By CLINT FOSTER
While most high school graduates spent their summers hanging out with friends, relaxing before starting a new job or preparing for college life, A.J. Williams, 18, was on the other side of the globe.
With his diploma in hand, the All-District Mineral Wells High School basketball standout hopped on a 15-hour flight in mid-July to spend about a week in the home of kangaroos.
No, not Weatherford. Australia.
Not unlike his favorite player, Lebron James, who famously “took his talents to South Beach” three years ago, Williams jet-setted to the Gold Coast of the Land Down Under to play in the 17th annual Down Under Hoops Classic – an international basketball tournament featuring some of the best young players from Australia and the United States. And not only did Williams play, he excelled, earning Most Valuable Player honors as he led his team, the Braves, to a second place finish in the double-elimination tournament.
“I guess [the coach] had been looking at me since I was a sophomore,” Williams said. “He gave my mother a call and I got a letter in the mail saying that he wanted me to play on the USA team. I thought it would be a good opportunity to show my skills and just go to Australia, which is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
A three-sport letterman and three-year varsity basketball player at MWHS, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound small forward had to play all over the frontcourt for the Braves. Williams – who Rams head coach Aaron Pappas once hailed the “heart and soul” of his MWHS team – was not only one of the tallest players on his team in Australia, but also proved to be one of the best outside shooters.
Williams, the sole Texan in the tournament, said he grew very close to his teammates in Australia, who came from all over the United States. Some lived as far away from the Lone Star State as South Dakota, California and Ohio, while others lived as close as New Mexico and Oklahoma. All showed their toughness, playing 12 to 15 games a day and managing to be the only blemish on the record of the eventual champions of the tournament: a team that featured two 6-foot-10 players versus the Braves, whose tallest player stood 6-foot-4.