Somehow cutting through the chatter of nearly 17,500 fans, head coach Brad Underwood’s voice issued the command that CJ Williams had been waiting for with a mixture of agitation and excitement long before he and his teammates stepped onto the buses outside their hotel and endured a traffic-choked expedition to Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“CJ! Go!,” meant, for the second time in 48 hours, only the bench and 35 feet stood between Williams and center court. It separated him from what he and countless other studentathletes at NCAA Division I institutions envisioned when they put pen to paper and signed basketball letters of intent — getting to play meaningful minutes with a chance at history for them and their teammates in the NCAA tournament.
Without any trepidation, Williams charged off the bench and called for Clide Geffrard to exit the game so Williams could take his place as forward. Entering the court, Williams glanced at the massive scoreboard and saw SFA was leading the University of Notre Dame by four points. No longer suffering from the mysterious fatigue he felt during practice the previous day, Williams’ focus shifted to the task at hand — advancing in the tournament.
Fantasy scenarios like the one coming to fruition on March 20, 2016, were what Williams and his father, Coris Sr., had hoped for during multiple visits to SFA.
Fueled by a desire to win, Williams kept SFA near the top of his prospective school list during the recruiting process, but it was his father who made the final push.
Coris had a list, as well, with just one name on it. Coris loved everything about the Lumberjack basketball program and Nacogdoches. The former Alcorn State University basketball player knew SFA was where his son belonged.
“My dad never finished college,” Williams said. “Neither did my mom, who also played basketball. Everybody in my family played basketball, so both of them knew how important it was to me to play. But more than anything, they wanted me to graduate.” Checking into SFA’s second round of the NCAA tournament game against the Fighting Irish — classes, notes and assignments took a back seat.
With the ball in his hands and seven minutes remaining in the first half, Williams spied freshman forward TJ Holyfield without any white jerseys around him and shot a sharp pass to the Albuquerque, New Mexico, native, who connected on a mid-range jumper that pushed SFA’s lead to 27-23. That’s when another wave of fatigue, accompanied this time by pain, hit Williams.
“My legs felt so heavy and tight,” recalled Williams. “I was breathing hard. It hurt, and I kind of blacked out every once in a while. All through it, I was really just playing for my teammates, but I knew something was wrong.”
Williams’ final shot attempt of his college basketball career came with 6:15 remaining in the first half. His layup was blocked, but the Jacks retained possession, and a timeout was called. Retreating to the bench with his teammates, Williams had helped the 14-seed maintain a 27-25 lead.
At halftime, the Jacks trailed by one and hustled to the locker room. Once inside, Williams frantically grabbed the nearest trash can and vomited into it.
“Something is really going on with my body,” he thought. The next day, Williams was back in Nacogdoches. Less than 24 hours after SFA suffered a gut-wrenching one-point loss to Notre Dame on a tip-in with 1.5 seconds remaining, he and his teammates gathered in the locker room at Johnson Coliseum as Underwood told the team he’d been named the head men’s basketball coach at Oklahoma State University.
“We were all a little hurt when coach Underwood left, but that’s when I promised the guys that I was going to be here no matter what,” said Williams. His teammates reciprocated. He didn't know it at the time, but that camaraderie was going to carry Williams through the most difficult time of his life.
Less than two weeks after the team members made their promise, Coris passed away. Through all the pain of his father’s passing, Williams took comfort that he still had basketball.
Mere days after Coris’ death, Kyle Keller accepted the position as SFA’s head men’s basketball coach. After Keller’s introductory press conference, he immediately began evaluating his players.
When it came to Williams, Keller’s assessment was frank.
“If CJ was going to play, he had to lose weight,” said Keller. “During our one-on-one meeting, I told him he had to come back in a month 20 pounds lighter if he wanted to stay on the team.”
Williams thought, “No problem.” After all, he had dropped weight before.
Exactly one month later, Williams was 20 pounds leaner. Now that his body was in shape, the senior could focus on basketball and keeping SFA in the conversation as one of college basketball’s best mid-major teams.
It was now summertime, and the team was set to undergo a battery of health-related tests, among them a cardiac screening.
Williams’ results would have a life-changing impact.
Tests revealed that Williams had arrhythmia. This condition had most likely been the cause of Williams’ fatigue, heavy legs and momentary blackouts in Brooklyn. Arrhythmia, also known as irregular heartbeat, often has no symptoms and is the result of roughly 80 percent of sudden cardiac deaths.
Many athletes have died from the condition, including professional basketball players Jason Collier, who played for the Atlanta Hawks; Len Bias, who was drafted by the Boston Celtics; and Conrad McRae, who played for the Washington Bullets.
The test results were shared with Keller, who broke the news to Williams that his collegiate basketball career had reached its endpoint. “As I called him to my office, I knew there was no way I was going to hold it together,” Keller said.
Keller asked Williams, “CJ, if you could trade your basketball career for that one weekend in Brooklyn with millions of people watching the team come within a second of reaching the Sweet 16, would you do it?” As Williams replied he would, Keller told him that he had played his last game.
“We found an arrhythmia in your heart. You can’t play anymore,” Keller said. “Playing basketball could kill you.”
Keller and a devastated Williams sat across from each other in Keller’s office and cried. Both men knew that this news was possibly saving Williams life but also killing his dream.
“At the time, basketball was my life,” Williams said. “It was all I knew and wanted. I was preparing for my senior year of college and had just returned from the NCAA tournament. I wanted to get us back as a team leader.”
During the next few months, Williams had second thoughts about remaining on a team where he was not contributing as a player.
“I had my bags packed three times, and I was so close to going home,” Williams said.
However, his mind kept recalling the promise he made to his teammates — the promise to stay with them no matter what. “SFA made me stay,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to let down the university or my teammates. They’re my brothers.”
Through talks with his family and Keller and through prayer, Williams’ connection with his teammates and coaches overshadowed any thoughts of leaving.
Though the healing process has been long and difficult, Williams’ focus is now on doing what his mother and late father were not able to — graduate college.
Although he is unable to play, Williams is still an integral part of the team’s operations. In his new role as a manager/student assistant coach, he is able to see the game from a different perspective and works with the team during practice.
Though much of what he loved has been taken from Williams, he has gained an appreciation for what remains and hopes to use those lessons and memories going forward to build a bright future.
Williams said from time to time, he pulls out his cellphone and listens to a voicemail his father once left him, “Stay strong and work hard.”