The inside story of Antonio Williams’ journey to fatherhood, Kent State

Antonio Williams as a child.

Ian Kreider

Antonio “Booman” Williams walked through the narrow Kent State press room door for the third time in his young Kent State career. Only this time, accompanied by a plus one.

He cradled his 3-year old son, Ayden, in his right arm as he sat down to answer questions after Kent State won its final regular season game against Akron on March 8.

After answering questions that pointed more toward the team than his own performance, and referring to himself as the “glue guy,” he stood up to leave and quickly realized his son forgot his Chick-Fil-A cookie on the press table.

“Want your cookie?” he asked, to which Ayden quickly nodded his head and they walked toward the door.

“That’s ‘Lil Booman,’” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said as Ayden and Antonio left.

At every step in his life, Antonio hasn’t gone by Antonio. He’s simply been known as “Booman.” He doesn’t know why. His mother, Tamara Willis, had to rack her brain to try to find out the creation of the nickname.

“I think my aunt called him Bartman, and maybe it just rolled off of Bartman and I just called him ‘Booman,’” Willis said. “But actually, I don’t even call him ‘Booman’ anymore. I call him Tony. Now when I’m hearing the announcers say it, I’m like, ‘Oh wow, that stuck.’”

But regardless of how it started, it’s what he goes by now. And three years ago, another “Booman” entered this world.

And “Lil Booman” may not realize it now, but he changed the trajectory of “Big Booman’s” life more than he can comprehend.

Before Ayden entered his life, Williams was a self-described “goofball” who lacked focus in the classroom despite being a gifted athlete. Williams is from the west side of Chicago, specifically called “K-Town,” because many of the surrounding streets begin with the letter “K.” Some people also refer to the area as “Killer Town” because of the violence.

Willis knew that to keep her son away from the streets she’d need to get him involved in something that kept him busy. Sports were a natural fit. Before basketball, it was football, then soccer for a brief period.

But he always came back to basketball.

“He was 6 or 7 when he started playing football,” Willis said. “Then he started playing basketball after we learned about the football coach being involved with a basketball league, and he asked if Antonio could play basketball.”

Williams viewed basketball as an escape from the violence in K-Town.

“I saw some people get shot before, I saw somebody die before,” Williams said. “I saw my dad get shot before. I never want to put my son through that.”

When Williams was 15, he visited a convenience store with his parents, a moment that would change his life forever. As Williams waited for his dad to emerge from the store, both him and Willis heard a commotion inside. Out rolled his father, fighting with two people.

“The people he was fighting with got him on the ground, and they had the gun pointed at his head,” Willis said. “Somebody came up and distracted the guys, and they ran off. His father got up and ran to the car.”

When Antonio’s father got to the car, he let them know he had been shot in the stomach and needed to go to the hospital.

His father survived.

Willis knows the opportunities she’s given her son have allowed him to make it out of a neighborhood that seems to engulf so many more people than it spits out.

“Sports have helped that, and me putting my foot in his neck,” she said. “I would never let my son go to the streets. That’s my only child. That’s all I have in this world.”

Williams’ first real success on the basketball court came playing for his AAU coach, Justin Brim, in middle school. He scored 30 points in his first game and assumed he would be in the starting lineup moving forward.

Brim had other plans, which led to some early disagreements, but he felt it was important to challenge Williams.

“He was trying to impress me the first one or two tournaments,” Brim said. “I wouldn’t start him just because he was asking to start.”

It was a test. He wanted to see how Williams would react, if he complained or if he was going to accept the challenge.

“We were bumping heads because he wasn’t used to being pushed,” Brim said. “I didn’t want him to be comfortable because the best people in life are the ones who are uncomfortable because it’s pushing them to be better.”

Brim recognized Williams’ potential early on, noting he was not the most polished player, but he was aggressive, athletic and always had a knack for seeing a play before it developed.

“He has a nose for the basketball,” Brim said. “If you look at him now, he can score 12 points per game without any plays called for him because he understands the game.”

As Williams moved onto high school, he continued to blossom as an athlete and showed promise in both basketball and football. Willis made him choose between basketball and football his freshman year.

Basketball it was.

“I don’t like the cold weather, so I was like, ‘I don’t want to play football anymore,’” Williams said.

Williams attended Farragut Career Academy his freshman year. He transferred to Proviso East High School, a suburban powerhouse in Maywood, Illinois heading into his sophomore year. Proviso East’s location kept him out of west Chicago for most of the day.

Some days he’d stay at school with his teammates. Other days he’d stay late in the gym. Some days he’d just stay in his house.

“Where I lived was in the middle of all the violence,” Williams said. “Our neighborhood is probably one of the deadliest, so I just tried to stay out of the way.”

Williams and his fellow Proviso East teammates were coached by Donnie Boyce, someone who had done exactly what they were hoping to do — use basketball to make it out.

Contrary to his large, loud presence on the court,  Boyce described Williams as shy during their first seasons together.

After spending one year learning under Boyce’s tutelage, Williams looked to be poised for a breakout junior season on the court — arguably the most important season in terms of college recruiting.

There was only one problem: He couldn’t stay on the court. In total, academic ineligibility caused him to miss more than 20 games his junior season.

Between his junior and senior years, Ayden was born, flipping Williams’ life, and the lives of those around him, upside down.

“I knew as a dad I was going to have some big responsibilities, so I had to get back on my school work and start playing ball again,” Williams said.

Willis was concerned after learning the news. She wanted her son to be able to focus on school first, then basketball outside of the Chicago area.

“I was upset because when I had my son at 19 I knew it wasn’t about me anymore,” Willis said. “It was all about him, and I put my all into him. I worked too many hours just to provide for him.”

Willis provided financial support through her job, processing checks and constantly working overtime to bring home as much money as she could.

“It was a lot, and I was hoping he would get through high school and go onto college without having a baby,” Willis said. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”

Williams and Sariah Vance, Ayden’s mother, are no longer together, but they maintain a good relationship.

“I explained … he’s leaving Chicago, he’s going to college,” Willis said. “Now, if you’re fine with him being gone, and you understand you’re pretty much on your own with the kid but he’s leaving, he has to go. I meant that.”

Willis’ words resonated with Williams, who knew he needed to mature after the birth of his son.

“I had a lot of work I had to get done in order for me to even play my senior year,” Williams said. “I had missed the first seven games of my senior year, too, because of my grades from my junior year. I had to buckle down and focus in, stop going outside and just focus on school and school first.”

Boyce noticed a change as well, as the normally goofy and popular Williams was suddenly locked in both on and off the court.

“You’re trying to better your life for your kid,” Boyce said. “I think that really hit home with him. Now he had something extra that he has to feed and take care of, failure was never in the equation. Failure was taken out of his vocabulary after his son was born.”

After returning, Williams lit up defenses across the state of Illinois his senior season, averaging 24 points and six rebounds per game. Even with his uptick in production, Williams didn’t receive a single Division I offer.

“I think (his lack of Division I offers) was more academically, not so much the things on the basketball court,” Boyce said. “Obviously, with his lack of height, it’s not ideal to play him at the two-guard, but he’s just a basketball player. You can put him anywhere on the court and he’s going to produce. You can ask him to go down low and guard a 7-footer, he’s going to make it tough for that 7-footer.”

While Willis knew Williams’ opportunities would be limited because of his academic woes, she also knew it would teach him a key lesson.

“Well, he did get a little cocky,” Willis said. “He was the captain of the team, and I tried to express to him that he still had to do schoolwork. He did kind of mess up. He ended up going to a D2 instead of a D1 … lesson learned.”

Despite the lack of Division 1 offers, Boyce had a feeling Williams was special, and that others would soon take notice. At a Christmas tournament during Williams’ senior year, he averaged 25 points and filled up the stat sheet on both offense and defense.

“I think that’s when he really realized that he had a chance to be something special,” Boyce said.

Williams knew that all he needed was an opportunity.

And he got one.

Halfway through his senior season, Williams was approached by Indian Hills Community College coach Hank Plona.

Williams’ confident body language stood out to Plona right away.

“He’d look you straight in the eye and have the mentality that he’s not intimidated or hesitant,” Plona said. “He’s kind of mature beyond his years, but at the same time didn’t come across like he had all the answers. He had a really good middle ground as far as being confident but also wanting to learn and get better.”

Williams ultimately decided to go to Indian Hills because it was the perfect distance from Chicago. It was close enough where he could head home if necessary, but not close enough that he could constantly drive back and forth.

With that, Williams left Chicago for school in Iowa ready to prove everyone wrong.

“He was pretty fired up,” Plona said. “I think there were some people telling him that he’d have a tough time playing here. He started his first game here his freshman year. He was a major part of our team and our success in the two years he was here.”

He averaged 12 points per game on 52 percent shooting over two seasons at Indian Hills, helping lead them to a 33-1 record his sophomore year.

But what could be his biggest achievement came off the floor. Three years after being ineligible due to his grades, Williams was named to the academic all-region second-team for finishing the year with a GPA between 3.0 and 3.4.

“There was never a problem getting him to focus on academics,” Plona said. “Honestly, he made it clear to me when I recruited him that he learned his lesson and that because of lack of concentration he didn’t receive D1 offers.”

Those doubters Williams had when he went to Indian Hills? It’s safe to say he’s proved them wrong, and he knows that.

“I kind of talk smack on social media like, ‘Yeah look at me, I’m doing good. I’m doing everything everyone thought I wouldn’t do,’” Williams said. “A lot of my teachers told me when I was a goofball in high school that I wasn’t going to make it. I really just try to prove everybody wrong. That’s what I do whenever I step on the court.”

Williams’ short career at Kent State includes:

  • A two-hand dunk off a behind the back pass from CJ Williamson that made SportsCenter’s top-10 plays.
  • A 30-foot self alley oop in the waning seconds at Ball State that gave Kent State an 81-80 lead, and ultimately propelled them to the win. It was No.1 on SportsCenter’s top-10 plays.
  • A one-handed 3-point heave as he was getting intentionally fouled by Deng Riak that gave him three free throws in the closing seconds of a 68-65 win against Akron. The win sealed the four seed and a bye for Kent State in the Mid-American Conference tournament.
  • Started 29 games so far this season, while averaging 12 points per game on 48 percent shooting. He has also averaged four rebounds and almost three assists per game.

The process continues at Kent State, where again Williams said he chose the university because of its close proximity to Chicago (it’s about five hours away.) Williams first found out about Kent State through the recruitment of former Indian Hills player Kevin Zabo, who transfered to Kent after spending for a year at Indian Hills.

“When I came on my visit, I actually liked it here. Western Michigan was closer to home, but I didn’t really want to go to Michigan. It’s always cold down there,” he said, and laughed. “I was like, I don’t want to be too close to home, but I don’t want to be too far, so Kent was a good fit.”

Senderoff also thought it was a good fit.

“’Booman’ is very versatile and can play all three perimeter spots and can guard multiple positions and plays bigger than his size,” Senderoff said in a press conference announcing Williams’ signing. “He’s one of the great competitors that I saw during the season, and I’m excited that he is going to be part of our program.”

Senderoff has pointed to Williams’ instincts throughout the season, especially in late-game situations.

“He just has such tremendous instincts,” Senderoff said after Friday’s win against Akron. “His instincts are off the charts, and that’s what helps make him such a good player.”

Williams did not receive any All-MAC honors, despite finishing fifth in blocks and second in steals.

“I was disappointed in the list,” Williams said. “I was OK with not making the All-MAC team. But the defensive team, I didn’t understand why I didn’t make that. I go out every night and guard the best player, and it’s never an easy game for them. They have to work hard for their points. It’s OK. I have another year.”

Williams’ resilient style of play has been his calling card all season for the Flashes, and whenever he steps on the court, he has a little bit of Chicago with him.

“Chicago made me,” Williams said of his upbringing. 

Chances are that if this Kent State team makes a deep run into March, it’ll be because of the high-energy play of the man known to everyone as “Booman” — everyone expect for his mom.

“I just call him Tony now,” she said.

Ian Kreider covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].