With strength amid grief, Monty Williams delivers hopeful reminder

LOS ANGELES -- If it's possible to give the correct answer to an open-ended question, San Antonio Spurs general manager R.C. Buford did exactly that when I asked him what stood out about Thursday, trade deadline day in the NBA. Buford praised the speech Monty Williams gave at the service for Williams' wife, Ingrid.

That was the best possible response. On a day the league annually becomes its most ruthlessly businesslike -- reducing players to commodities to be bartered for draft picks, luxury tax savings and sometimes even cash -- Williams injected a much-needed dose of humanity.

"It was probably the most powerful speech I have ever heard in my life, given the circumstances," the Clippers' Chris Paul said.

Williams became a portrait of strength amid grief, asserting the need for he and the couple's five children to press on after his wife died from injuries suffered in a Feb. 9 multicar crash. And he wove a unifying thread through the league, drawing people from the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angeles Clippers together at the service in Oklahoma City. He reminded them that they are allies first, before they are competitors.

Afterward, the Spurs and Clippers, including Buford, Paul, Gregg Popovich, David West, Tim Duncan and Doc Rivers, shared a plane back to Los Angeles to play each other Thursday night.

Popovich looked shaken as he walked into Staples Center. He declined to discuss any part of the day in Oklahoma City. He said, "Game time, let's go" and it came off almost as much an attempt to snap himself back into coaching mode as a way to redirect reporters' questions.

The unrelenting schedule of the NBA kept forcing its way into the day. The service began at 2 p.m. local time in Oklahoma, the exact time of the trade deadline. The Clippers were trying to finalize a last-minute deal to send Lance Stephenson and a future first-round pick to the Memphis Grizzlies for Jeff Green. Rivers, the Clippers' president and coach, spoke to his general manager Dave Wohl just before the start of the service.

"I basically told Dave, 'Yes,' and walked in," Rivers said. "I really didn't know if the trade was done or not, because I didn't want to look at my phone. When the service was over I looked at my phone and saw that we had pulled a trade."

A few more phone calls, including the official verification with the league office, and rosters were altered, lives were changed. It's amazing how little control people in this profession can have over their lives. Warriors coach Steve Kerr tells his players the reason they make such high salaries is not because they get to play basketball, it's because they can be sent away or cut. That's the tradeoff.

"You're still human," countered the Clippers' Jamal Crawford, who has been traded twice and spent last summer wondering if he would be traded again. "You still have feelings. We do have to deal with it.

"It affects everybody. Not just the players, it affects the families. Taking kids out of school. You may have paid rent for a year, whatever. Moving companies, going into a different city you may not have spent a lot of time in. All those things go into it."

When I first learned the awful news about Ingrid Williams all I could think about was the last time I'd seen Monty, standing at the top of the ramp into Staples Center after the Thunder played the Lakers a month earlier, telling Mark Jackson and me about what a great group of players the Thunder had and how well things had worked out when he joined them as an assistant coach after being fired by the New Orleans Pelicans last year. He looked happy and kept saying how blessed he was.

"It was probably the most powerful speech I have ever heard in my life, given the circumstances." Chris Paul

He had no idea at the time that joining the Thunder would indirectly be the worst thing to ever happen to him.

If he hadn't been hired by Oklahoma City, Ingrid Williams would not have been driving down S. Western Avenue on Feb. 9. She would not have been there when Susannah Donaldson swerved into oncoming traffic to avoid a car in front of her and accelerated to an estimated 92 mph before impact.

This is not the fault of the NBA or anyone in it. If Monty Williams had the incredible grace to not place blame on Donaldson, who died at the scene of the crash, we certainly should not blame the Pelicans for firing Williams or the Thunder for hiring him. This is simply an extreme example of the way transactions can have unexpected impacts. People can meet their future wives. Or people can lose their wives.

It's a reminder that there weren't only 18 rosters changed Thursday, there were the lives of 26 players and their families sent on a different path. It's a reminder in a league that has come to rely increasingly on analytics at the occasional cost of human interaction.

Most of all, we needed the hopeful reminder that Monty Williams provided in his hour of deepest sorrow: "We can't lose sight of the fact that God loves us."