From poor South, Chancellor and Williams made it to Hall of Fame

Updated: August 2, 2007, 6:25 PM ET
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- They grew up poor boys in the South.

One was stuck working miserable summers picking cotton in Mississippi; the other feeling trapped in Asheville, N.C., while his single mother ironed the neighbors' clothes for enough money to get by.

But Van Chancellor and Roy Williams also shared an escape plan: basketball.

Without the game's discipline and delight, the college basketball coaches say they never could have dreamed about breaking from the poverty they were born into.

"Basketball is the thing that's always driven me," Chancellor told a crowd gathered to see him and Williams at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Thursday. "It's been such a wonderful ride."

The latest stop in the careers of Chancellor, the new women's coach at LSU, and Williams, the men's coach at North Carolina, is their induction into the Hall of Fame next month.

Both men, who have combined to win nearly 1,000 games during three decades of coaching, talked about the thrill of being chosen. But rather than dwell on that achievement, they seemed more eager to tell the stories that got them there.

Chancellor, who spent more time "trying to be first in the lunch line and chasing girls" than paying attention to school in Mississippi, realized that basketball -- more than a future as a Methodist preacher -- was his true calling when he was 16.

"I wanted to coach so I could help change young people's lives," he said. "I just wanted to make a difference." After leaving East Central Junior College, where he spent most of his basketball career on the bench, he took his first coaching job at a local high school.

From there, things only got better. he spent 19 years as head coach at Ole Miss, winning 439 games before coaching the WNBA's Houston Comets in 1997 and winning four championships. Seven years later, he led the U.S. women's team to a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Just when he thought he was retired, Chancellor jumped back in this year as LSU's head coach.

"It makes me younger," he said. "I feel great."

Williams isn't feeling too bad, either, for a guy who got his start sneaking into his elementary school gym to shoot baskets and work on his game as a seventh grader.

The brick building was his only haven from a tough childhood, a safety zone he thought he'd lose the night a police officer found him there practicing alone. Rather than drive him to the police station or tell his mother, the cop had a talk with the school's principal. Instead of punishment, came a prize. He was given the keys to the gym and allowed to go whenever he wanted.

"That was the first time somebody showed they really believed in me," he said.

With an overachiever's sense of mission, he went on to play for the Tar Heels and later coached Kansas from 1988 to 2003 before returning to his alma mater.

He has coached in five Final Fours and is one of only three coaches to lead two schools to the national championship game. He won his first in 2005 with North Carolina.

"You want to know what it means to be a good basketball player? You need a ball, you need a goal, and you need to sweat," Williams said.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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