February 9, 2002; Cotterell Court. The Colgate men’s basketball team found itself locked in a tight battle with league rival Holy Cross. With less than 10 seconds remaining, the Raiders were down by two points and in need of a miracle. Junior point guard Dave Hardy ’03 put the ball in the hands of a skinny first-year guard who had made just one basket all game. Without hesitation, the guard stepped behind the arc and launched a three-point shot which hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. It finally landed, but not without passing through the rim to give Colgate three points and a win.For Keith Williams, that lanky first-year guard and now a senior and the team’s co-captain, the basket represented the highest of highs in what has been a rollercoaster Colgate career. At the end of the week, Williams was named the Patriot League’s Rookie of the Week and was named to the all-Patriot League Rookie team.”I remember when [head] coach [Emmett Davis] designed the play so that Keith could get the shot,” assistant head coach and former Raider basketball player Jeremy Ballard ’03 said. “It just seemed like coach had one of those feelings where Keith was going to knock it down. I think he was still too young to fully grasp the situation, so he just caught the ball and let it fly. The rest was history.”Things couldn’t have been better for Williams heading into his sophomore season. Fresh off a record-setting season, he had sprouted two inches to 6’4″ and was set to compete for a starting job on one of the most talented Colgate teams in recent memory. A preseason injury to senior small forward Tim Sullivan gave Williams that opportunity, as he started the first four games of the 2002-2003 season. During those contests, Williams posted career highs in minutes, points and rebounds. When Sullivan was set to return to action, Davis still found minutes for Williams, due in large part to his exuberance and energy.”[As a young player], Keith was really a slasher – a guy who could keep the ball alive offensively,” Davis said. “He was able to rebound from a wing position and was able to do so many other things when he entered the game. He was that ‘Energizer Bunny’ player for us and he could always make things happen.”In the midst of the team’s Patriot League schedule, things took an unexpected turn for the worse for Williams on January 31, 2003 in a home game against Bucknell, with 6:40 remaining in the first half.”I remember the exact play,” Williams reflected. “I was set to catch a pass from Dave Hardy to make a lay-up. Nobody was near me. And when I came down with the ball, I completely shattered [my right knee]. It was just a freak thing that could have happened to anybody. The trainer from Bucknell knew right away that I had suffered a torn ACL.”The wave of emotion that Williams had been riding since his game-winning shot against Holy Cross had come to a sudden and crashing end. The injury ended Williams’ sophomore campaign and took organized basketball out of his life for the first time since seventh grade. What made the injury all the more painful was that Williams’ abbreviated sophomore season was one for which he had been preparing since he began to play organized basketball.Four hours away and four years before his injury in Brooklyn, New York, Williams was entering his first year at Poly Prep Country Day School. Coming out of Harlem, New York, the decision to enter the academically stringent Poly Prep was an easy one for both a young Keith and his mother, despite having to commute a total of three hours each day.”My mom and I wanted for me to go somewhere where I could compete in basketball, against top [New York City] competition, but still get a quality education that New York City public schools do not offer,” Williams said. “The commute was worth it and if I could do it again, I would do the exact same thing.”The daily commute was more than just a 90-minute bus ride each way; for Williams, it was a culture shock. The ride started from Williams’ home in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood in Harlem and ended at a wealthy private school, which Williams described as a “smaller Colgate.””It’s two different worlds,” he described. “Waking up in one place and ending up where everyone’s rich and everyone has cars.”Very few people are expected to make it from Williams’ neighborhood to a school like Colgate. Too often, there are stories of student-athletes from Harlem or the surrounding areas with boatloads of academic or athletic talent who cannot keep their focus and wind up on the wrong track in life. It took a lot of effort and concentration on Williams’ part, but with modesty, Williams credits his success in large part to his mother Dheresa Matthews – whom he calls his best friend.”It’s been me and her since day one,” Williams said. “I didn’t know my dad very well, so it was just me and her. I can’t say enough about her. She’s all that I have in this world. I guess you can say that I’m a Mama’s boy.”After three consecutive class ‘C’ New York City titles, including a state title his junior season, Williams once again asked for his mother’s help when choosing Colgate. It was academics and his mother’s word that brought him to Poly Prep as a 10th grader and once again it was academics and his mother’s word which brought him to Colgate. An 18-year old Williams was heavily recruited by schools in the Patriot league and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and had been offered a full scholarship by Canisius and Stony Brook. When the head coach of Stony Brook’s basketball team, Nick Macarchuk, came to Williams’ Harlem home to pay a visit to Keith and his mother, he was immediately asked about his school’s academics but did not have a satisfactory answer, according to Williams’ standards. Weeks later, Davis had the answers the two were looking for. Williams remembers Davis as being very “personable.” Plus, his mother “loved him right away.””I remember that recruiting trip like it was yesterday,” Davis said. “I went to his apartment and Keith met me on the street and I really liked him and his mother right from the start. His mother did an incredible job raising Keith. She was tough on him, but that has just made him a better person, because he’s had to work for everything he’s had. I tried to make Keith and his mother see what a great academic institution Colgate is and what kinds of opportunities Colgate would present him with even after he graduates.”All of the hard work and time spent at practice at both Poly Prep and at his first season and a half at Colgate made Williams’ injury that much more difficult. Once the Harlem native was off crutches, he was unable to keep himself away from the basketball court. During the summer of 2003, he began playing pick-up games at home, coupled with a regimented sports therapy program. With the graduation of Sullivan, the starting small forward position was open for the 2003-2004 season. The job only pushed Williams harder during his rehabilitation. “[Sullivan] had graduated and I knew that it was going to be either me or Josh Humphrey [’04] at that starting [small forward position], and I was going to go as hard as I could to get it,” Williams said.With his knee seemingly healed, Williams pushed himself to new limits during October practices in hopes of being part of Colgate’s starting line-up. Then, for the second time in nine months, Williams’ basketball world came to an abrupt end. While cutting during an individual workout, Williams re-tore his MCL and would remain out of action until January. This injury was even more devastating than the first one for Williams, given how hard he had worked to return to action and how close he had come to making a serious impact during the 2003-2004 season. A second surgery came shortly after.”I didn’t complain,” Williams said. “But inside, I was really, really depressed. I thought about quitting.”
With the starting job and about half of his junior season lost, Williams felt betrayed by the game he had loved and which had enriched his life for so many years. The weeks and months after his second surgery were some of the most difficult months he could remember. While watching his teammates play basketball, Williams would often become frustrated and upset that he could not help his team. He had a difficult time finding the silver lining. Eventually, Williams decided to stay with the team, and once again credits his mother, along with some of his close friends for support during those times.Williams’ best friend at Colgate is classmate and co-captain of the football team, Chris Brown. While Williams was rehabilitating from his second surgery, Brown was leading the Raiders to national glory and a trip to the Division I-AA Championship Game in Nashville, TN. Throughout the season, Brown turned to his injured buddy for guidance and inspiration.”He really fought hard to get back,” Brown remembered. “He said that he was down and out, but you couldn’t tell by how outwardly motivated he was.”On January 2, 2004, Williams made an emotional return to the basketball court, when the Raiders traveled to Los Angeles to face Loyola Marymount. Williams did not start the game; in fact, he only played for nine minutes and scored two points. But the game was symbolic of his return to action and close to a year of rehabilitation and hard work. “Throughout the whole time he was injured, he was always around the team, pulling for the guys,” senior co-captain Andrew Zidar said. “When he was finally able to play, everybody was so excited.”Throughout the remainder of the 2003-2004 season, Williams worked his way into the regular rotation, although he clearly did not possess the same athleticism and leaping ability that made his first-year campaign such a smashing success. Still, the team fed off of his energy for the remainder of the season.While providing emotional support was something that Williams was happy to do whether or not he was in uniform, still, like every athlete, he wanted to be at 100 percent. He remembers his first year at Colgate, when he felt like he “could fly.”When he returned to the basketball court after two knee surgeries, he quickly realized that he would never be the same player who used to excite the crowd with electrifying slam dunks and who could grab a rebound over much taller players thanks to his exceptional athleticism. Instead, Williams came to the realization that he was a changed player.”I don’t think you can ever not think about [the injury],” Williams said. “Sometimes I land funny or something and you can never stop thinking about it. Sometimes a play will happen or a loose ball will pop up and you feel it in your mind that you can make the play, but your body won’t let you. I don’t know if you can ever be 100 percent after an injury like that.”Before his senior season, Williams realized that he needed to re-define his game if he was going to stay on the court and fulfill his duties as captain.”I realized that I’m not gonna score so many points,” said Williams, who had averaged over 20 points per game in high school. “I’m not gonna be the one in the newspaper. I’m not gonna be the one on the highlights. I gotta do something else to get on the court and to get this team a [Patriot League Championship] ring.”That something else has been defense and rebounding. With somewhat limited athleticism, Williams took time to hone his defensive skills during his second rehabilitation and especially during the summer before his senior season. Now, as a co-captain, he takes a great amount of pride in teaching some of the younger players the defensive skills that they may not have practiced in high school, when they, like him, were putting up big numbers.”We have so many scorers on this team,” Zidar said. “There’s [junior guard] Alvin [Reed], [sophomore guard] Jon [Simon], myself, [first-year guard] Kyle Roemer. We’ve needed Keith to come in and play solid defense and he has done such a great job defensively.”Williams may very well be playing his collegiate final game tonight, should the Raiders lose to Lehigh in the first round of the Patriot League Tournament. Williams, however, remains confident that he still has a few more games left in his Colgate uniform.”I don’t know if anyone [in the Patriot League] can beat us at this point,” Williams said, while pointing to the team’s recent tough play against league competition.While Lehigh and Holy Cross may prove to be formidable foes in the Patriot League Tournament, those teams will have a tough time creating an obstacle bigger than those already conquered by Keith Williams.