Basketball has been good to John Williams.
The sport brought the former UNC Asheville star to Western North Carolina, where he met his wife and started a family. His professional career with the Harlem Globetrotters took him around the world.
Now, from a brightly-lit gym in Swannanoa, Williams is teaching kids how to get as much out of basketball as he has.
Widely know as "Jet," Williams flew into the national spotlight in 2011, when the UNCA Bulldogs won the Big South Conference Tournament Championship before defeating University of Arkansas-Little Rock to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament, largely because of Mike Gore, then UNCA's sports information director.
"He called everybody in ESPN and the NCAA," Williams said, "to figure out how to get this kid from a small school in the mountains into an NCAA dunk contest."
Gore, a recent Big South Conference Hall of Fame inductee, put together a video of Williams' acrobatic dunks, some of which had appeared on ESPN. In the dunk contest, Williams finished in second place at the NCAA tournament Final Four that March in Houston.
During his time on the national stage, Williams was drafted by "the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters," as they are known. Williams visited 50 states and more than 40 countries during his three years with the team.
Playing basketball around the world was no longer an option, he said, when his wife - former Mitchell High School and Montreat College basketball player Whitney (Boone) Williams - became pregnant with the couple’s first child.
“I always promised her if we were to have a baby, then I would stop playing,” Williams said. “There’s just so much you have to put into it. It doesn’t leave enough time for family.”
Having worked as a certified NBA trainer in the off-season during his stint with Globetrotters, Williams began hosting clinics and became lead trainer for Hoops City U, the home base for AAU program Team Carolina, in Durham, his hometown. Wanting to move back to Asheville, he got to put his knowledge to use in the mountains when Team Carolina asked him if he'd be interested in planning a Team Carolina in Western North Carolina.
Williams, now basketball program director for Team Carolina-Asheville which works with more than 150 kids from six WNC counties, also works as a trainer through his John Williams Basketball Elite Training organization. Two years ago, after he left camp flyers at Asheville Christian Academy and met athletic director Joe Johnson, he filled the head coaching vacancy on the school’s girls basketball team.
Williams inherited a team that went 2-12 in the 2015-16 season. He brought on fellow Durham native and former Bulldog teammate Joey Harrell as assistant coach (Harrell is also director of Team Carolina-Asheville girls program and the head coach of the 17-and-under team).
The ACA Lions won 14 games in Williams' first season (2016-17). The following season, the work his players put in paid in a big way. The program went 25-2 and advanced to the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 2A state championship game (the team lost to conference rival Carolina Day).
Four ACA Lions will play college basketball, according to Williams (another one is being pursued but remains undecided). MaLeeah Langstaff, a former Swain High School standout who transferred to ACA for her senior season, led the Lions with 13.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. She's headed for Winthrop University, a NCAA Division I school, next fall.
"I've played basketball for years," Langstaff said, "and I was on a state championship team (before moving to N.C.)," she said last week during a break from Team Carolina practice. "I thought I was coming into ACA and I'd be one of the better players. But the moves that the girls Coach Williams worked on were moves I couldn't do."
Langstaff trained with Williams and Harrell specifically to become a college basketball-level player.
"(Williams') basketball IQ is so high; he has so much to offer about the game," she said. "For us players looking to play at the next level, working with him helps so much."
Williams, the son of a coach, said his organization teaches kids the value of "sweat equity."
"That's putting in the work, time and effort," he said. "And we show them that we care by building relationships with them and showing them we're willing to go to war for them. That's an environment I grew up with my dad's program in Raleigh."
Williams' goal is to use his knowledge of the game to help his players learn what it takes continue their careers beyond high school.
"We continually work with them and mentor them and develop them," Williams said. "We invest in these kids for 11 or 12 years, if that's something they want to do."
Basketball, a sport which he continues to pour himself into, has given him a lot.
"I've really enjoyed the journey," said Williams, who only a couple of years removed from his Globetrotter career looks like he could easily pull off the dunks he became famous for.
He hopes the kids who participate in his programs learn more than just how to excel on the court. "It's way beyond basketball," he said. "The sport creates relationships. Our thing is not just teaching them how to play, but also the life lessons that come along with it."
Train with John Williams
The Hoop Lab summer training session (hooplabo.com) for children ages 8-18, presented by John Williams Basketball Elite Training, will be June 15-Aug. 17 at Fairview Community Center. The weekday day camps will teach fundamentals; advanced skills will be taught during night classes.