Basketball gives local athlete a shot at rewriting his future
Waynesville coach Chris Pilz likes to say decisions determine destination.
A shining example could be found on his roster this season.
Kellieon Williams, a senior at Waynesville High School, moved from the deep south six years ago and was making plenty of poor decisions until he found a coach, a friend, a father figure, and, least expected, a future.
Williams recently signed his letter of intent to play for Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, but he can still remember when education and future endeavors weren't a priority of his.
He grew up in Greenville, Mississippi where he said drugs and prostitutes filled the streets.
Without much parental supervision, Williams got in with the wrong crowd and was rubbing shoulders with some bad influences.
“I haven't known my dad my entire life until about the beginning of this year,” Williams said. “I just grew up with my mom and grandparents, moving from my grandma to my mom. My mom was into bad stuff when I was growing up. I want to say I was on my own, but I kind of had my grandma there.”
His grandma did her best, but to get away from it all he needed to be physically removed from it all.
So after sixth grade was over Williams and his mom moved to St. Robert in the summer of 2008 to be with his aunt, who was once in the military and was on Fort Leonard Wood.
It would be a while yet before Williams decided to change his old habits.
“I really came up here like a knucklehead,” Williams said. “In middle school I didn't care about my grades or nothing. I just messed around a lot.”
In Williams' freshman year he realized just how much he enjoyed the game of basketball.
“We had a good year even though I was still a knucklehead,” he remembers. “We only lost one game.”
Then, in 2011, Waynesville got a new basketball coach — Chris Pilz.
“I was still into some bad things, hanging out with the wrong crowd,” Williams said. “[Pilz] told me, 'You're going to straighten up now. You have so much potential, you're going to ruin your future if you don't get on board.' I was just like, blah, blah, blah I've heard that before. This guy doesn't know me, he just got here.”
Pilz didn't want to give up on his new, young player though. He realized something in him that no one else had seen.
Williams has great length. Right now, he's around 6'8” and has unbelievably long arms giving him a wing span that makes it difficult to work around him on the perimeter.
Pilz saw that Williams had trouble keeping on the straight and narrow, so he decided he would give his player something to keep him busy.
“In my sophomore year he made me mow his lawn,” Williams said, laughing as he still can't believe it. “His yard is pretty big, he lives on a hill. I had to mow down, up, go all the way around. He told me, 'I know you're not doing anything bad because you're here.' I realized he was right.”
But a little lawn work helped lay the seeds to Williams and Pilz's incredible friendship that goes way beyond coaching.
“We've watched all the NCAA tournaments at his house, a lot of big high school games and I've actually had a couple of Thanksgivings at his house too. I'm really part of his family.”
As there is in all friendships, there's been some rough patches along the way. A couple of times, the two have parted ways.
In his sophomore season, Williams sat out a part of the season. And then, in his junior season, Pilz decided to send a message.
“The crazy thing about it, he cut me my junior year. Not many know about that, but he did. I was heartbroken. He said it was a test for me and that I was going to straighten up and show my teammates I want to be around or I wasn't going to play.”
Working his way back
Williams couldn't imagine life without basketball and, most of all, he didn't want to let down Pilz, who had become more than a coach to him.
“Whenever Pilz got here it was like, this is what having a father would be like? That's really how the relationship is that we have.”
So Williams refocused and began his fight for a spot back on the roster.
He sweated it out in the gym, pumped out his frustration in the weight room and showed his coach that he truly wanted to be back on the team.
Pilz saw the work and gave Williams his number back. Not because he gives up easily, but because he knows the real reason for high school sports.
“We're just trying to help men and women be better people and better members of society,” Pilz said. “We're an extension of the classroom really, that's what extracurricular activities are.”
More than anything, Pilz was reoccupying the troubled teen's free time with a productive activity. He already lost another player that year because of outside distractions.
Marcus Hibbert, a former basketball player and golfer at Waynesville, was arrested for second-degree robbery. Hibbert was one of Williams' closest friends and teammates.
“He is in prison right now, doing 15 years,” Williams said. “That changed my life around. I started surrounding myself with good people. I'm in the gym every day, hitting the weights everyday trying to get bigger and stronger.”
Hibbert will be granted parole effective May 9 according to online court documents.
Williams says he still stays in contact with Hibbert.
“We're still close and we still talk and everything, but I knew what he was doing,” Williams said. “I made a decision to separate myself from him. I've never gotten close to anything like [what he did], don't get me wrong, but I realized if I kept hanging out with him I'm going to end up in a bad situation myself.
“It's tough not having one of your friends who you've known since you got here. It's crazy to know that something can be gone so fast. Losing him hurt me a lot, but at the same time it motivated me more and made me grind harder.”
That season, the Tigers went 15-12 and lost to Washington by one point in the Class 5 District 10 championship game.
After getting that close to becoming a champion, getting a taste of what it felt like, Williams wanted more.
“I was determined to get what we deserved,” Williams said. “Coach told me I was starting to understand what I have.”
He and his teammates pulled together, started their offseason workouts immediately and put together an impressive run in the 2013-2014 season.
Williams and the Tigers were Ozark Conference Champions, got their Class 5 District 10 Championship, went 24-2, but they lost in the first round of the state tournament to the state runner-up Hickman Kewpies. The senior forward was instrumental in Waynesville's run, averaging 12 points per game, 4.2 rebounds per game and 3.4 assists per game.
Future turns bright
Colleges from all over saw the potential in Williams, but were also worried about the baggage he might bring with him.
Wichita State University in Kansas, a team that went to the NCAA Tournament this year, along with Missouri State University in Springfield, took a long look at him.
The Bears head coach, Paul Lusk, has had a few talks with him and actually recommended Coffeyville to Williams as a sort of precursor.
If he can show that he can handle being on his own and stay out of trouble during his time there, Lusk, and probably a few others, will think once again about extending an offer.
It's a lot of pressure, but Williams says he's ready for it.
“I'm excited for my future,” Williams said.
His coach is excited too.
“I give him credit, he's come in as a senior here and really tried to listen. And around school, for the most part, he's done the right things,” Pilz said. “We've talked to him a little bit and told him he'll make some mistakes still. But you've got to correct them, learn from them and move on. This is where we drop him off at the next level.”
It's been an unbelievable journey for the young man. Had it not been for Pilz coming to town and bringing Williams underneath his wing, everything could have turn out much differently.
Some call it a coincidence. Some call it a miracle. Williams calls it fate.
“I think it was all God's plan,” Williams said. “God wanted coach to come here and take on all of us — me, Juwan, Joe and all of us. Coach embraced it, it took a little time, but I think Waynesville is headed in the right direction.”
Pilz agrees that without basketball, Williams may not have gotten this far. He hopes the game can take him farther.
“He's getting ready to get challenged, not only athletically, but academically,” Pilz said. “It's rewarding to see a guy who wants to go play college basketball get an opportunity to do that. He's going to get a chance to get an education and basketball is an avenue to do that.”
Williams has a plan for his education that closely follows one of his best friends and idols.
He wants to use his experiences to help others and influence young lives like Pilz.
After Coffeyville, he's going to major in physical education or sports medicine and become a coach.
“I think I could coach a high school team right now to be honest with you,” Williams said, laughing. “I think I could do it. Pilz has taught me a lot.”
All of that is music to Pilz's ears. He wants Williams to get a degree and become a positive influence on others.
“I've told him he has an opportunity to be a success story,” Pilz said. “Hopefully we've laid the foundation.”
It would be difficult to prove that Waynesville High hasn't. Williams could've ended up in far worse places than Coffeyville Community College playing for a nationally recognized basketball team with a chance to move to a four-year college afterwards.
Williams can't help but look at his life and shake his head. There have been plenty of hills and valleys, but he, his teammates and his coach has made it despite everything.
“It's been a hell of a run,” Williams said. “We've had some down-in-the-pit moments and some up-in-the-sky moments. I have loved every moment of it, and I wouldn't trade any of it for anything.”
Neither would Pilz.
Some may question the tactics, wonder why he didn't give up.
But Pilz knows his role in players' lives.
“You don't coach for a year or two,” Pilz explained. “If you've got a guy on your team, he's with you for a lifetime.”