Williams, Natalie 1970–
Natalie Williams 1970–
Professional basketball player
The list of athletes who have reached top competitive levels in more than one sport is a short one indeed. One name that appears on that list is that of Natalie Williams, who was named to the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) all-league First Team 1999, 2000, and 2001 after consistent standout seasons with the Utah Starzz team. A gifted natural athlete who impresses observers with sheer power, Williams was also a world-class volleyball player during and after her college years at the University of California at Los Angeles in the early 1990s. In addition, she is a superior golfer, weightlifter, surfer, downhill skier, long jumper, tennis player, and softball player. And she plays keyboards, too.
Williams was born in Long Beach, California, on November 30, 1970, but grew up in Taylorsville, Utah, outside Salt Lake City. Her father Nate Williams played for nine seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA), but Natalie did not meet him until she was 16 years old. Nate Williams signed a legal agreement to refrain from contact with her after his Utah State University romance with his white, Mormon girlfriend Robyn Barker resulted in Barker’s pregnancy. Natalie Williams was raised by her mother, who struggled along on a #75-a-week secretary’s salary but made sure that her daughter had the chance to develop her athletic abilities.
Later, Williams would reflect on the unique combination of nature and nurture that formed her skills. She noticed that certain traits of her basketball playing, such as her instinctive drives to the basket, resembled her father’s style. After the Williams family reconciled father and daughter grew closer, but Nate Williams was never really Natalie’s basketball instructor; she credits her mother with having supported her athletic development. “I love my father, but I don’t think he had a lot to do with who I am,” she told Sports Illustrated.
“I don’t think I’ve had a summer to myself since I was 8,” Williams told Women’s Sports and Fitness; she attended sports camps and played in basketball, volleyball, and softball tournaments all through her high school years, many of them paid for by her mother’s overtime work hours. In her senior year, 1989, she led Taylorsville High School to state championships in both basketball and volleyball, and took the state long jump championship as an individual. That triple play got the attention of the
At a Glance…
Born November 30, 1970, in Long Beach, CA; raised in Taylorsville, UT, near Salt Lake City; parents: Nate Williams, later a professional basketball player, and Robyn; adopted twins, 2001. Education: Taylorsville High School; University of California at Los Angeles, B.A,1992.
Career: Professional basketball player; also played volleyball at top competitive levels. Led UCLA to national volleyball championship in her sophomore year; played volleyball on U.S. team at World University Games, 1991 and 1993; signed to Portland Power of Women’s American Basketball League, 1996; signed to Utah Starzz of Women’s National Basketball Association, 1999.
Awards: Pac-10 Athlete of the Decade, 1996; Utah Woman Athlete of the Century, 1996; named to All-ABL First Team and ABL All-Star Team, 1997-98; ABL Most Valuable Player, 1998; played for U.S. Olympic basketball team, 2000; named to All-WNBA First Team, 2001.
Addresses: Team office—Utah Starzz, 301 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84101.
women’s athletics program at the University of California at Los Angeles. Focused intensely on athletics, Williams never had much time to think about her biracial background, unusual in homogeneous Utah. “I guess I knew I was black, but I didn’t feel like I was,” she told Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t know how to act black. I don’t talk black. I have a Utah twang.”
Williams’s multiple talents became evident early on in her collegiate career; in basketball she averaged 14.2 points per game as a freshman, and she led the UCLA volleyball team to a national championship as a sophomore (winning an Asics/Volleyball Monthly player of the year honor in the process). She played both basketball and volleyball for all four years of her attendance at UCLA and was named the Pac-10 conference Athlete of the Decade in both sports. Once she even played in both a basketball game (an exhibition contest) and a volleyball game on the same day—a feat thought to be unique in college sports history.
“Sometimes I just want to be a student,” Williams told Women’s Sports and Fitness at the time. A woman gifted with a knack for putting animals at ease, Williams hoped to become a veterinarian after graduating from UCLA in 1992 (her college major was sociology). But it became clear that she had the talent to continue with sports past the college level. Despite her size and her sheer aggressive enthusiasm as a basketball rebounder, she focused on volleyball at first.
Representing the United States on a volleyball team that played in the 1991 and 1993 World University Games, Williams set her sights on the highest prize in the still predominantly amateur sport of volleyball: an appearance in the 1996 Olympic Games. Despite several seasons of training with the nation’s elite players, Williams was cut from the squad. “I was extremely disappointed,” she told Sports Illustrated for Kids. “The hardest thing for me was watching the team walk into the stadium for the opening ceremony. I started crying. I wanted to be there so much.”
Fortunately, however, Williams had her second career to fall back upon. Signed to the Portland Power of the Women’s American Basketball League, she played two strong seasons before the league disbanded in 1998. In both 1997 and 1998 she was named to the All-ABL All-Star Team, and in her second year she was honored as the league’s Most Valuable Player. After the breakup of the ABL, Williams was an object of keen attention in the 1999 WNBA draft. She was picked third by a team that was a perfect fit for her—the Utah Starzz. An enthused Williams pointed out that she had some 150 family members in the Salt Lake City area.
Williams flourished from the start with the Utah team, averaging nearly 17 points per game over the 1999, 2000, and 2001 seasons and finishing among the league’s top scorers. She also pulled down over 10 rebounds per game and led the league in rebounds in 2000, provoking comparisons with another Utah power forward, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. Malone, whom Williams had always admired, encouraged her after she lost her Portland slot. “He said he hoped that Utah got me because they needed a powerful player in the post [the area at the basket end of the court’s key-shaped” lane “],” Williams told the Washington Post. “That really made me feel good; it was a big compliment, coming from ‘The Man.’ I like to be very aggressive in the post area; he’s the same way.”
In the year 2000, Williams finally fulfilled her Olympic dreams, playing for the U.S. team at the summer games in Sydney, Australia, that year. By that time, with her shoulder-length blonde hair and her spectacular combination of power and grace, she had emerged as a real star in Utah; fans voted her Utah’s female Athlete of the Century. Named to the all-WNBA first team in 2001, she was one of only two players who had made the team during each year they had played in the WNBA. She also adopted twins. If Natalie Williams continues this pace, she will be regarded as one of the great basketball players in history.
Salt Lake Tribune, August 31, 2001.
Sports Illustrated, December 24, 1990, p. 79; February 22, 1993, p. 36.
Washington Post, June 10, 1999, p. H7.
Women’s Sports and Fitness, September 1991, p. 56.
Women’s National Basketball Association, http://www.wnba.com
—James M. Manheim
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