By Jared Zwerling
Entering the summer of New York City streetball in 2005, Corey “Homicide” Williams still didn’t have any national basketball accolades, an NBA agent or business connections to the league.
But he still had the drive to make a bigger name for himself after playing at Harlem’s Rice High School, junior college and then Division I ball at Alabama State. So he came up with a game plan for the Entertainer’s Basketball Classic at Rucker Park: get heavy minutes on a lesser-known team and go all out against the top competition to try and increase his profile.
At 27 years old at the time, Williams knew his window for playing professionally was closing.
What happened next is a story of legends — one that hasn’t been repeated since that summer. After outplaying some of the biggest names on the NYC streetball scene, including current New York Knicks J.R. Smith and Metta World Peace, “Homicide” jumped on the radar of then Toronto Raptors assistant coach Jim Todd, who’s now with the Knicks. Todd came to Dyckman Park to watch him play, and almost immediately after, Williams was extended an invite to attend Raptors training camp that fall.
Since then, while Williams has never made an official NBA roster, the NYC playgrounds gave him the opportunity to travel the globe as a successful and well-off pro baller.
“No one in the world has the overseas experience like me,” said Williams, who’s played in France, Croatia, Valencia, Australia, Puerto Rico and most recently in Lebanon. “I’m going to write a book or make a movie about the real life overseas that people don’t talk about. I tell people, ‘The best experience is traveling.’ What most people don’t really understand is: I wasn’t good at a young age, so anything I got out of this is a plus. I just love new experiences.”
Now, Williams is back in NYC, one day away from suiting up for Bingo’s All-Stars in a highly-anticipated Tri-State Classic semifinals showdown against the defending champs BSC (tip-off is at 8 p.m. on Sunday). While Williams has been enjoying the past week, celebrating his 36th birthday with his girlfriend, Irish singer Diane O’Sullivan, the TSC caught up with him to talk about his unique journey, streetball experiences and what’s next for him in his all-encompassing career.
It must be nice to see Nike and now Jordan Brand, the Tri-State Classic sponsor, investing more and more in streetball. You’ve been right in the middle of the evolution.
Yeah, definitely, man. I’ve been playing street basketball since 2000. That’s when I really got into it, after college. The hardcore, top-flight, A-grade streetball began for me in 2000. I’m also continuously still playing at a high level, which is very hard to do. My nickname is “Homicide,” so I just can’t go out and just have an average game. With a nickname like that, you have to uphold the level of respect that comes with your name. You have to bring your game, so I always took pride in that. To be around for this long, I’m 36 years old, which I don’t even believe. People don’t even know that.
What do you think of Tri-State this summer?
I like the league. I like the fact that it’s sponsored by Jordan Brand. [TSC commissioner] “Mousey” does an incredible job doing the best that he can possibly can to get the best players, the best teams and some good overall competition to play in his league. I mean, he’s one of the most famous coaches when it comes to street basketball. He’s won plenty of championships, he’s done everything you can possibly do as a coach, so now he’s trying to make that transition to make his league be one of the top-flight leagues, as Kenny Stevens is doing right now with Dyckman. That’s the red carpet of streetball.
“Mousey” used to coach teams in the EBC with Diddy and Fat Joe. Did you play on them?
Nah, nah, I wasn’t good enough to play on those teams [laughs]. “Mousey” had an NBA backcourt, and he had Kareem Reid. His backcourt was flawless. He had a great team and great players. It’s funny because he would always be in the other division. The team that I would play for at the EBC, we would never be in the same division, and if we were, we wouldn’t be good enough to beat them anyway.
How do you think your game has evolved as a streetball player, now turning 36? What would the “streetball scouts” say?
They would still say, “Corey, pass the ball. Pass the ball, Corey.” Growing up, I wasn’t so good. I started playing ball at 13. I went to Rice by accident for disciplinary problems — not because it was the No. 1 high school in the nation and I was recruited to go. My mom paid tuition for me to go there to get a good education. I knew I wanted to play basketball. It’s a basketball factory; it pumps out ballplayers, so I had to get better quickly because I’m around such good players. Offensively, I wasn’t good; I just was aggressive. I would attack the basket all the time and I would be a good defender. I knew if I wanted to play, it wasn’t about scoring because we had guys on the court that could score, so I had to guard the best player. I was a role player straight up. I was like “Junkyard Dog” [former NBA player Jerome Williams].
I developed when I went to college, but I still wasn’t the best player, so coming back, I didn’t have anything else but streetball to play. So all I had left was, Let me see what I can do with this streetball thing. I would read magazines and people would say, “Recruiters are here, guys are getting opportunities,” so I just figured as naive as I was, maybe I can get a shot. I didn’t have an agent, my coach really didn’t help me when I left school, so all I had was playground basketball. Geographic-wise, by default, I was from New York, I was in the mecca of basketball.
Right before summer was about to hit, I saw a list of all the top guards. 1, 2, 3 position players, it didn’t matter to me. I had to go at them, I had to destroy them, I had to finish them. You couldn’t just have 20 points and I have 26 — we basically would break even. I needed to have like 40 points. So I just went around parks just destroying everybody, like that was my plan. That was the only way I could get on — I had to kill you. This was my blueprint: I would get on teams that weren’t so good, I would play the whole game, I would have the ball all the time. I’m going to take all the shots; there’s no way I’m not getting at least 30 points. There’s no way.
There is another side of New York streetball, where commentators and people can hype you up, and you really think you’re better than what you are. But the most dangerous person to play against is the person with nothing to lose. That’s who I was at that time. So I’m going to make sure you guard me, and I’m going to guard you, and I’m going to go at you the whole game. That’s what I was doing. No one knew me.
You started playing at 13. At what age did you finally feel like you made it?
It was the summer of ’05. It took a while. Is Floyd Mayweather going to fight the next up-and-coming guy? Hell no. You’ve got to prove yourself to get to Mayweather. It’s going to take a while. No one really knew me, so I had to build this thing up just like I’m talking about with “Mousey” and Tri-State. It’s not going to be the red carpet of streetball in one summer. You’ve got to develop your brand, develop your product, and that’s what I was doing. So it got to a point where after I got MVP of the EBC — I gave Ron Artest 26 points — mentally it let me know no one could guard me one-on-one. If the Defensive Player of the Year was on me, and I had 26 on him — the doubles were coming. If he can’t guard me one-on-one, mentally do you know what that does for you?
At the opening day of Rucker, I had 45 points. Against Tyrone “Alimoe” Evans, Dahntay Jones, J.R. Smith and Kenny Satterfield, I had 45 on them, and that was the game on NBA TV. That was literally the summer of “Homicide.” I got MVP of Pro City, I got MVP everywhere, and I had 27 points at the half at Dyckman the day Jim Todd, the assistant coach of Toronto that year, was there. That’s my man. He got me the shot to Toronto.
He came and watched me play, and nobody knew he was at Dyckman. I finished the game with 33. The double teams started coming, so I was looking for the open man. He said, “You know what impressed me more? Not the 27 you had at the half, but when the double came, you were finding the open man.” They didn’t need me to score in Toronto. All I would do is be a third backup guard, come in, run the offense. The thing that he liked is was I could get to the basket. I could turn the corner in the pick-and-roll and penetrate. I’m a big guard that can get to the rack. I’m physical and can beat you up in the paint a bit, get inside and create. That’s what he liked about my game and what they needed at the time.
How did Jim first hear about you?
I was on a tour team in China, and the coach of that tour team was a guy named Tony Parker from Chicago, and he was a good friend of Jim Todd. So I’m over there and playing against the national team with like Yao Ming. After the tour was done, he’s like, “Man, you can play in the NBA.” I never heard that before. Jim Todd was a real good friend of his for many, many years. Jim Todd always said, “If you need a favor and you’ve got a kid you want me to look at, let me know.” He never used that favor until now with me.
So Jim woke me up one day. He said, “Where are you playing at?” I said, “I’m at Dyckman.” He said, “Alright, I’ll see you later.” I knew right there, all those stories — he didn’t have help, he fell through the cracks, nobody believed in him — all that stuff is out the window. Now, you have an opportunity. So I went out there and did my thing, and I got invited straight to camp. I didn’t do mini-camp, I didn’t go to summer league — I went right to training camp.
That never happens for a player.
That never happens. So from there, Alvin Williams was their guy, but his knees were messed up. They didn’t know if he was going to be able to play, so they’re going to bring in three point guards. They brought in myself, Robert Pack and Tierre Brown. Tierre just finished a year before with the Lakers, and they’re bringing in an old veteran, Robert Pack. And Jose Calderon just came from Spain, they just traded Mike James for “Skip” [Rafer Alston] and Alvin Williams. So you’ve got Alvin Williams in there looking crazy trying to play. Alvin can’t play because his knees were just beat down. He was done and he was trying to play.
So a long story short, we go into preseason, it’s Game 5 and we play the Nets — they just traded Vince [Carter] to the Nets — and we’re down like 15 points, 4:40 left. I remember like it was yesterday. I knew cuts had to be coming soon, so they just threw us all in there. I got lucky. Lamond Murray had said to Toronto, “If ya’ll dummies are going to trade Vince, that’s the stupidest thing you could do. I don’t want to be here.” So they traded him in the package to the Nets. So now Lamond is on the court, and [head coach] Sam Mitchell calls a timeout. He said, “Whoever Lamond Murray is guarding, go at him.” Lamond Murray is guarding me [laughs]. I’m like, “OK, this is the coach. Give me the ball.”
We were down 15 and we ended up going into overtime, and winning. I had 11 points, two assists, two rebounds and we win. That game saved me. I was always the first player to practice and the last one to leave, because all I’m doing is everything I possibly can to make this team. Even if I don’t make it, I know I did everything I could to put myself in a position to make it. So the next day I come in, Tierre Brown’s nameplate gone, Robert Pack’s nameplate gone. I was like, “Wow, I’m in this joint. I can’t believe this.” So I go upstairs, hit the shooting machine, hit the weights a little bit, and practice is about to start. All I know is this: Alvin Williams is still trying to play, so they kept him. That’s why I didn’t make that team. Alvin played one game all season [laughs].
Even though you got cut, how did your life change after that?
I started getting better jobs. Everything changes when you go to the NBA. I went to the CBA, I led that league in triple-doubles. I called myself “I was [Rajon] Rondo before Rondo.” But I was older; I got my start at 27. At that point, I was like in dinosaur years. I couldn’t keep chasing to get in the NBA. The following year, I went to the D-League and won a championship with the Dakota Wizards. Dave Joerger was my coach who’s now the Memphis [Grizzlies] coach.
Now, I’m 29 at this point, so it’s tough money-wise. I was playing overseas, but they weren’t good gigs. I also went to camp in 2006 with the Denver Nuggets, and I did summer league with Indiana and Golden State, but it was hard to get playing time. When I left the NBA and D-League, I started getting really good deals.
What do you think the reasons were for not sticking around in the NBA?
A lot of times, they’re going to play who they’re going to play. There’s nothing you can do. If people understand how this thing goes, a lot of guys are good, but they need the opportunity and the minutes on the court to show what they can do. Some people have zero room for error, and some people have a longer leash. I was never in a position where I had a longer leash. The only time I had a longer leash is when I’m in the playground or some teams when I’m overseas. They already know what you can do, so you have a larger room for error.
But aren’t teams always looking for that diamond in the rough? Look at your buddy Chris Copeland last year with the Knicks.
Yeah, my bro. The thing that’s so unique about Cope: everything that happened to Cope, it was like the stars were aligned to a tee. It couldn’t have been any better how aligned they were. And when those opportunities came, he capitalized by playing his behind off. Think about this: [Marcus] Camby injured, Kurt Thomas injured, Rasheed Wallace out of shape, not ready to go, injured. STAT [Amar’e Stoudemire] not ready to go. And Cope got on that court. They had to play them, and Cope did his thing, and that’s why I was most happy for him. When you get a real opportunity, capitalize on it, and that’s what he did.
So what’s next for you?
After the Tri-State Classic, I’m playing in an Under Armour game next weekend. It’s the top eight players in New York City, including Lance Stephenson, against the Under Armour athletes: DeAndre Jordan, Kemba Walker, Raymond Felton, Brandon Jennings and Greivis Vasquez. It’s the day before the Elite 24 game, [which features the top high school players in the country]. After that, I’m going to prepare to play in Baghdad. I’ll be with the Duhok basketball club next season in Iraq.
How much longer do you think you want to play?
I don’t really plan on balling until I fall. I don’t think people really can understand that. I’m 36, I’m in great shape, I keep my body up. I don’t smoke, I’m an occasional drinker, I’m very responsible. If you’re in shape and you can still play, there’s a job there for you somewhere. I literally plan on playing until I cannot play no more.
Could you see yourself going until 50 like MJ said? He can still dunk at 50.
[laughs] Nah, I think 40 would be it. If I can play until 40, that would be amazing.