Spoken Heros: Coach teaches youth basketball and life lessons



News Analysis

By Dwight Hobbes

Contributing Writer


People in our community and their giving spirit to others often go unnoticed as “Unspoken Heroes. Our Spoken Heroes gives the community the opportunity to recognize these everyday heroes and their accomplishments. Without looking for something in return, these heroes are often only rewarded by knowing that others benefit from their efforts. 

Deb Williams Photo by Charles Hallman
Deb Williams
Photo by Charles Hallman


There is a community cornerstone as timeless as communities themselves: the caring coach who helps youngsters keep their heads on straight and is there for them as a guiding light in dark times. They don’t replace parents, but they certainly help where moms and dads — especially if they’re single — can use all the help they can get. Many of us can look back down the road and be grateful such an individual, someone like Deb Williams, for instance, showed up in our lives.

Deb Williams commits to a heartfelt investment of doing for others that which was done for her and doesn’t just mouth a pat phrase to say, “It was given to me. So, I feel I should give back.” She does so as a basketball coach for girls, utilizing their enjoyment of the sport to mentor them in developing life skills.

Toward this end, a growing interest around the Twin Cities in women’s basketball and a greater inclination to take female athletes seriously is a welcome boon. As Williams is aware, not long ago the Minnesota Lynx, an excellent example of role models, was considered something of a novelty act if not an outright joke. Their ascending as WNBA Champions in 2011 and proving it was no fluke by making it to the playoffs last year definitively changed that. In fact, they were the only professional team to cop top national honors as the Vikings and Twins fell far short of the mark.

Asked what impact she feels the Lynx’s success has on young females being encouraged and empowered to play ball and the public’s perception thereof, she answers, “It’s more of a reality now. Young females have always wanted to play at [that] level. The dream has become a reality. Having the WNBA and having the Lynx be so successful, [that dream] is something they can attain now.”

Williams herself got the inspiration early in life. “I started playing probably around age nine or 10, because that’s what my brothers did, just go out and play. Whatever the game was — softball, football, basketball, tag, dodge ball — as neighborhood kids that’s what we went out and did, regardless of gender.”

This was in Selma, Alabama, appropriately enough a cradle of the Civil Rights Movement for equal opportunity. It is not lost on her that young females haven’t always had the opportunities they enjoy today.

Along with coaching at St. Paul’s Highland Park Senior High School, Deb Williams pastors youth — male and female — at Antioch Christian Center, counseling them in life skills as well as matters of spirituality and, naturally, basketball.

“I’ve always worked with young people [before] having the title of pastor.” In fact, she began coaching youth basketball at age 17, right out of high school, and actually wasn’t particularly interested. However, she later became the director of Boys & Girls Club of America in St. Paul, where she stayed for a few years before the Martin Luther King Recreation Center approached her.

Green as an apple, the only preparation she had was her experience as a player. “I could only teach them what I knew. But, I got better at it. All you can really do in the beginning is treat them how [your] coach treated you.”

After some 30 years — over the course of which she’s coached boys as well as girls — Williams has, of course, developed her own style. “I’m still learning. I have a teachable spirit.”

A message she imparts is that, on and off the court, it’s important to “learn how to take away excuses out of their lives. Everybody can come up with an excuse for why they didn’t do something or why they couldn’t. I give them options: ‘Okay, what else can be done?’

“If you miss your ride to the game for whatever reason, you don’t just give up on it. Try to make another arrangement. At least call and say something. There are options. Get them to think about it.”

The same principle, she says, will apply when they go on to college or have to hold down a job. “The professor [is not] going to care about excuses why you didn’t get to class. Your employer sure doesn’t want to hear it.”

As a supervisor at the City of St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation, Williams routinely is in charge of students spending the summer working their first jobs who aren’t versed in fundamental tenets of responsible employment.

Putting the two areas together, looking with one perspective, she says, “You show respect, you work hard. If you’re on a team or with coworkers, what comes first is a common goal. I just try to teach them about life issues. That’s my main goal.”


Look for future stories on people in our community who are doing important work — caring for others. And look for a follow-up interview with our Spoken Heroes on KMOJ radio.

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.