must rebuild.
“Personal clothing lines are tied directly to celebrity brands and you can't grow a clothing line tied to your name if your name keeps moving and fluctuating in value.”
Jerome played the role of tour guide at the All-Star game in Houston last month, bringing high school classes through the ‘Pioneers in Basketball Exhibition,’ hosting the ‘NBA Cares Reading Rally’ and coaching a wheelchair basketball game.
“He’s such an excellent community-minded person in terms of his mission of what he wants to accomplish with his JYD project,” says Todd Jacobsen, the NBA’s senior director of community relations. “It’s nice that we have players like Jerome that are so passionate and committed.”
Of all the projects, organizations, programs and functions, the most memorable cultural endeavor of Williams’ life was the trip to South Africa in September.
“Once you see, through your own eyes, the things that I’ve seen… you are considered a brother,” he says. “They call us African-Americans here in the States and yet 95 percent of us haven’t touched foot on our native land.”
It was in South Africa where he was given the nickname ‘Temba’ and was rewarded with a whole new perspective on life.
“It’s something that I really have to take with more of an in-depth look” says the father of two.
Now Williams realizes, more than ever, that a lot must be done to help underprivileged children and adults worldwide. ‘Basketball without Borders’ will return to South Africa and plans are set for trips to Puerto Rico and China.
Although the cause is not as crucial to society and the job description is not as altruistic, Williams comes to the Raptors to try to leave the same mark on the people that he did in Africa.
Perhaps a little ‘temba’ for the city of Toronto.
Brad Gagnon is a freelance reporter from Toronto
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