Howard University guard Jelani Williams floated into the interview room at the Norfolk Scope, making a vocal entrance while cradling the MEAC championship trophy.
“The champs is here,” Williams bellowed with the trophy in tow.
It may not have been the most “Howard University” sound bite — but it was a real one.It was a light-hearted and jovial moment that even the media members who had been waiting for quite a while for the MEAC champions to arrive didn’t mind much. It was a long time coming for both the player and the university.
A year ago, Jelani Williams was in a much different place. The D.C. native was a prep star at Sidwell High School where he was named All-MAC First Team as a sophomore and junior. But he missed much of his senior year when he tore the ACL in his left knee. He still committed to Penn and was prepared to play as a sophomore when he tore his right ACL. Then, a year later, he tore his right ACL again.
Williams took a break from school and work part-time at a non-profit and went through therapy to help him deal with what was happening to his body. He re-enrolled in school and prepared to make his debut when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the Ivy League for the 2020-2021 season.
He finally got to the court for the 2021-2022 season with Penn, averaging 6.0 points and 3.7 rebounds while playing in 28 games. Howard was looking to add some players in the transfer portal after a promising season ended in a first-round defeat to Coppin State. HU head coach Kenneth Blakeney, a D.C. native himself, saw someone that would add to his young team.
“When Coach (Kenneth) Blakeney recruited me at the end of last season, I was coming off a loss in the semifinals of the Ivy League Tournament. I was down on myself,” Williams said. “I didn’t feel like I performed to my ability. It was my first season back in five years. I’d missed almost 1,800 days of basketball.”
The waiting game was something that Blakeney could understand. There was a seven-year gap in his coaching career which he had to volunteer to get back into the profession as an assistant at Columbia.
“He called me and said, I like your game. I’ve been where you are. And I understand your timing and everything that you’re doing to get back in shape and get back in the basketball form,” Williams remembered.
“Then he told me about his vision for the program and the opportunity that I would have here for me and my family. They are from the DMV, understand basketball. For me it was about legacy, an opportunity to come back home, be around my family and do something that hasn’t been done in almost 40 years, something that I kind of jumped at.”
Jelani Williams, who graduated from Penn last spring, decided to join Howard University and spend his last two years of eligibility close to home.
Williams has been a solid contributor for Howard this season, averaging 9.2 points per game while shooting just under 44 percent from the field. He also served as a mentor to the rest of the team, particularly Shy Odom who was named both the MEAC Rookie of The Year and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
His play in the tournament was emblematic of what his season looked like. He played 17 minutes in the opener against South Carolina State and missed his one field goal attempt. Against Maryland Eastern Shore on Friday, he scored six points but rebounded and played solid defense. Then, on Saturday, he scored 20 points, including the go-ahead free throws to give Howard its first MEAC title since 1992.
So what was going through Williams’ mind when he sank those free throws? It wasn’t his surgeries or his setbacks. It was something his father taught him long before.
“Obviously you got the crowd going crazy. You understand the depth of the moment. So I just sung myself a lullaby in my head and my routine and thankfully they both went down.”
When it was over, Williams leapt for joy and then fell to the floor of the Scope before hugging his teammates with tears in his eyes as his team knocked off two-time defending champion Norfolk State in its own back yard.
“The saying is to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. And so we watched a lot of their film. We watched the games that Howard played Norfolk last year and figured out the formula to getting them out of their rhythm, making things difficult for them, trying to key on their key guys in Joe (Bryant) and Kris (Bankston). We executed the game plan, you know, three times now,” Williams said while sitting beside the trophy. “So I’m just proud of our guys. I’m proud that we were able to get this done.”