Tracy Williams: The Globetrotter who calls Australia home

After travelling the world with the Harlem Globetrotters, Tracy Williams is now crafting his legacy and helping thousands of Australian kids in the process.

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Like most basketball players, Tracy Williams can appreciate a good pair of shoes. In fact, the former Harlem Globetrotter will tell you that he was ahead of his time in that regard.

“I was a sneakerhead before that was a thing.”

Since retiring from playing and coaching basketball professionally, Williams has settled in Sydney and found a way to put his passion for the game to good use, working with Australian not-for-profit Charity Bounce. Last month, Under Armour and Stephen Curry rewarded his efforts with a pair of “24k” Curry Flow 8 sneakers, the goldplated shoes a token of appreciation for all of the good he has done.

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His newest pair of kicks have only been in his collection for a month, but they’re already his most treasured. “What they stand for and the symbol of it is just really near and dear to my heart,” he said. “This is definitely the best pair of shoes I ever got.” They’ll never make it onto his feet, though; Williams says he’ll mount them and put them on display, before one day passing them on to his grandkids.

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It’s a fitting reward for a man whose whole life has been rooted in basketball, but whose work so greatly transcends the game. Williams is the global ambassador for Charity Bounce, and the organisation aims to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, using basketball as a vehicle for growth.

An experienced transformational speaker, Williams quickly expanded his ambassador role to include plenty of hands-on work, including coaching on the court. “I love working with people, period, but especially young people,” he said. “That’s my heart, that’s my passion, to be totally honest with you.” Using his own experiences as a guide, he’s helping to improve the lives of countless young Australians and, eventually, young people around the world.

Becoming a Globetrotter

Williams knows first-hand the transformative power of basketball; after all, it took him from his home in Brooklyn to almost every corner of the globe. He’s also aware of how fickle the game can be, particularly to young players with big dreams. “I saw the game of basketball, for the most part, use kids, and when those kids could no longer play the game or didn’t have the skill level, the game discards them,” he said. “I got an offer for a bunch of Division I scholarships and all that, but I was the only kid in my neighbourhood that got that opportunity.”

He was one of the lucky few to go on and play DI basketball, first at James Madison University in Virginia, and then for Campbell University in North Carolina. An athletic marvel capable of throwing down thunderous dunks, he suddenly reached the end of his college career and found that he was on the outskirts of the NBA. Luckily, there was another team scouting him, one outside the NBA but arguably more famous than any franchise in the league— the Harlem Globetrotters.

The team first formed in the 1920s as an option for black players in an era where the NBA was completely white, and they continued to field strong teams even once that began to change. The first black player to sign an NBA contract, Nathaniel ‘Sweetwater’ Clifton, was previously a Globetrotters legend, and while the theatrics and showmanship they are now known for were a big part of Globetrotters games in the 1980s they were still a viable option for a player such as Williams. Still, he was reluctant to even attend the team’s training camp when invited, if only because his mind was elsewhere. “I’mma be honest with you, that wasn’t where I wanted to go to first. Everything was the league, man, just getting to the league,” he said.

When your father is a huge Globetrotters fan, though, that kind of attitude won’t fly. As a young boy, Tracy’s dad would go to the local movie theatre to watch the news reels, and the only black players he saw were playing in the iconic red, white and blue. After watching the Globetrotters dismantle every team they faced he was hooked, and he made sure Tracy didn’t miss his chance to be part of their history. “My dad was my first hero and he said, man, you’ve gotta go to the training camp,” Tracy said.

Before then, Williams had a brief glimpse of the NBA, travelling to Washington and making it to the final stage of training camp with the Bullets before being cut. From there it was on to the CBA, the 1980s equivalent of the NBA G League, and a freezing cold winter in Davenport, Iowa, making $400 a week. “The Globetrotters were paying better than that,” he said. “I went to camp and made it through the process, they looked at 400 guys and they ended up signing four of us out of the 400.”

Even then, and once he was playing in games for the team, he didn’t fully appreciate what he was a part of. “I wasn’t even really that excited about [the history] then… I’m waiting every day for my agent to call me saying hey, Milwaukee want to sign you to a ten-day,” he said. Looking back now, he realises what a privilege it was to play for a team that holds such a special place in the history of black America. “You start seeing the history of the game and the history of the Globetrotters… I grew into that and it became a big source of pride for me.”

Lessons learned around the globe

Even once he had made the Globetrotters roster, there was still plenty of work to be done. The Globetrotters are known for their supreme skills and tricky plays; Williams says he couldn’t even spin the ball on his finger. “I’ll tell you, I broke a lot of lampshades in hotel rooms around the world,” he says with a laugh. “When everyone else was doing the tricks I would just jump over somebody and dunk the ball, and they’d be like ‘oh, he’s ok, we’ll pay him another month’.”

It was Lynette Woodard, the first female to ever play for the Globetrotters, that Williams credits with teaching him the Globetrotters flair. Her lessons have stayed with him as he now teaches the next generation of hoopers. “She showed me that the fundamentals were the foundation for everything that the Globetrotters did,” he said. “I show [the kids] that to be able to do that stuff you need to have good fundamentals, because that’s how I learned it.”

It wasn’t just on the court that Williams was adjusting, as the Globetrotters’ schedule began to take its toll. Even hearing him describe an average game day is enough to make anyone exhausted; from the airport and straight off an early morning flight, onto the bus, the hotel, then to the arena, play a night game, sign autographs, then back to the hotel for television drops and radio interviews. Multiply that by around 200 gamedays in a year, and you’ve got the life of a Globetrotter. “We never know what day it is, because it don’t matter,” Williams said. “We might know the country that we’re in, but the city don’t matter because we were doing the same thing every day.”

From his first year with the team in 1987 to his last year in 1994, Williams would sprinkle his schedule with stints overseas, playing in Europe and South America before returning to the Globetrotters. That wasn’t uncommon at the time, and Williams still had one eye on the big leagues. “Once the NBA camps would start you’d go there, then it was like, ok, what’s the pathway to the NBA?” he said.

He cites Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain’s experience, moving from the Globetrotters to the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors, as a source of hope. “When you look him up on Wikipedia he don’t have a Lakers uniform or a Philadelphia uniform on, he’s got a Globetrotters uniform on,” Williams said. “I aint that old… but that was something that was not too uncommon at the time, to go back and forth with the team.”

A permanent callup to the NBA never came, though, and Williams slowly embraced his status as a Globetrotter. There were plenty of surreal moments throughout, such as a trip to Chile in the midst of a military dictatorship and civil unrest. With fighting and violence always ongoing, the team’s scheduled games were promptly cancelled. “The promoter said yeah, they cancelled them, but if you come they said they’ll do a ceasefire. And they did it,” Williams recalls.

“After we left they went back to fighting, but they stopped.”

The next generation

Fast forward to 2017, and Williams was looking for a new way to pass on those lessons learned with the Globetrotters. After coaching high school basketball in the US for many years and a stint with the Saitama Broncos in Japan, he was close to accepting a job at the NBA Global Academy.

His curiosity was piqued, though, when two separate people suggested that he meet with the same organisation; Charity Bounce, a young Australian organisation aiming to help disadvantaged youth through basketball. “I was kind of sceptical at first because it was a brand new organisation,” Williams said, “and just the whole premise of coming to Australia to start all over again at my age was a lot.” Still, he decided to meet with the brains behind the operation, Charity Bounce CEO and co-founder Ian Heininger. They sat down and chatted about Heininger’s vision for the organisation, what he wanted to achieve, and how Williams could help to achieve it. “All I could hear was ‘this is it, this is what you’ve got to do’,” Williams said. “The synergy was there immediately and we really matched up.”

After seeing so many kids in Brooklyn be used up and spit out by basketball, Heininger’s plan to use the game for good struck a chord with Williams. “He showed me a program, a vision, where every one of those kids was going to get a chance to be great, period,” Williams said. That’s how he joined the Charity Bounce team, as an ambassador with a focus on speaking engagements and building awareness of their work, but also as a coach and a mentor to the kids in their many programs.

While Charity Bounce initially targeted at-risk youth, and then refugees recently arrived in Australia, they now cater to any and all youngsters in need of some guidance. “We got all kinds, we work with everybody now,” Williams said. After taking a winding path in his playing days Williams knows all about how uncertain life can be, and he uses that experience to relate to kids that often aren’t sure where their own lives are heading. “I share the good, the bad and the ugly… being cut from the Bullets, the dejection, the letdowns, the injuries, the doubts,” he said. “When something doesn’t happen the way they plan, I want them to have a point of reference to say, well, Tracy said I was going to go through that.”

Even just speaking to him on the phone, it’s easy to see how Williams is able to inspire others to be better. His passion shines through in his voice, and he’s a goldmine of memorable and motivational quotes that are impossible to forget. On motivation, he says “we don’t stop ‘til the casket drop”. On overcoming adversity, “we ain’t giving up, we going up”. When he hears politicians spruiking a need to ‘leave a better world for our children’, he disagrees — “nah, let’s leave some better children for the world.” They’re the messages that he echoes to the kids he works with every single day, making certain that they sink in. “If you ever walk in the gym and I’m in there, you’re going to hear all of this stuff and some more,” he laughs.

As with anything, some people are more receptive to those lessons than others. “Sometimes you’re presenting flowers, you get that kid that’s already there, but most of the time you’re just throwing seeds,” he said.

“You might not see it grow that day, but down the road, when adversity comes, I call that the fertiliser. When life dumps that manure on you, then all of a sudden that seed comes to life.”

You can hear the pride in his voice as he talks about one of his favourite players, a young Afghan girl that joined the program facing plenty of barriers. “She didn’t speak English really well, and she was small in size, not really tall at all,” Williams said, “but oh my God, she played with a passion.” Even as she struggled to grasp the language while also learning more about the game, Williams says she brought an energy and attitude that inspired even him. Now, she’s a confident young woman with goals to match. “The things we talk about now, about the future for her — she wants to be one of the first women in the WNBA to wear the hijab,” he said.

Take that story, then multiply it by the hundreds or thousands of kids that Williams has worked with, and you can begin the see the impact that he has already had. After watching his players grow, he’s just excited to see what they do next. “We had our MP come by and watch and speak to our kids in one of our programs a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I said hey, one of Australia’s next prime ministers is going to come through this program, I guarantee it.”

Australia, then the world

Despite touching almost every corner of the globe while playing for Harlem, Williams never visited Australia as a player. He has fallen in love with the country now, and that’s part of the reason he’s glad to have not seen it sooner. “I ain’t even going to lie to you, the only other thing I would’ve known is what the party scene is here, the nightclubs,” he said. “If I would have come here with the team, I probably would have never ever seen the things that I’ve seen now and really gotten a chance to appreciate what Australia had to offer.”

It wasn’t until 2015, when his eldest daughter was recruited by an Australian pharmaceutical company, that he made his first trip Down Under. He says he was immediately struck by the beauty of the landscape, the people and, compared to his home country, the safety. “I was like, man, this is a great place to live,” he said. “I have travelled the world, but I had never gone anywhere where I said you know, I could live here.”

He laughs when locals say they wish they could trade passports with him— “I say, I wish you could too!”— and when Aussies that have visited New York find out where he was born and wax lyrical about the city. “I say yeah, you were in Manhattan too, right? You ain’t coming out into Canarsie or those parts of Brooklyn.”

He sounds like he would be content to stay in Sydney forever, but the same can’t be said for Charity Bounce. The organisation has already begun to spread its reach across the country, and Williams says an office in the United States was set up before COVID-19 put any overseas plans on hold.

No matter where he ends up working, Williams is looking forward to continuing to effect change, one way or another. After making a name for himself in a world where the best players have a short shelf life, he’s trying to create something that will remain long after he’s gone. “It’s legacy, man. I didn’t want people to be able to Google me and it just comes up with basketball,” he said.

“That’s my destiny, to see these kids reach theirs. That’s it in a nutshell.”