Q&A with Illini legend Deron Williams


Illinois’ Deron Williams raises his arms to celebrate points scored by teammate Dee Brown during the second half of the game at the University of Iowa on Feb. 11, 2005.

By Will Gerard, Staff writer

Former Illini guard Deron Williams spoke with the media before Tuesday’s game against Rutgers.

Williams was in town because he served as a “celebrity judge” for the athletic department’s “Jock Jams” event, which is essentially a talent show for the school’s student-athletes, and proceeds from the event benefitted Camp Kesem, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Uplifting Athletes.

Junior golfer Dylan Meyer invited Williams to come as a guest judge through a direct message on Twitter.

He also visited the practices for men’s basketball, men’s golf and wrestling on Monday.

Williams was selected third overall in the 2005 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz after leading Illinois to a National Championship appearance and back-to-back Big Ten titles. He played 12 years in the NBA, was selected to three all-star teams and won a pair of gold medals with Team USA in 2008 and 2012.

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Here are selected responses from the 10-minute interview:

Q: It’s been a while since you’ve been here. What’s it like being back here and what sticks out to you?

A: It’s great! It’s been a little too long, I think it’s been about three years since I’ve been here last. A lot has changed, not only in the basketball program and what they’re doing with their arena, but just on campus. Campus is growing. It’s like New York down there with all of the high rises they’ve got down there on Green Street. I made my rounds around campus at some of my favorite spots, and so it’s been enjoyable.

Q: What did you pick up watching practice the past couple days and what did you talk about with the team?

A: I only watched one day of practice, and I was only there for about 30 minutes during warm-ups. It was hard to pick-up a lot, but I talked to the guys for a little bit before practice and just shared about my time here and kind of what made us successful as a team. You know, when I was here, and kind of just to give a little backstory of me and my journey from high school to the NBA and so forth.

Q: You went to the golf facility and stopped at wrestling practice. What was that like for you?

A: Wrestling was my first sport, so I always loved wrestling. I have a passion for that and respect what those guys go through. I just wanted to stop and see a practice, and golf, everyone knows my love for golf. I just wanted to step in there and meet those guys, just hang out. You know, I’ve gotten to know a couple of those guys from social media since the last time I was here. I got the chance to spend some time with Coach Underwood, which was a great way to get to know him, and just talk to him for a little bit about his vision for the program and where he sees it going. I really liked him a lot. I got the chance to visit with (athletic director) Josh (Whitman) today. He took myself and my wife to lunch today, and he took me to the Jock Jams as well last night. It was good to spend some time with him. I didn’t care for the last AD to say the least, so I definitely got a good vibe from Josh through meeting him for the first time. I think he’s going to be really good for this program. I’m excited for about the things he’s done so far.

Q: Can you share your journey at Illinois?

A: You know; my journey was good. It was trying at times. My freshman year when Coach Self left was a tough time for me. When Coach Weber came in, I didn’t really get along with him those first couple months, and we had some struggles. We weren’t winning the way we thought we were going to be; we didn’t really buy into his system as a unit. But once we did, we closed the Big Ten season really strong and won a Big Ten championship. We saw things turning around and saw how special we could be. That third pretty much speaks for itself, but my career at Illinois was great. I wouldn’t trade those three years for anything. If I was living in the places these players are living in now and had the financial situation these guys are in now, I may have stuck around for another year. It was the best. This a great university, a great education, a great athletic program, and hopefully, you know, we can get it back to where we were before.

Q: Can you talk about your “Ballers and Brawlers” podcast and how it started?

A: Yeah, just me and a couple buddies – one former UFC fighter and one that fought kind of locally in Utah – talked about podcasts and doing one. We just decided to do it, and it’s been a little hobby that we’re doing. Who knows what it could turn into? But it’s just something we do for fun, really.

Q: So which one is better: Your podcast or “Road Tripping?”

A: “Road Tripping” is pretty good. They have some good guests, so we’re just growing. They have like 70 episodes and we’re only at 22. We have some time to catch-up.

Q: What’s this year away from the game been like for you?

A: It’s been good. I’ve definitely missed competing and definitely miss being out there. But, there’s a lot of things I don’t miss. I don’t miss the travel and being away from my family for so much time. I actually enjoy the travel I get to do on my own, going where I want to go when I want to go, and not getting in at 3 a.m. and having a breakfast meeting at 10 a.m.

Q: What’s the key to turning around this basketball program?

 A: I think we have a great guy in Coach Underwood. I think that’s the first step. In talking with him yesterday, he was talking about culture change and it definitely starts at the top. I talked to the guys about it a lot, I said ‘the coaches can only do and say so much, it’s got to be on you guys. You guys have to want change and you guys have to win.’ I talked about what made us successful. Like I said (earlier), our unselfishness (set us apart). We knew if we took care of winning, everything else would take care of itself and it did. I’m proof of that. I wasn’t on anyone’s radar my freshman year and most sophomore year, and I led the team in scoring my sophomore year. Fast forward to my junior year, and I pretty much jumped from being maybe a second round pick to a top-five pick because we won. I averaged 12 points a game. It’s not like I had eye-popping numbers. But, we won and I was a big part of that. People saw that and scouts saw that. The culture change has to come from within. It has to come from them competing in practice, and making practice harder than games, so that games are easy. That’s kind of what we did.

Q: I don’t know if you remember the Regional Final game against Arizona, but you hit a big shot and it probably ranks at the top of all shots in Illinois basketball history. How do you look back at that moment and that game?

A: Every March Madness, especially with social media now, I get to relive it because people are sending (the play) to me, and tweeting it out to me. So, it’s definitely a special moment in my career on any level. It’s definitely a shot that I will always remember. I’m constantly reminded of it when I come here.

Q: How much Illinois gear do you have in your closet these days?

A: I had a good amount, and I just visited basketball, wrestling and golf, so now I have a ton more, and I visited Gameday (Spirit) as well. I’m stocked up on Illinois gear. I have to find a place for it in my closet. I don’t know if I have enough room.