Freshman forward Alan Williams was supposed to be a bit player for this year's UC Santa Barbara basketball team. He would pick-up minutes where he could, maybe three or four at a time, do what he could in those short spurts, and then return to his place on the bench.
Through the first nine games of the season, Williams never played more than 12 minutes and usually he played more like seven or eight. In a game against nationally-ranked UNLV, he didn't play at all.
When Williams did play early in the season, two things stood out. First, he was unusually productive in his limited minutes. He had five points and five rebounds in seven minutes against Chapman, seven points and four rebounds in eight minutes against Santa Clara, eight points and eight rebounds in 12 minutes against Portland and six rebounds in 12 minutes against San Diego State.
Secondly, each time the 6-foot-7 Williams walked onto the court, he carried with him a huge smile and unabashed enthusiasm.
"It's something that's a part of who I am," he said. "I get really excited. I'm still the kind of guy that walks into the arena and looks around and says 'man, it's so nice to have the opportunity to play such a great sport.' I just love the game of basketball and I'm blessed to be able to play it. I just try to take it in as much as I can and have as much fun as I can with it."
Williams' enthusiasm is contagious and almost immediately, he became a crowd favorite.
"The fans have really taken to him," said UCSB head coach Bob Williams. "He plays with such great energy and effort and is so relentless. He has so much enthusiasm for the game and has such a great time playing. The fans see, and appreciate, that."
Soon enough, Coach Williams saw that as well and rewarded Player Williams. He played Alan 14 minutes on Dec. 22 at BYU, the last game of the Gauchos' 12-day, four-game pre-holiday road trip. At the time, it was the most playing time he had received in any one game.
After several days off, UCSB began Big West Conference play, and that's when Alan Williams really took off. In the opener at Cal Poly, he came off the bench and played 29 minutes, scoring 13 points and pulling down 10 rebounds.
"It was a matter of production," Coach Williams said. "Alan was giving us productive minutes and we had to get the most productive players on the court."
The next game, Alan was inserted into the starting lineup and the rest was history. As a freshman, he had worked his way into a major role with the Gauchos. Even when he was playing sparse minutes, he kept his attitude positive and continued to work hard in practice.
"It's my personality," he said. "I'm playing in a position where I feel like I had to fight my way to get some playing time. I had to fight against two really big players ahead of me (Jaimé Serna and Greg Somogyi). I felt like I had to prove myself to my teammates and the coaches. I had to prove that I could go and just never stop, and once I had to prove that once I got there, I still wouldn't be satisfied and I'd continue to work."
Williams is not one who shies away from hard work, and its no wonder. Last spring, his mother Jeri was named Police Chief for the city of Oxnard, a culmination of many years as a police officer and commander in Phoenix. His father Cody was a City Councilman in Phoenix for eight years, the head of the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce for five years and in 2007 was appointed Justice of the Peace in Maricopa County, becoming the only African American among the 25 Justice Courts in the county. Cody also played basketball as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma.
"They (his parents) always taught me to be careful about that I'm doing and to be as positive as I can be," Williams said. "I'm not just carrying my image, but the image of my family. Our family was always so well known in Phoenix and I had to make sure I was handling myself well. I do the things I do and am the way I am to make my family proud and to make myself proud."
Williams became a Gaucho after a decorated high school career at North High School in Phoenix. While at North High, he was a two-time All-State selection and following his senior season, he was named Arizona State Player of the Year. Still, despite his achievements, Williams was not recruited by either Arizona or Arizona State, and that fact is one thing that can wipe the smile off his face.
"Going into my junior year I hadn't gotten a letter from anyone," Williams said. "I was confused and questioning myself. It's hard to put into words, but I just kept working hard, working hard. I figured God would put me somewhere, wherever I was supposed to land, and whatever place that was would be the right one. My parents just kept telling me to keep working hard and I did that."
Even with his career seemingly headed in the right direction, Williams continues to work as though he's still got something to prove.
"I try to go after everything as hard as I can so that I can show what others are missing out on," he said. "I like to work hard and to keep doing it. I like the results that it brings. I like the fact that it leads to success. That's what I think I have drawn the most from my parents: to work hard and learn, that's what leads to success in life."
While Alan Williams went un-recruited by his local schools, Bob Williams liked what he saw almost immediately.
"I was watching one of his games and it's on a fast break," Coach Williams said. "Someone throws him a pass down near his ankles and he reaches down, catches it and goes in for a lay-up. The work-rate and enthusiasm were the first things I noticed about Alan, but he has incredible hands too. For a big man to go down like that and catch a ball almost at his feet is huge."
And because of his hard work and boundless enthusiasm, Alan Williams is proving to be a huge part of a veteran Gaucho team, and that's not lost on his teammates.
"Alan is like a big kid," said senior Orlando Johnson. "He never lets the game get too serious. He enjoys it."
Johnson said that the team feeds off of the energy that Williams brings to the games, whether he is on the court or on the bench.
"His personality and hustle make him fun to play with," Johnson said. "We really feed off of that. Even at the beginning of the year, when he wasn't playing, he was bringing something to the team. For us, when Alan's around, there's never a dull moment."
And there is no doubt that the Gaucho fans have come to realize that too.