Hometown Hopefuls: Jake Williams, Wisconsin
Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
Jake Williams considered himself merely a good wheelchair basketball player after three years in college. It was a transfer back to his home state of Wisconsin that propelled Williams to become one of the best in the nation and a two-time Paralympic gold medalist.
Williams, 31, is one of the leaders of the national team, one that will bid next year to become the first to win three consecutive Paralympic men’s wheelchair basketball titles.
He is also now the head coach at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Whitewater has one-quarter of the enrollment of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but it is a wheelchair basketball powerhouse with 12 men’s national titles since 1996 as well as a women’s three-peat from 2012-14.
Twenty-six Whitewater men’s and women’s players have represented the U.S. at the Paralympics, plus 17 more for other nations, according to the UW-Whitewater student newspaper.
“It’s kind of like a wheelchair basketball factory,” Williams said. “What makes Whitewater special is a lot of the alumni are still around the area and will still come scrimmage with us every day during the summer and during the school year. So the college players really get the experience of playing against former and current Paralympians. ... It gave me the confidence. Whitewater can give everyone the tools to do whatever they want in wheelchair basketball. It’s up to you whether you use them. I took full advantage of it.”
Williams, a Greater Milwaukee native, swam the sprint freestyles as a teen. His basketball experience was limited to pick-up games with friends.
On June, 14, 2008, Williams, then a rising high school senior, was hit by a car while riding his bike en route to where he worked as a lifeguard. His spinal cord was severed.
Williams’ wheelchair basketball career generated while he was in the hospital.
His dad worked at the Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport with the father of Chris Okon, who was then playing for UW-Whitewater (and later played for the national team). Okon visited Williams, passed along a local coach’s contact information, and Williams took up the sport a few months after the accident.
“Skill-wise, stuff came a lot easier to me than a lot of other people,” Williams said. “I wasn’t athletic, but I always had really quick reflexes. That helps a lot in wheelchair basketball.”
Mentally, it was more difficult. Williams made it on the Southwest Minnesota State team after just one year in the sport. But around that time, he got his first in-person glimpse of Brian Bell, a national team player who was two and a half years older.
“He was phenomenal, doing all kinds of cool stuff with the chair,” Williams said. “One of the most athletic guys in wheelchair basketball. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’m never going to be as good as him.’”
There’s also the matter of classification, as with other Paralympic sports. Williams is classified as a 2.5-point player. Bell, as well as other Americans who impressed a young Williams, were classified at 3.5 to 4.5. The higher the classification, the greater the player’s functional ability. Teams are allowed a maximum number of total classification points on the court at one time.
Williams often heard that a two-point player could never be as valuable as a three- or four-point player.
“Up until I became what I became, nobody had ever done that before, had the amount of impact on the game as a two-point player,” he said. “Now, a lot of twos have that impact. Getting over that mental hurdle -- I can be as good and better than a lot of these guys -- that was probably the hardest thing, getting rid of that mental block.”
Williams felt he improved over his three years at Southwest Minnesota State, but said he had a falling out with a coach. He also surmised that Whitewater was where he needed to be to reach his ultimate goal of making the national team.
While at Whitewater, Williams made the national team for the first time in 2013 -- just five years after picking up the sport -- and won a national title in 2014. He credits Jeremy “Opie” Lade, who was the head coach at Whitewater while also playing for the national team (and earning a Paralympic bronze medal in 2012).
Williams was the youngest man on the 2016 Paralympic team, then led the team with 20 points in the gold-medal game, a 68-52 win over Spain. He went into the Tokyo Games believing it could be his final tournament with the national team.
The Americans repeated as gold medalists, while awarding a championship belt to each game’s MVP during the tournament, and enjoyed a team celebration in Las Vegas that was booked before the Games.
Afterward, Williams stopped playing club basketball overseas and was “kicking around the idea of being done for good” due to turnover on the coaching staff and on the roster. But a few of Williams’ old teammates decided to come back, so he joined them.
He also followed the path set by Lade. Williams is now a player-coach himself, taking over at UW-Whitewater last year. The Warhawks lost in the quarterfinals at nationals, but two players from that team are with Williams on the U.S. roster for the world championship, happening now.
The U.S. men begin the knockout round at worlds today with a game against Argentina. The team finished 2-1 in the group stage, beating Iraq and Iran before losing to Great Britain. Williams is the team’s leading scorer so far in the tournament.
Coaching is a rewarding and familiar feeling. When Williams parlayed his Whitewater playing experience into becoming a Paralympic star, he would often return from playing overseas to teach the sport in Milwaukee.
“All the kids that are coming to Whitewater to play for me want to be on the national team,” he said.
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