Feb. 9, 2017
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Who inspired you to be what you are?
Jason Williams, a West Virginia native and former Marshall University basketball player, was asked a similar question by NBA great Kevin Garnett last week. The pair of former NBA players sat down for a chat on TNT’s Inside the NBA segment Area 21, a laid-back question-and-answer session hosted by Garnett.
Williams’ answer highlighted a person who is in the Marshall Hall of Fame: Carl Lee. By the end of the interview, on national television, Garnett and Williams had weaved Thundering Herd athletics throughout their conversation. Williams, who played one season at Marshall (1995-96) before transferring to the University of Florida, focused much of the conversation on athletes and coaches with Kelly green ties. Williams talked about Lee, state native and former Marshall receiver Randy Moss, former Herd hoops coach Billy Donovan and MU basketball great Mike D’Antoni.
Now, back to Williams’ childhood inspiration.
“Well, first off, Carl Lee,” Williams answered. “He used to be a safety for the Minnesota Vikings, grew up in South Charleston, West Virginia. Well, that got it going because I couldn’t fathom a pro athlete being where I’m from.”
Lee, who played at Marshall from 1979-1982 and was selected in the seventh round of the 1983 draft by the Vikings, said he had never heard that response from Williams. But it conjured up the question: If Williams is a West Virginian-turned-pro who was inspired by a West Virginian-turned-pro, who inspired Lee?
“Robert Alexander,” Lee said. “I saw him from virtually junior high school to high school and on up. Robert was the first athlete to tell me that athletes don’t drink; they don’t do drugs. He was the first athlete to tell me how relevant running and training was. I dreamed of the day of being able to ride my bike from South Charleston to Kanawha City because that’s what he would do. I got a bike and that was part of my training. Him running in the mornings and him running in the streets, that’s where I developed getting up early and running.
“I still see it as a kid listening to one of the best running backs in the country telling me I can’t do this and I can’t do that, but if I want to be something I’ve got to get up and run and get in the weight room. I listened to him like he was my parent.”
Alexander, like Lee, attended South Charleston High School. Alexander won the Kennedy Award, given to West Virginia’s top high school football player, in 1975 and ’76 before heading to West Virginia University to play football. A couple years later, Lee headed to Marshall to play for coach Sonny Randle.
Lee credited the Marshall coaching staff for preparing him for a lengthy career in the National Football League. Lee played 181 games and intercepted 31 passes in 11 seasons in the NFL, meanwhile unknowingly inspiring future athletes to develop from promising youth to fulfilled potential, sometimes with a path to the pros that went through Huntington, West Virginia.
Before Lee landed at Marshall, though, the D’Antoni brothers made their mark. First it was Dan D’Antoni, a Mullens native who played basketball for the Herd from 1966-70. Dan’s brother, Mike, entered the hoops program in 1970 and departed in 1973 as a second round NBA draft pick.
If you’re reading this website, you’re probably aware that Dan is in his third season as the head coach at Marshall, meanwhile Mike is an NBA Coach of the Year candidate with the Houston Rockets. The D’Antoni brothers rely on an up-tempo, 3-point launching offense – Marshall ranks No. 9 nationally in points per game and 3-pointers made; Houston is second in the NBA in scoring and first in 3-pointers made.
“I think I could probably average 20 assists (in D’Antoni’s system),” Williams said of the Houston Rockets head coach. “It would be crazy with all of those shooters around me.”
Williams also discussed Moss’ basketball skills, as the two played together at DuPont High School. While it was Williams who developed into a first round NBA draft pick, it was Moss who won the Evans Award, given to West Virginia’s top high school basketball player, in consecutive years. Williams never took home the honor.
Moss, of course, played two seasons of football for the Thundering Herd, winning the Biletnikoff Award as a sophomore – given to the nation’s top receiver – and finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. He, like Lee and the D’Antonis, is in the Marshall Hall of Fame.
Williams also opined on Donovan’s transition to the NBA, where he is in his second season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Donovan coached two seasons at Marshall – 1994-96 – and compiled a 35-20 record, including 17-11 with Williams as his point guard. When Donovan took the Florida job, Williams followed him to Gainesville, Florida.
All of that was preceded by Lee. One never knows when it could be inspiring the next great athlete.
“He used my success from just looking at me and believing it is possible because someone from his area did it, so he could do it, too,” Lee said of Williams. “When I heard that, it was hard to believe that this basketball player was watching me from somewhere else. Someone is always watching.”