Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Williamson's death shakes hoops world
ATLANTA -- Everyone knew his nickname, and everyone was aware of him when he was in the arena courtside.
Kenny Williamson, nicknamed "Eggman," was one of basketball's great characters.
He died Tuesday morning after a long battle with cancer. The Memphis Grizzlies assistant general manager touched hundreds -- if not many, many more -- in the NBA, college and high school basketball communities.
When his death was reported, it made people from across the country pause. Coaches such as KU's Bill Self and staff members Norm Roberts and Doc Sadler, as well as Kentucky's John Calipari, knew him well. They were all saddened by the news.
"Egg had a great spirit,'' said Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy, a former Syracuse assistant. "Whenever I would see him or communicate with Egg, it seemed he would not allow his ailment to beat him as he continued to live upbeat and was positive while knowing the seriousness of his situation the past year. Egg will be missed, to say the least.''
I've covered college basketball for 23 years and the NBA draft for the past 13. Williamson was a constant, comforting face in arenas, at NBA draft events, even in airports. He was always the same. He engaged. He loved to laugh -- boy, did he have a distinctive cackle. He lived the game and needed to be around the sport in all facets. He thrived on the relationships.
Tony Barone, the Grizzlies' director of player personnel, said Tuesday that Williamson had gone to Tampa, Fla., last week to see about alternative treatment for the cancer, which had spread to his brain. He had a tumor removed recently and was hoping to get it to be more treatable.
Barone said that Williamson didn't feel well Monday and didn't come into the office. More tumors were found when he had a scan. Barone went to see him late Monday night. He passed away Tuesday morning.
Barone's office was next to Williamson's.
"He was a people person,'' said Barone, who choked up when discussing his good friend. "Everyone knew Kenny. He did a lot of things behind the scenes that nobody knew. He knew everyone's name from the mail person to the ticket seller to the usher. He knew everybody, and everybody knew him. He made it a special part of his day to say hello to everybody.''
Barone said that Williamson would write letters to friends who were hired and fired, just to let them know he cared.
"He mentored a lot of young African-American coaches behind the scenes,'' Barone said. "His message was that you have a great job, do your best and be a great coach. But more importantly, he wanted them to teach players about life. There aren't a lot of people like him. Whether you were a friend or not, he always had time for you. There aren't enough people like that in the sports world or in general.''
I can attest to this. Williamson didn't big-time me pre-ESPN, nor did he beg for my attention once I moved to ESPN. He was always thrilled to see you, chat, and discuss players and the game.
Dave Babcock of the Milwaukee Bucks said Williamson was holding court, despite his illness, in Treviso, Italy, this past June at a European camp. He was smoking cigars and laughing with his colleagues.
Barone said that Williamson still wanted to go on the road and scout as much as possible.
"He was trying to go on a scouting trip this week,'' Barone said of watching college games. "He was so ingrained in the game. I can't tell you how many former players he knew, referees, the guy who worked at Virginia Tech who brought him peanuts. It was amazing. It was impossible not to like him.''
Williamson joined the Grizzlies in 2007. He had coached in the AAU scene, in the Big East, the ACC, and had worked his way around the NBA. He worked for the Knicks, the Bobcats, St. John's, Seton Hall, Columbia, Iona, Florida State and Louisville. He was a fixture at Rucker Park at one point. He was so New York.
And his death has shaken those who in the game loved him.
"Eggie was a loyal and passionate man who loved people and loved basketball,'' said Frank Ross, the director of East Coast scouting for the Oklahoma City Thunder. "He was the type of person that could walk into a room and, if he didn't know you, then he would leave knowing much about you. And then two years later, if you ran into him again, he would remember your wife's name, your children's names and make you feel like you were a close friend of his. This is a man that basketball will miss. He gave a lot to this game. To have known him -- my life has been truly enriched.''
Williamson never held back his thoughts. Barone said he would always tell the truth and didn't sugarcoat anything.
There are so many people you meet covering this game. They are regulars. They are familiar faces. When one is gone, there is an emptiness. Filling Eggman's voice, his laugh, his smile, and his presence will be difficult for anyone to do. He was one of a kind.
"He never changed,'' Barone said. "He was consistent. He was absolutely a joy to be around.''