Jerome Williams has stayed true to form after all these years: still hungry, still hustling. Still doing whatever it takes to make those around him better.
It's the mentality that earned him his iconic "Junkyard Dog" nickname, and made him a beloved teammate in stops with the Detroit Pistons, Toronto Raptors, New York Knicks, and Chicago Bulls over his nine-year NBA career. Perhaps more importantly, it's the drive that bought Williams respect in whatever community he's called home, from each of his NBA cities, to Washington, D.C. (where he attended Georgetown), to coaching at Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, to his charity work abroad.
Now, the 45-year-old is applying his wealth of experience to the burgeoning world of three-on-three basketball. As the president of the recently announced Young3 initiative, Williams is going back to his roots in hopes of cultivating three-on-three basketball's expansion from the ground up.
The half-court cousin of the five-a-side game has been legitimized of late. It's no longer just the sport of college rec centers and kids playing in the driveway. Between the announcement that three-on-three basketball will be on the Olympic program for the 2020 Tokyo Games, and the success of last summer's inaugural season of the BIG3 - the barnstorming three-on-three league featuring a host of retired NBA stars and co-founded by Ice Cube - the sport is breaking through on all fronts. Sowing seeds at the youth level is the next step in ensuring its long-term future.
"What BIG3 did is it opened up kids' eyes," Williams told theScore in early June. "'Wow, ex-NBA players are playing 3-on-3 professionally.' So they say, 'Hmm that's a thought, maybe I could do that.' Then it becomes an Olympic sport and they say, 'Whoa, hold on; that means I could train for something and get a gold medal?' ...
"Then it comes down to, 'Where do I go to get trained in 3-on-3 basketball?' That's where the Young3 comes in."
On each Thursday prior to Friday's main events on the BIG3 tour this summer, Williams' Young3 will host three-on-three skills clinics and tournaments for kids ages 7-14.
Beyond promoting physical activity, instilling confidence, and giving kids a constructive outlet, Young3's three-on-three basketball offers a unique atmosphere for player development - one that Williams said has serious benefits over five-on-five.
"That's where I developed my game for the NBA," he said.
Though Williams never averaged double digits in scoring in any of his nine NBA seasons, the 6-foot-9 forward was the glue that bound his teams together. In the heart of his career, from 1999-2004, he averaged 7.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game, crashing around the court with a joyful abandon that made him a fan favorite.
"For the most part, the teams I came to in the NBA didn't need scoring," Williams said. "They needed people to set good screens, rebound, and play good defense. They still needed to be able to score, but that was something that they didn't need to be relied upon to do. That's where the development of the Junkyard Dog mentality (came from). When I was playing, that was my number one priority. And the fans took notice. They really appreciated the hustle, the hard work, and that type of drive."
Given its technical differences with five-on-five basketball, it's not hard to see how Williams' all-around pro game found its roots in three-on-three ball, where weaknesses in one's game become much more pronounced.
"In five-on-five, you can pick your spots," he said. "You can say, 'Hey, I'm just a shooter,' and then they can hide you on defense. You can say, 'I'm just a rebounder,' and then they can hide you on offense. You can say, 'I'm just a defender,' in five-on-five, but in three-on-three you have to have all the skills. ... You can't hide, you have to do something."
There's no hiding three-on-three's growth potential, either. Traditionalists may balk at the idea of it being an Olympic sport, but as soon as one nation is crowned the first three-on-three Olympic champion, the heightened stakes will come into focus, fertilizing the sport's appeal.
As for Williams, the unique and powerful connection between the pro players of the past and the young hoopers of tomorrow is a crucial aspect of his lifelong approach to youth mentorship.
"I just enjoy giving back," said Williams, who has been involved in various initiatives like The JYD Project, Shooting for Peace, and Basketball Without Borders since his playing days. "I enjoy doing programs for kids to give them an outlet. Just remembering my time as a youth, if I ever had a chance to work with an NBA player, how much that would've meant to me."
Beyond that instant gratification of helping out, it could take much longer for Williams to see the results of the seeds sown by the Young3. As early as 2020, but more realistically in 2024 and onward, a member of this summer's cohort could very well stand on an Olympic podium.