What’s the big deal about Big Al? That question may have been on some minds last Sunday afternoon, when Alan Williams played bench jockey during the first half of UCSB’s basketball game at the University of San Diego. Accused of committing two fouls in the first three minutes, the junior forward took a seat and watched his Gaucho teammates take a 34-30 halftime lead over USD’s Toreros. Williams had zero points and zero rebounds.
Flash to the second half, eight minutes left in the game. UCSB’s 50-48 advantage hardly seemed safe, as the lead had changed hands 19 times. Suddenly Big Al Williams, now playing with four fouls, made his presence felt. He fed the ball to Michael Bryson, who made an open shot for a four-point lead. Williams widened it to six, then eight points, by making consecutive shots in the paint. Those plays triggered a 13-0 spurt by the Gauchos, resulting in a 72-61 victory over a solid USD team, which a week earlier had lost to its nationally ranked rival, San Diego State, by one point.
Williams wound up with 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds. They pulled his season averages down to 24.2 and 10.3, but his impact on the game was similar to his 24-point, 12-rebound performance in UCSB’s historic 72-65 win over the Cal Golden Bears on December 6. He had four points at halftime, but in Cal coach Mike Montgomery’s words, “He played like a man on a mission in the second half.”
Throw in his second-half numbers against UCLA (17 of his game-high 23 points) and South Dakota State (23 of his school-record-tying 39 points), and Williams has averaged almost 19 points after halftime in his last four games.
“I don’t know what it is,” Williams said. “I go out there in the first half, and they throw everything they can at me. They double-team and do all this stuff. I try to wait it out and get everybody involved. Things calm down a little in the second half. When the opportunity is there to change the course of the ball game, I feel like it’s my role on the team to do that.”
As each game progresses, and his career moves on, Williams grows on you. He was lightly recruited out of Phoenix, Arizona, even though he was a two-time all-state player. “I was kind of confused why more schools weren’t looking at me,” he said. “I doubted myself a little. It made me work harder to show the big schools they missed out on me.”
UCSB’s coaches realized they had a huge catch when Williams went out and played aggressively — often, too much so — in his freshman year. It was with the Gauchos that he became known as Big Al. “Until I got here, everybody called me Alan,” he said.
At 6’7”, he might not have been considered tall enough to be a big-time post player. He carries 275 pounds, which would be dead weight on many men, but Williams is quite nimble on his feet. “People don’t realize what a great athlete he is,” Gaucho assistant coach Kevin Bromley said. “He watches something one time, and he goes out on the floor and duplicates it. He has made a lot of improvement, but he still has a long way to go.”
Williams attributes his improvement in part to better physical conditioning. “I can play longer and play harder,” he said. “I don’t get as tired as fast. I can go out there and play 30-33 minutes in a game and still be fine” — as long as he avoids foul trouble. “More than me improving, it’s my teammates’ improvement,” Williams added. “Every player has grown. I play better because they’re better.”
When Williams sat out two early games because of a bout of back spasms, the Gauchos held their own against Colorado and Utah State. Since then, their opponents have realized they can’t afford to put two or three defenders on Williams, because they’ll risk serious damage from elsewhere on the floor. A pair of sophomores, smooth 6’4” guard Michael Bryson and explosive 6’8” forward Taran Brown, have had 20-point games. Senior guard Kyle Boswell relishes his sixth-man role, scoring 18 points off the bench in a shoot-out at UCLA. Junior point guard Zalmico Harmon, who had 10 assists against Cal, knows how to find them.
These Gauchos are the deepest and potentially the best team Bob Williams has had in his 16 seasons as UCSB’s head coach. They deserve to fill the Thunderdome like the legends of the Jerry Pimm–Brian Shaw–Eric McArthur era. The Cal game drew 4,000 fans, including a lively student turnout. “There was no better time for that win,” said Big Al Williams, who ran up into the stands with the rest of the Gauchos after the victory. “We had fun, and the fans had fun. You want to go out there and play for something more than yourself.”
Given the frequency of transfers these days, some of the schools that failed to recruit Alan Williams three years ago might have hoped to lure him away. “I’ve thought about leaving for a bigger school,” he confessed. “My goal is to make it to the NBA. I want to do everything in my power to get there. At the end of the day, it’s not where you go, it’s how hard you work and what you do. I can go against somebody from a high-major school, and if I outwork them and perform better than they do, the name of their school won’t carry them past me.”
One of his incentives to stay is to get a UC degree. His parents are highly educated. Cody Williams, his father, was a Phoenix city councilmember and is now a justice of the peace in Maricopa County. Jeri Williams, his mother, was the highest-ranked female police officer in Arizona. About the time Alan chose to attend UCSB, she was hired as chief of police in Oxnard.
With parents like those, Big Al and his younger brother, Cody, who lives with him and takes classes at SBCC, are respectful of authority. “A couple instances in school where I misbehaved, they called my mom without me knowing, and when I get home, mom and dad were sitting there ready to talk and lay down the law on me,” Williams said. “No handcuffs, but my mom’s done the police flip on me. I was in 4th or 5th grade, as tall as she was, and she took my arm and flipped me over like it was nothing.”
The Gaucho men are on the road — a tournament at Utah State and a game at Seattle — the rest of this year. They will open their Big West schedule at the Thunderdome against Cal Poly and Long Beach State in January. Big Al Williams would like people to follow his example and show some love.
“I love the school. I love seeing my fellow athletes succeed,” he said. “It brings a buzz, an energy around campus. I try to attend as much stuff as I possibly can. When’s the next time I’m going to be able to go to a women’s water polo match or a swim meet? It’s exciting just to see how great these athletes are.”
He is especially fond of the undersized women’s basketball team. “I love how hard they play. They go out there and play with really big hearts.” Somebody like Williams could really help them. The biggest Gaucho latched onto that idea with his typical enthusiasm. “Throw a wig on me,” he said.