NBA’s C.J. Williams is just as passionate off the court as he is on it

February 14, 2021

“Oh man, I’m getting a little emotional,” he says, sharing the memory of signing his NBA contract. Even through a pandemic-friendly virtual interview, C.J. Williams’ passion shines through.

It’s March 2017, and C.J. is in his hotel room in L.A. having a conversation with his agent about a meeting the next day with the LA Clippers. “My agent has this thing he loves to do where he’ll tell me half, but won’t tell me the whole thing.” But then he told him: The LA Clippers wanted to sign C.J. to a three-year deal.

“I remember I didn’t get emotional right away, but I thought ‘Wow. This is the moment. I did it.’ I did everything I wanted to do. I got an NBA contract,” he says.

What made the moment sweeter was his parents had flown to LA to surprise him and were staying at the same hotel. So C.J. headed over to his parents’ room and knocked. They opened the door. “And that’s when I got emotional,” he says.

The next morning C.J. took his parents with him to sign the contract. “I wanted my parents to be there with me. And that’s one of the most special memories that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life,” he says.

C.J. Williams’ first NBA start

We know him on the court as a player who works hard and does what it takes for his team to win, even if it means playing several different roles with the team or taking on the best offensive player of the opposing team.

“My best ability is my versatility, and being able to make adaptations to figure out a way to win the game,” he says, adding that it isn’t always about what’s most beneficial to his individual success, but what will lead to the team’s success.

C.J.’s favorite moment on the court is January 8, 2018. Not only did Doc Rivers give him his first NBA start against the Atlanta Hawks, but he also hit a 3-pointer from the left wing with 9 seconds left to win the game 108-107. Lou Williams missed a late 3 that led to a long rebound by Wesley Johnson, who passed the ball to C.J. for the winning shot.

Basketball is something that’s always been important to C.J., because he’s admired it from a young age. “It started with watching Michael Jordan play. I was one of the kids that was screaming to the commercial: ‘I wanna be Mike!’” he says.

When C.J. was 4, he was already playing with kids that were 6 or 7 years old. And he was considered one of the better players on the team. “Probably the moment where I realized I was really good was in the eighth grade when I started to see how much easier the games were getting for me.”

Basketball or Football?

It was during his high school years at Jack Britt High in Fayetteville, North Carolina, that C.J. decided he wanted to go pro. But he hadn’t decided on the sport. “I also played football,” he says. “And I was really good at football.”

After his sophomore year, C.J. was getting college offers to play both basketball and football. He asked his dad what he thought. “It’s really up to you,” his dad said.

But C.J. couldn’t decide. “I love both sports equally, so I don’t know which one I want to go with. So I essentially ended up having my dad make the decision for me,” he says. “And he chose basketball. I’m definitely happy about it.”

C.J. still throws around the football for fun. He was a quarterback in high school, after all. And one time he had to show his friends how far he could throw. “They didn’t think I could throw the ball very far,” he says. “I threw it 75 yards.”

Battle Rap

Something C.J.’s fans may not already about him – he’s a huge fan of battle rap. “I watch it all the time. I listen to it all the time. I listen to it before a game sometimes.” C.J is also running a new battle rap blog where he and his blog partner judge battles. “I enjoy seeing the intricacies and the complexities of how they put words together and make it make sense,” he says. 

“I’m very simple,” C.J. says when asked about who he is off the court. He’s a gamer. “I game quite a bit, actually more than the average basketball player.” And of the earliest photos his mom has of him is with a Nintendo controller in his hand and a basketball between his legs.

While C.J.’s father inspired his career choice, his mother also plays a big part in his life. “Mom is my best friend. I couldn’t be here without her,” he says, adding that she inspired him by showing him what it takes to nurture a passion.

‘Mom is my best friend. I couldn’t be here without her.’

C.J.’s mom left her job after she had C.J. and his sister. “She stopped her job so she could take care of us. And to me, that showed so much passion for nurturing our lives. A lot of people would say she gave up. I think she tapped into what her best ability is, being a mother.” After C.J. and his sister grew older, their mother did go back to work. “She prioritized my sister and I, to better our lives,” he says. C.J. talks to his mom all the time. And he often gives her a shoutout on Instagram.

C.J.’s motivation as an athlete comes from his family. “They’ve always supported me from day one. They fully committed to helping me reach and accomplish and go beyond the goals I had for myself,” he says, adding that he does this for his family. “It’s not even about me anymore. It’s about my family.”

When asked who his hero is, C.J. says: “I would have to say my dad. My dad is also my best friend. I love my parents so much.”

C.J.’s sister, who also shares a February birthday with him, also inspires him. “I see how hard she works,” he says. They have a running joke. At times, he says, basketball can be mentally and emotionally difficult work. “I’ll tell my sister that I’m tired. And she’ll send me a picture of her cubicle and say, ‘Do you want to work here?’ And that instantly just changes my mind,” he says. “I love her. She helps keep me on the straight and narrow.”

C.J.’s sister will travel to visit him whenever he’s playing in another city, and they always celebrate their February birthdays together.

The game cancelled by COVID

C.J. was at a team dinner in Chicago right before a game. The team decided they’d put their phones in the middle of the table, and the first person who touched their phone would have to pay the bill. “We had already talked about it,” he said. “The vets, we would split the bill between the four us.” But it was still a good exercise to keep everyone in the moment.

“We had a great dinner,” he says. Then they all reached for their phones and immediately all started looking at each other. The game was cancelled. Then the entire season was cancelled. And C.J. later learned he had had indirect contact with Kevin Durant during the time he had tested positive. So he quarantined for 2 weeks.

After he traveled back home, C.J. stayed home for nearly 6 months. “It has made it difficult to take jobs,” he says, especially overseas, where each country has its own protocols. As more information surfaced, C.J. got to a point where he felt he was ready for some normalcy. So he started working out – but only he and his trainer would be in the gym. “It makes it difficult in terms of staying motivated,” he says, especially when he doesn’t have other players to train with. “You don’t realize it, but you actually compete with others in your mind,” he says. “If you’re doing a drill and they do the drill better than you, the next time you do it, you’re going to try harder.” As of the time of this interview, C.J. was practicing social distancing and wearing his “mask at all times.”

‘I Am a Black Man”

In 2020, C.J. participated in the “I Am Black Man” challenge on Instagram, where black men uploaded a photo of themselves and tagged friends who are also black men, who then in turn posted a photo of themselves with the same caption.

Tagged by a friend, C.J. decided to participate. “It’s important for people to understand where I stand,” he says, “especially in today’s society, with social injustice and the things that we’ve seen over the last year.”

“We, as black men, we get a bad reputation,” C.J. says. “But I believe that we are changing that reputation.” C.J. sometimes chooses not to partake in certain political or controversial subjects on social media, but when he was tagged in the challenge, he knew this would be an exception.

“I felt that it was my duty to do it this time because, as a black man, and as somebody who has a spotlight on them, I have to show that I do understand what’s going on and that I do have my personal opinion on how things are being handled and what changes need to be made.”

C.J. himself has been stopped by the police while driving. While there was no incident, C.J. says “the horrific, tragic events that happened last year can, at times, make you fearful.” Even now when he leaves his home to work out, he turns to his sister and tells her he loves her.

“I don’t know if that’s the last time I’ll get to say that,” he says. “It’s a harsh reality of being a black man in America right now. But it is a reality and you learn to live with it. You don’t like it, you don’t accept it, but you learn to live with it, and I just want people to understand that. This is something that’s happening to all of us. And it’s not just a certain type or a certain group of people. It’s all people of colored skin.”

‘Make sure your passion is there.’

That’s C.J’s advice to high school and college basketball athletes. “I’m realistic with a lot of the kids I mentor,” he says. “It’s a job, it’s just like working in corporate America. You have bosses, you have coworkers you have to get along with.” 

At some point, he says, it can get mentally, emotionally and physically draining. “And you just have to stay grounded in your passion for the game of basketball.”

As for C.J., his short-term goals are to continue playing basketball. After he retires from basketball, he plans to start his coaching career. “I want to help others with my basketball IQ.”

But not only that, C.J. wants to teach “young boys how to become men and what it takes to be a man.” He’s always been a mentor – even when he was in high school. “Sometimes kids get in the mindset of being cool. And I want to teach them that it’s cool to be smart. It’s cool be well-behaved. It’s cool to be able to do all that.”

‘It’s cool be smart. It’s cool to be well-behaved. It’s cool to be able to do all that.’

The biggest obstacle he faced while getting to where he is today? Self-doubt. “I got to a point in my college career where I wasn’t sure if I would play professional basketball no matter how much I dreamt it,” he says. “I wasn’t playing much as a junior in college, and I had a coach that I think didn’t recognize my value.”

During C.J’s senior year, a new coach was assigned to the team. “He not only trusted me and valued me, but he kind of re-established my passion for the game of basketball,” he says. “Just his faith in me, his trust in me as basketball player and as a leader of the team.”  That’s when C.J. overcame the self-doubt. But, he adds, “even to this day, you still have your moments.”

The USA AmeriCup Team

C.J. was a member of the 2017 USA AmeriCup Team that won the gold medal, finishing at 5-0. “I accomplished a huge dream to represent my country in competition,” he says. “Being able to put on that jersey, being able to hear your national anthem after receiving your gold medal, and being able to tell people that you represented your country in the sports competition is something I’ve dreamt of for as long as I can remember.” He added that it was also the start of what helped him accomplish another dream, signing his first NBA contract.

C.J. wants young athletes pursuing their dream to keep trying. “It may seem different, but whatever your dream is, chase it. There’s nothing wrong with chasing your dream. To anyone facing adversity in pursuing their dream, find your specific foundation and get back to it,” he says. For C.J., his foundations are his religion and his family.

His advice for when things get difficult: “We have a tendency to get caught up in the complications or the intricacies of our jobs and of our lives, and we forget the basic fundamental things of our lives.”

When he’s having a bad shooting day, C.J. decides to get a rebound or a layup. “The little things that get overlooked at times, those can put you back in your rhythm. So when you face adversity, just find your foundation, get back to the basics and be the best you in that moment.” C.J. says if his story can help even just one person, he’s happy.

He shares a moment where someone said something to him that changed his life. As a child, he was going through a rough time, unable to make friends at his new school, feeling lonely, and feeling like he just didn’t fit in. He was listening to a sermon, and the First Lady of the church was in the pulpit looking at him. “I thought I was in trouble, so I was shook up a little bit.” After the sermon, she walked toward him, sat next to him, looked him in the face and said: “It’s OK to be different.”

‘It’s OK to be different.’

“I instantly started crying,” he says. “At that time, I wasn’t fitting in with anyone. I don’t know if she realized at that moment how big those words were to me and how I carry that with me today.”

His advice to everyone sharing in his story: “Be careful of what we say to each other. Remember that our words, just a few encouraging words, can change a person’s life, and we need to make sure we help one another and speak positively into each other’s lives. If I could leave just one quote, ‘It’s OK to be different.’ ”