An eight-year-old Alan Williams stood in front of the cashier of a Toys R Us with his mom and his little brother. It was his brother Cody's birthday, and Jeri Williams had taken her youngest son to get a toy.
"Are you Latino? Do you have Latino in your blood?" the cashier asked Jeri, who is African-American, as are her boys.
"Why do you ask?" Jeri said.
"Well, there was a gentleman who could only speak Spanish, and I don't speak Spanish," the cashier explained. "I was trying to tell him what he needed to know, and he was trying to tell me what I needed to know, and your son walked over, pointed it out and just started translating. Telling him what I said and telling me what he said. And when it was over, he just walked off."
Alan's father, Cody Williams, relays this story over a barbecue dinner. Cody is an elected judge in Phoenix. His wife is the chief of police in Oxnard, California. And their son, Alan, is one of the best big men in college basketball—yet mostly unknown because he plays at UC Santa Barbara.
By this time next week, he's hoping his team will have won the Big West tournament and he'll be on the stage where stars are made.
"It'd be everything," Williams said of an NCAA berth. "It'd be the best experience of my college career for sure. One of the most awesome things in my life if that could happen. It's always been a dream of mine to play in the NCAA tournament."
Those who already know all about Alan are part of the advanced stats community. Alan has been a statistical wunderkind throughout his career. How often he shoots, scores and rebounds has made him a known commodity to those who closely follow the numbers.
It would bother some players as accomplished as Alan Williams to only be known by the nerdier segment that follows the game.
Only there's something different about Big Al, as he's known on the court and in the community. He answers questions like a politician, which could be his future calling considering the bloodlines. "Politics would be awesome," he says. And just like the eight-year-old inside of Toys R Us, Big Al is more into helping others than himself.
If he were any different, he'd be scoring his baskets somewhere else.
Two years ago, it was time for Big Al to think about himself.
He had just finished his sophomore season at UC Santa Barbara, and it was a breakout year for him personally. He had averaged 17.1 points and 10.7 rebounds, but he had done so on a bad team—the Gauchos went 11-20.
After the season ended, his family encouraged him to consider transferring to a bigger school where he would play against better competition on bigger stages.
Big Al struggled with the decision and talked openly to teammates about it.
"We just said, 'Do what's best for you,'" teammate T.J. Taylor said.
Instead, Big Al thought about everyone else.
"I realized that I wanted to stay loyal and stay true to the people that were with me from the beginning," he said. "UCSB had always had a great deal of interest in me. The coaching staff has been the same since I've been there, which is something rare in college basketball these days at the mid-major level. I've just been blessed with great people around me in the area and associated with the program and the school that I'm at. It's just been the perfect place for me."
Big Al slipping past the big schools in the first place was good fortune for UCSB.
He had some success in high school, but he wasn't the go-to guy until his senior season. His team won a state championship in Arizona his junior year, and he played in the shadow of Daniel Bejarano, who would sign with Arizona and is now starring at Colorado State.
He wasn't a dominant scorer for his AAU team in the summer either, so he went relatively unnoticed on the recruiting trail. He wanted to attend Arizona or Arizona State and attended the elite camps for both schools, but he never got an offer from either one. His first scholarship offer was from Eastern New Mexico, a Division II school.
It even took UCSB coach Bob Williams three times seeing him play live to become convinced that he was worth a scholarship.
"I do think, especially when he was in high school, he was a kid you had to watch more," Coach Williams says. "You had to get over the fact that he was wearing goggles. You had to get over the fact that he was fleshy. And you had to concentrate on his feet and his hands. It's two of the qualities that make him very, very special."
Genetics also helped. Cody's college career never really took off because of knee injuries, but he was good enough in high school to earn a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma.
The most valuable lesson Cody ever taught his son on the basketball court was how to overcome the Shaquille O'Neal effect—as in the propensity for officials to let fouls go when the big man is getting hammered, and reward floppers when the big fella initiates the contact.
When Alan was growing up, Cody would take both of his boys to the gym. He would have his younger son feed Alan the ball and then Pops would "beat the crap out of him."
"As soon as the ball would come in, I'd just slam his arms," Cody says.
Nobody on the court was as big and strong as his dad, who is built similarly to Big Al. So when Big Al got hacked by peers, he was able to finish through contact.
When slapping his arms didn't work, opponents would flop. Cody remembers a game when Big Al was in high school when his son kept getting called for charges that he didn't deserve. So Cody told his son to freeze as soon as he caught the ball.
Next time Big Al caught it, he stood still, and sure enough his defender flopped. Only this time the official realized what was going on and didn't blow his whistle.
Big Al wasn't really able to put these lessons to use at UCSB until his sophomore year.
When he first arrived at UCSB, he was not in good shape, and Coach Williams said he wasn't a good practice player. The aches and pains from being overweight affected his practice habits.
"When we started playing games, all of the sudden he had much better quickness, much better lift," Coach Williams says. "He had a nose for every rebounder. All of the sudden he's productive. He plays eight minutes, gets three rebounds. He plays 10 minutes, gets four rebounds. He played his way into a starting role by January."
After the season, the Gauchos graduated their three leading scorers, and Big Al had a chance to be the go-to guy, but he needed to change his habits.
When he returned from spring break, Coach Williams asked him to get on the scale. He was 295 pounds.
"I love coaching Big Al. I really do," his coach told him. "I have no interest in coaching Great Big Al."
The real transformation happened right before Big Al's junior season. He cleaned up his diet—going without carbs for a while, and he quit drinking soda—and he also focused on more cardio workouts.
By the time he returned to campus, he was more than 20 pounds lighter, and his body looked completely different.
"He had rolls. He had t---ies," Taylor says. "He doesn't have that anymore."
With his body right, his potential as a scorer was finally realized, and the wins followed.
Last season, the Gauchos force-fed him the ball so often—and this is what has garnered the most attention—that he took 37.2 percent of the team's shots when he was on the floor, according to KenPom.com. That was the fourth-highest shot rate in college basketball. UCSB won 21 games, finished second in the Big West and Big Al was named Big West Player of the Year.
|Big Al's career stats|
This season was not going as smoothly. He started the Big West season averaging only 10.3 points per game over the first three contests, and UCSB started 0-2. Then Williams hurt his shoulder at practice and was forced to miss seven games.
The Gauchos held it together—going 5-2 in his absence—and after losing his first game back, they rattled off five straight wins, including wins over the league's top two teams. They enter the Big West tournament on Thursday as the league's hottest team.
"When we play physical and we have our mindset right and we're moving the basketball around and we're defending the way that we do and rebound the way that we do, we're a pretty tough team to beat in this league," Williams said. "I think that those two games were kind of eye-opening, not only for us, because we know how good we can be, but for everyone else.
"Hopefully that momentum can carry us all the way to the championship game and beyond."
If the Gauchos are able to get there, they'll benefit from an early-season difficult schedule they played, in part, to get ready for the postseason and to get Williams some exposure.
In four games against Power Five conference schools, he averaged 19 points and 12.3 rebounds. UCSB hung tough at Kansas, losing by 10 points, and nearly upset Oregon, losing in overtime.
|Points scored on post-ups|
|1. Brad Waldow, Saint Mary’s||10.2|
|2. Jahlil Okafor, Duke||8.5|
|3. Aly Ahmed, Cal State Bakersfield||8.1|
|4. Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine||8.1|
|5. Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse||8.1|
|6. Steve Forbes, IPFW||8.0|
|7. Alan Williams, UC Santa Barbara||7.8|
Even those big-name schools have a hard time checking a big man who lives on the low blocks. Williams scored more points off post-ups last year than any player in the country, according to Synergy Sports. He ranks seventh this season in points per game scored on post-ups.
"He takes a majority of the shots, but he makes a majority of the shots," teammate John Green says. "We know that when we pass him the ball, we get a guaranteed assist."
The reason they can get him the ball so often is that he does a great job creating angles. He's creative in how he creates space too. Last year against UCLA's Tony Parker, Big Al buried his forehead into Parker's chest to get to the spot on the floor where he wanted to post up.
Once he establishes his position, his teammates have the confidence to throw the ball from almost any angle.
"He can catch the ball from damn near anywhere—low passes, high passes, even passes that aren't on target," Green says. "He has hands of glue. It just sticks to his hands."
Big Al also has learned to make quick moves, because he knows the double-teams are coming when he catches the ball deep. He's so unstoppable in the paint that some teams have used two guys to try to box him out on the offensive glass.
He worked this last offseason on expanding his game outside the paint and added a turnaround jumper. But when he can, he prefers getting to the paint. If he catches the ball near the three-point line, he'll back his man down all the way to the basket. "Butt ball," he says. "Coach calls it butt ball. Butt balling."
"I'm not a guy who's going to go out there and start shooting threes and changing that up," Big Al says. "My teammates set me up, and they should get most of the credit. Because at the end of the day, I just post up and do a move and put it in the basket."
Every Thanksgiving, Cody used to take his two sons to a large free breakfast run by his friend who owned multiple McDonald's in the Phoenix area. At the event, the elected officials in attendance—Cody was on the city counsel at the time—would address the crowd, a majority of whom were Hispanic.
The young Williams boys, who are both fluent in Spanish, would translate for their father, and anytime they got stuck on a word, people in the crowd would shout it out.
At the end of Cody's address, the crowd would erupt in applause. "I'd know it was not mine," Cody says. "It was theirs."
"That set them up to not be overly stressed by unique situations like playing at Kansas or playing at UCLA," Cody explains. "That's where you want to play."
The fact that his son has thrived against these big-name schools is a point of pride for Cody. He never got a real chance in college because of knee injuries that derailed his basketball career. But Oklahoma still honored his scholarship, and he built a political career.
The pressure that Big Al faces now as the star of a mid-major program is nothing compared to the importance that has always been placed on him as Cody and Jeri's son.
"That was the biggest thing with my upbringing. Always go out there and respect your family's name," he says. "Do things that would make the family name proud. Because at the end of the day, you're not just doing it for yourself. Everybody knows who you are because of who your parents are, and you don't want to do anything to tarnish what they've worked for. And at the same time, you want to grow up and build something of your own."
Big Al has done just that.
|UCSB all-time leading scorers|
|1. Orlando Johnson||1,825 points|
|2. Alex Harris||1,696|
|3. Carrick DeHart||1,687|
|4. James Nunnally||1,685|
|5. Alan Williams||1,670|
He's the school's all-time leading rebounder, he's second in career blocks, and he ranks fifth on the school's all-time scoring list—only 26 points short of second place.
No matter what happens this week at the Big West tournament, Big Al will go down as a UCSB great.
But much like a good politician, Big Al is always looking ahead. Looking big picture. And as of now, the man who does not for self, but for others, feels his career is incomplete.
"I ain't done nothing yet," he says. "I haven't led my team to an NCAA tournament. I haven't won a Big West championship yet. I feel like those are really important things that need to be done in order for everything else to be pieced together."
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.