Terri Cuffie sat behind the North Texas bench at Halton Arena earlier this season, holding one of the few people in the stands wearing Mean Green apparel.
One-year-old Anthony Williams watched attentively during that game in Charlotte, N.C., back in January, his green UNT sweatshirt pulled over a black T-shirt, as his father, Alzee Williams, sprinted up and down the floor in a game the Mean Green lost on a buzzer-beating dunk.
Seeing Terrence Williams slam home the game winner was tough for the Mean Green, but Alzee Williams, a senior guard, had a smile spread across his face as he stood holding his son, tears streaming down his face, after the final horn.
“It was a joy,” Alzee Williams said. “I’m not afraid to say I shed tears after that game.
“It’s definitely been hard not to have him here in Denton.”
Anthony Williams spent several months living with relatives in Charlotte, including Cuffie, his grandmother, before moving back to Denton this month with his mother, Raquel Cuffie, a former member of the UNT women’s basketball team.
Basketball players face a set of challenges like few other athletes on the college level during a season that runs from November into March and includes nearly year-round practices.
Alzee Williams and UNT junior guard Jordan Williams have faced those challenges over the last year while also adjusting to new roles as fathers.
Jordan Williams’ son, Jaydence Williams, is 9 months old and is currently living with his mother, Destiny Hildreth, in Austin.
Both Alzee Williams and Jordan Williams, who are not related, have experienced ups and downs while adjusting to being fathers and found a way to continue their standout careers. Each cleared the 1,000-point mark for their college careers in the span of a week in February and are expected to start for the Mean Green in a game against Rice in the opening round of the Conference USA tournament at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Don Haskins Center in El Paso.
“Having kids has helped them focus and has really helped Jordan,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “It’s not about them anymore. They can’t be selfish, have to take care of their academics and work hard. I preach to them — and everyone laughs about it — ‘Who’s going to feed your babies?’ But it’s true.”
A life-altering challenge
The challenge is one that is particularly meaningful for Jordan Williams, who grew up without a father involved in his life.
“I look at it as motivation,” Jordan Williams said. “I’m a parent and want to give him what I didn’t have. I didn’t have a father when I was a young kid. I want to give him someone to call if he is in trouble and needs someone.”
Williams’ desire to put himself in position to take care of his son is evident in the way he has focused on academics, in addition to basketball.
The Dallas native was academically ineligible for the second semester of his freshman year but has recovered and is on course to graduate. Alzee Williams is also on track to earn his degree.
Both Alzee Williams and Jordan Williams see graduation as a key step toward ensuring they can provide for their sons, no matter what their future in basketball holds.
UNT senior associate athletic director Cinnamon Sheffield helps oversee the academic progress of the school’s athletes and has seen a change in Jordan Williams since the early stages of his career that has continued since he became a father.
“Jordan has grown up and taken responsibility for what he needs to do,” Sheffield said. “He is very different from when he was a freshman.”
Terri Cuffie has known Alzee Williams for the last several years and could see the way he has developed as a person and cares for his son when UNT visited Charlotte.
Cuffie attended the game so Alzee Williams could see his son.
Anthony Williams recognized his father right away, even though they hadn’t seen each other in person for more than two months. Alzee Williams spent several hours with his son after the game.
“It really was a special time for Alzee,” Terri Cuffie said. “He thanked me at the beginning of the game and was so grateful that we brought him. I didn’t have to do anything for Anthony while we were there. Alzee changed his diaper and made sure he had something to eat.”
Terri Cuffie realized right away how much Alzee Williams talked to his teammates and coaches about his son.
Cuffie said that UNT strength coach Chris Seroka recognized Anthony Williams right away and came over to say hello. UNT’s players all took time to play with him before and after the game.
“Anthony was very comfortable with them all,” Cuffie said.
UNT’s players are familiar with both Jaydence and Anthony from seeing them at practice and around campus.
“Even though they are busy, they are still able to be father figures in their kids’ lives,” UNT senior guard Brandan Walton said. “They bring them around the team when they can. It puts a smile on my face to see them interact with them.”
Challenges of fatherhood
Jaydence Williams pounds away on a keyboard in a video Bonita White has stored on her pink and white cellphone.
White, an administrative assistant in UNT’s basketball office, handles a myriad of tasks to help the program run smoothly, including doing a little baby-sitting.
“They are sweet babies,” White said. “I love watching them and helping out. Those guys have no idea what lies ahead for them. Those kids are growing so fast.”
White will often stand on the Super Pit concourse with either Jaydence Williams or Anthony Williams and let them watch practice.
“I don’t know how, but they already have so much basketball knowledge,” White said. “They are into it. I will stand there and they will look down on the court. They know where the action is.”
Both Jordan Williams and Alzee Williams credit their ability to continue playing college basketball while their children are young to the people who have helped them handle their responsibilities, including White, Terri Cuffie, a host of other relatives, coaches and especially their sons’ mothers.
“The coaches have watched him during individual workouts and during the offseason,” Alzee Williams said. “I appreciate all the help I’ve gotten.”
One challenge of the situations Jordan Williams and Alzee Williams face is that often times taking advantage of the help available to them means being separated from their sons while they are out of town with relatives. The travel schedule in Division I college basketball adds to the time Alzee Williams and Jordan Williams spend away from their sons.
Both have tried to compensate by spending time with their sons through online video chat programs like Skype and FaceTime.
“I go down there when I get a chance and stay with him,” Jordan Williams said. “It’s just something you have to experience with your firstborn. I want to see him grow up.”
Jaydence Williams will be in El Paso this week when UNT plays in the C-USA tournament. Jordan Williams’ mother and grandmother will bring Jaydence Williams to the event and help take care of him. The time they spend with Jaydence Williams will allow Jordan Williams to focus on trying to lead UNT to the C-USA tournament title.
Just like when Anthony Williams was on hand in Charlotte, there will be a young Mean Green fan in the stands at the Haskins Center.
Having his son there will give Jordan Williams a boost.
“It’s a feeling I can’t explain when he’s around,” Jordan Williams said. “I always talk to Alzee about it. It’s amazing to see someone who is just like you growing up and knowing that you need to take care of him.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.