College basketball: Jailen Williams carries on in CIAA tourney using all his grandfather taught him

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 23, 2023

By Mike London

BALTIMORE — Claflin University guard Jailen Williams will take the floor tonight at CFG Bank Arena with a purpose.

He’ll be thinking about what he needs to do to be successful against the tough Winston-Salem Rams in a quarterfinal game in the CIAA Tournament. He’ll also be thinking about all the things his late grandfather, George Washington Williams Jr., taught him.

George Williams, a successful high school and college basketball coach who was tied closely to Rowan County by his marriage to Carolyn Ramsey-Williams, died at 71 on Jan. 30.

To former Jesse Carson High star Jailen Williams, George Williams was “Papa.”

Jailen Williams was a star at Carson before moving on to Claflin. (file photo by Wayne Hinshaw/for the Salisbury Post)

“He meant the world to me and he meant the world to the game of basketball,” Jailen said. “Not only did he impact me and (older brother) Tre, he impacted the life of all the men and women he coached throughout his career. His passion for the game flowed into my dad (Bryan Williams), and that passion then flowed from my dad into us.”

George Williams was born in Fayetteville in 1951. His life would be built around athletics. He excelled in four sports at Fayetteville’s Terry Sanford High, graduated in 1969 and received a football scholarship to North Carolina Central. University.

A tight end and punter for the Eagles, he stood out for the 1972 MEAC champions. He was serving as a graduate assistant in 1973 when the Eagles won another league title.

In the long high school coaching journey that followed, Williams coached just about everything — boys and girls basketball, boys and girls track, boys and girls tennis, softball, football and wrestling. He won a softball CIAA championship when he was coaching at Fayetteville State University.

His constant athletic theme was that attitude controls motivation. Motivation controls performance. Performance controls success.

Williams’ favorite sport to coach was girls basketball. He would make a major impact on the program at Hillside High in Durham. He coached Hillside from 1988-97, had five 20-win seasons and won three league coach of the year awards. In 1995-96, Hillside won one of the epic games in NCHSAA girls basketball history, beating Terry Sanford, 101-92. Hillside went on to win the 4A state championship that season.

It’s a small world. In 1997, South Rowan’s girls basketball team made the trip to Durham to take on the Hillside Hornets early in the 4A state playoffs.

James Greene, South Rowan’s head coach, was related to Williams by marriage and knew him very well. Their teams locked horns in a spirited game that went into overtime. Hillside prevailed 67-57 over a very good South team that included future Division I players Jill Cress and Janetta Heggins.

George Williams’ assistant coach on that Hillside squad was his son, Bryan Williams, the father of future Carson stars Tre and Jailen Williams.

From 2002-09, George Williams returned to North Carolina Central as an assistant women’s basketball coach. The program won a championship in 2006-07.

“We’d stay with my grandfather a lot in the summers in those years, and we’d get to work out with the N.C. Central women’s and men’s teams or sometimes just with my grandfather,” Tre Williams remembers. “I still can remember running the stadium steps at N.C. Central and at Duke. My grandfather pushed us to our limits, but he always made sure to let us know how proud he was of us and how much he loved us. He would get on your butt when you weren’t doing right, but he also knew exactly how to deliver a message, so it would stick. He was impeccable with his words, straight to the point, but those words always were delivered with the most genuine care imaginable.”

Tre grew up to be a star athlete in three sports at Carson.

Tre’s pick-six was a key play in Carson’s only win ever against West Rowan in football in 2013.

He was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball, one of the best players in Carson history, and an exceptional thrower in track and field. He went on to star in basketball at Davidson County Community College and then at Claflin.

Tre paved the way, and Jailen successfully followed  in his big brother’s footsteps. Jailen gave the family two 1,000-point basketball scorers to be proud of, and while Jailen wasn’t as physically powerful as Tre, he proved to be an exceptional defensive back for the Cougars on the football field.

Jailen credits his grandfather for much of his success.

“From the first time I ever picked up a basketball, he was there supporting me,” Jailen said.

George didn’t miss many of his grandsons’ games over the years.

Both gave him a lot to smile about.

“We could talk about anything and everything, but when it came to basketball there was no interrupting our conversations,” Tre said. “He loved watching Jailen and me do what we loved to do and he loved helping us with our progression along the way. Jailen and I both hated losing, but after we cried our tears, we’d get ourselves together from a tough loss, and there was nothing better than ‘Papa’ putting his arms around you and letting you know he was proud. In basketball and in life, he always coached us up.”

George had a number of coaching stops over the years, but his heart was never far from North Carolina Central.

He had returned to the Eagles this basketball season as a volunteer coach. He had brought a renewed defensive mindset to the program. He was still preaching “if we can stop them, we can beat them,” just as he did at Hillside High decades ago.

His death was unexpected and came as a shock to the Eagles and his family.

“I feel his loss very much,” Tre said.  “It’s a loss that feels a lot like losing your last game because he’s not there to hug me now. Jailen and I always have been blessed with a lot of family support, but ‘Papa” always held a special place in our hearts. It’s very hard to see him gone so unexpectedly.”

Jailen carries on the Williams legacy. He averages 12.4 points per game and is the leading scorer for fourth-seeded Claflin (19-6). He leads the team in assists (73) and steals (47), and even though he’s a 6-foot, 165-pound guard he’s second on the team with 5.1 rebounds per game.

He scored 25 in an overtime loss at Livingstone in what was a homecoming game for him and scored 16 when Claflin beat Livingstone on Claflin’s home floor in Orangeburg, S.C.

On Feb. 11, the day after services were held for George Williams in Durham, Jailen scored 23 points in 28 minutes against St. Augustine’s.

He’ll play again tonight far from home, but with the support of his family and armed with a lot of lessons from his grandfather.

“I’m forever grateful to him,” Jailen said. “He taught me the game.”