Big Al gives no hall passes
Few make a bigger first impression than Alan Williams, a UCSB freshman whose smile is as broad as his 6-foot-7 and 270-pound frame.
But his classmates didn't realize the enormity of his impact until he started filling the lanes inside his dorm at Manzanita Village.
"We like playing Hallway Basketball, and he's always using this footwork that's just amazing," said his roommate, red-shirt guard John Green. "Me and T.J. (Taylor) have been telling him, 'Why don't we see you using any of that in the real games?'
"And he said, 'OK, you will.'"
True to his word, Williams turned Cal Poly's Mott Gym into his own Hallway of Fame on Monday, leading the Gauchos to a 58-57 victory with a team-high 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Coach Bob Williams picked a good time - their Big West Conference opener - to give Big Al his first extended playing time of the season. They'll be back in action tonight at the Thunderdome with a 7 p.m. game against Cal State Fullerton.
"Obviously, we've wanted to play him more," coach Williams said. "Every time we've put him out there, he's been productive.
"We're changing what we're doing just so we can get him on the floor, that's how much I think of the kid."
He plays the game like a kid who's breaking in a new basketball on Christmas morning, throwing his big body down on the floor and up on the backboards to keep it out of others' hands.
"I was really excited, it was a lot of fun out there," Big Al said of his 29-minute stint on Monday. "The energy was great. The crowd was against us, and I actually like that. It's us against the crowd, and it brings us together as a team."
His energy has already become the stuff of legend, with his hearty laugh filling every locker room, airline cabin and hotel lobby that UCSB has visited this season.
"One of our coaches had to settle him down a little in a restaurant once when he got a little loud, but Al's fine," coach Williams said. "He's great. It's part of what makes him really good.
"He's big. He's excitable. He's fun. You've got to have some of that. It's a long year. You might as well have some laughs while you're going through it."
And it's made Big Al the best of roommates.
"Alan is always finding ways to turn a negative into a positive, in a funny way," Green said. "He's always trying new things, too.
"We call him Chef Alan because in the dining commons, he's always finding ways to turn a salad into some kind of different meal with fish or chicken or bacon or rice. He's kind of a character."
UCSB had already signed Big Al to a national letter of intent last year when he earned Arizona State Player of the Year honors for his division with averages of 22.1 points, 16.2 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots for Phoenix's North High. He had somehow slipped under the recruiting radar the previous year while helping North win a state title, scoring 12.5 points with 10.9 rebounds per game.
"UCSB was my first Division I call," he said. "It's an amazing location here ... A good education.
"My dream schools were always U of A and ASU," he added, referring to the University of Arizona and Arizona State, "but I never got a letter or any contact from either one."
He made a big first impression on coach Williams, who had been talked by his staff into watching one of Big Al's club games during the summer of 2010.
"He didn't do a whole lot with his AAU team, he wasn't given the ball a whole bunch," he said. "But I watched him make a dead sprint down the floor, and I really liked how he moved for a big kid. And then they threw a bounce pass at his feet and he picked it up on the dead run and finger-rolled it over the front rim.
"I went, 'Whoa! That's different!'"
Big Al's best attributes, coach Williams said, are his "great mitts, his hand-eye coordination, and his uncanny knack for rebounding." He's averaged 4.5 rebounds in just 10.0 minutes of playing time, with both numbers now on the rise.
"Very few people read where the ball is coming off like he does," coach Williams said. "He's moving to where it's going to be before it gets there, and that gets him a leg up.
"It's a little bit like the dynamic of a math problem, a geometry problem: 'Where is it going to land?'"
After just one look, he wanted Big Al to land at UCSB. The acceptance of the Gauchos' scholarship offer came during his flight home from another recruiting visit.
"I said something like, 'Mom, I'm ready,'" Big Al recalled.
Little did he know that his mother, Jeri Williams, had also applied for a job as the City of Oxnard's chief of police.
"She kept it a secret from me, she didn't want it to influence my decision," Big Al said. "After I told her, she decided it might be good for her to get that job."
She was hired and moved west with her son. Big Al's father, Cody Williams, is continuing to serve as a judge in Phoenix until their youngest son, also named Cody, completes his senior year at North High.
Nobody appreciates the professions of Big Al's parents more than coach Williams.
"It's great preparation for playing for a college basketball coach," he said through a sheepish grin. "When you've got a judge and a police chief for parents, you've probably had to nod a lot and do what they say.
"When I did the in-home visit, you didn't see Al's personality because Dad's a big personality. He played at Oklahoma, he's an elected official, and he's a big presence. And everybody loves Mom. She's fun to be around and positive and reaches out and all that.
"Al has the best of both of them."
And all the Gauchos are getting the best of Mom's cooking. She had most of them over for Thanksgiving dinner, cooking two turkeys and a pot roast with all the trimmings.
"Everybody was saying that her red velvet cake was the best they've ever had," Big Al said. "She also made some greens, macaroni and cheese - don't tell my nutritionist that I'm eating all this stuff - dressing, and all the typical Thanksgiving stuff. It was a good, homey feeling."
She brought that homeyness up to Cal Poly on Monday, handing Big Al two bags of food after the game - his second double-double of the night.
"It was for all the guys to take home," he said. "She loves all of us - we're all her own kids."
And it would become a great halftime feast for another game of Hallway Basketball.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org