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.
“We were pretty good,” Williams said. “We were a little under matched down low because... nobody really played [like that] in high school. So when me and another guy had to play down low, it was different. We’re not used to having to guard 6’10” people. But we quickly adjusted and we had a good backcourt that kept [the other team] honest.
Williams said playing up to 15 games a day, “was nice, but you’re so tired.
By the end of the day everybody’s tired and the game looks sloppy. But it was a blast.”
Adding to the challenges at the tournament were the Australian referees, who Williams said called games very differently than in the U.S. Williams said he had to adjust to refs not warning players if they were running the risk of a foul, they would simply call it.
But the refs were not the only thing that Williams found different about staying in Brisbane and Sidney on Australia’s East Coast. While Mineral Wells was experiencing the heat of July, Australia was in the middle of it’s winter months. Williams’ only complaint about Australia – besides the long flight that he said left his left leg numb for three days – was that the food was too expensive.
“It was really nice over there,” he said. “The beach was really pretty.
People are actually really more friendly over there than they are here. I took that as a surprise. People will just talk to you and be real friendly, and here, it’s not that way.”
After he collected his silver medal and MVP trophy, Williams stopped off in Hawaii on his way back to the mainland. He loved being able to cap off his trip on the islands of paradise.
Williams was especially thankful to his mother’s friend Tina Kidwell, who made his trip to Australia possible. Kidwell and her husband organized multiple fundraisers to acquire the $5,000 needed to send Williams to the tournament.
“She and her husband took it into their own hands and I’m really thankful for that,” Williams said. “Without her, I probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with the money as fast as we did. She’s a special person. A real nice lady.”
Williams is now college-bound, leaving for school next Monday. After graduating 21st in his class at MWHS, he received a full academic scholarship to Langston University in Oklahoma, where he plans to major in nursing administration and walk-on to the Lions’ basketball team. He chose Langston over UT-Dallas, TCU, Texas Tech, Texas and Baylor.
Besides the full-ride, Williams said he picked Langston – which sits in central Oklahoma about halfway between Oklahoma City and Stillwater – because it reminds him of Mineral Wells.
“It’s a small town, so it’s not changing a whole lot,” he said. “Hopefully playing sports will keep me out of trouble. I had a couple teams looking at me from [Division] one, they just weren’t trying to give up the money. They were being stingy. I got a lot more money [from academics than athletics].
I almost signed with University of Texas at Dallas, but then Langston called and offered me a lot more money, so I switched.”
Williams, who averaged 8.2 points per game and a team-leading 9 rebounds for the Rams in high school, hopes he can elevate a Lions team that tends to struggle against National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics competition. When asked who he would most compare his game to in the NBA, Williams said Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks.
“Hopefully I can make a difference,” he said of playing for Langston. “At the end of the day I want to be myself and maybe somebody will remember me and want to be like me.”
After he graduates, Williams said he wants to become a pediatric optometrist.
“Eye doctors don’t do a whole lot and they make a lot of money,” he joked. “I mean, little kids will always need glasses, so that will always be around.”
With so many plans in front of him, Williams plans to adopt new study habits in college to make sure that he continues to make high grades. But no matter what he does on and off the court, he is sure to make Mineral Wells proud in all of his future endeavors.
Follow Clint on Twitter @Clint_Foster55