Lunch Break: Sixers reality check
Michael Carter-Williams' first year at Syracuse was such a struggle that he contemplated transferring, but changed his mind. (USA Today Images)
The Golden State Warriors sideswiped the 76ers on Monday night, leaving them in a deep, deep ditch, and only belatedly is everyone pumping the brakes on the hysteria that surrounded the club’s 3-0 start and rookie point guard Michael-Carter Williams in particular.
No, it would probably not be the best idea to engrave the Rookie of the Year trophy just yet. Yes, your Sixers figure to more often resemble the team that appeared against the Warriors than the one that beat the Heat, Wizards and Bulls.
That said, MCW is an obvious keeper, the first of many building blocks in Sam Hinkie’s renovation project. The newbie handles the ball, shoots it better than expected and is a long-armed presence in the passing lanes.
Perhaps best of all is the fact that he understands just how difficult it’s going to be for him and the franchise to get from Point A to, say, Point Z. That while everyone else was taken with all he did in his first week in the NBA, he is far from taken with himself.
“It’s still early,” he said at a shootaround Monday morning, hours before the 110-90 loss to Golden State. “It’s only the first three games.”
Later that day, a gang of reporters engulfed him in the Sixers’ locker room in the Wells Fargo Center, to ask him about being named NBA Player of the Week, only the second guy in league history to earn such an honor in his first opportunity. (No less a player than Shaquille O’Neal, playing for Orlando in 1992-93, was the other.) Carter-Williams eyed the clock nervously, saying he really didn’t have time, as he was due out on the court for a pregame workout with assistant coach Lloyd Pierce.
A deal was struck: One question. Carter-Williams alternately said he was “proud,” “happy” and “thankful” about the honor, then repeated something he has said before: “My focus is on the next game, with my teammates.”
Twenty-six seconds, and he was headed toward the door. Very smooth. Very professional.
The game itself was far more trying. Faced with the unenviable tasks of guarding Stephen Curry at one end and being guarded by Klay Thompson at the other, Carter-Williams shot 4 for 17 for his 18 points, and offset his four assists with six of the Sixers’ 24 turnovers. Curry, his counterpart, had a triple-double -– 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds –- along with five steals, in a game the Warriors led by 39 before cruising home.
At that point it was possible to recall something else Carter-Williams said earlier in the day: “The worst thing that could [happen] is everyone talking about me and I don’t show up for the rest of the games. I’m just trying to stay grounded.”
New coach Brett Brown believes he is, that everything Carter-Williams has done to date –- whether the near-quadruple-double in the opener against LeBron James and Co. or the conquests of John Wall and Derrick Rose -– is “grossly exaggerated” because it came so early, so quickly. (It’s also because the expectations of the Sixers are so low, though Brown didn’t go there.)
At the same time, Brown said, “There’s no denying he’s a talent, and I’m glad he’s mine.”
If Carter-Williams sees the big picture as well as he does the court, there’s a reason. He has a firm foundation in the game, his mom, dad and stepdad having all played and coached. He understands how things work, understands what it means to be part of a greater whole –- and not just because the Massachusetts native was part of a household that included three younger siblings, as well as two of his close friends who, because of their circumstances, were taken in by his family.
He also understands patience, and how everything is a process. He played so little in the first of his two years at Syracuse that he considered transferring. He has seen his parents, Zach and Mandy Zegarowski, forced to rebuild a home destroyed by fire in March, with completion not expected until next month.
Everything, Michael Carter-Williams knows, takes time.
“I know one thing -- he’s going to want to get there (to stardom),” said Zach, his stepfather. “Whether he gets there or not, I don’t know. He’s going to work at it. He’s going to do the best he possibly can, each and every day.
"Where that goes, it goes. If he becomes an all-star, if he becomes the 10th man in two or three years, I don’t know. I just know he wants to put the effort in.”
Zegarowski was among those bemused by the overheated reaction to Carter-Williams’ first three games. A native of Salem, Mass., Zach is a big Tom Brady guy, and he recalled Brady coming under fire when he played poorly against Cincinnati earlier this season.
“Tom Brady, I think he has a pretty good resume,” Zegarowski said. “I listen to the talk shows, and I can’t believe they’re killing him. ... I’m going, ‘Holy God, what if Michael has a bad game? He hasn’t done one-one-millionth of what Tom Brady has done.’ ”
Carter-Williams appears safe for now, but check back next week. “It’s so fleeting,” Zegarowski said.
Mandy, whose maiden name is Carter, played at Mary Washington College, in Virginia, then gave up the sport when she returned to her native Massachusetts to be near her ailing mother. Mandy bore Michael in 1991, while still an undergrad at Salem (Mass.) State, and for a time she went to school and worked two jobs. Her mom also died nine months after Michael was born.
Obviously a very trying time, but also a time when mother and son forged “a really strong bond,” as Michael said. That’s because they were on their own, and because of basketball. The game always seemed to be part of their lives, so much so that Michael’s first word, uttered as he sat on their living-room floor, was “ball.”
Earl Williams, Michael’s dad, played at Salem State and later coached high school ball in Boston, and remains close to his son. But Mandy met Zach, a player at Massachusetts-Lowell, 18 months after Michael was born. The couple married in 1996, the year of Mandy’s graduation and one year after Zach’s.
They settled in her hometown, Hamilton, Mass., some 30 miles north of Boston, and expanded their family. A daughter, Masey (now 16) was first to arrive, followed a year later by twin sons, Maxwell and Marcus, now 15. All are players.
Zach served as an assistant from '96 to 2006 at Boston’s Charlestown High, a five-time state champion in that span and the subject of Neil Swidey’s 2008 book, “The Assist,” in which a youthful Michael is pictured. Mandy was head coach of the Ipswich High girls’ team for a decade, ending last year.
Zach also became Michael’s “basketball guy,” according to Mandy, working him out ceaselessly on the family’s backyard court. It’s not like she shrank into the background, though. More than once she rained instructions down on her son from a second-floor window. More than once she badgered him from a courtside lawn chair.
“It’s not something you usually see with a mother and son,” she said, “and I guess that’s where you could say the relationship is a little bit different, because I’m screaming, ‘Follow through!’ ... ‘Bend your knees!’ ... ‘Jump!’ ... ‘Nothing lazy!’ ”
There were times, Zach remembered, when Michael stormed off the court rather than listening to all that, but in time he became a polished player, first at Hamilton-Wenham High, then at St. Andrews, a Rhode Island-based boarding school. Along the way he scored over 2,000 points (“all jumpers,” Zach said), grew to his current height of 6-foot-6 and befriended James Rodriguez and Anderson Santana, teammates at his respective high school stops.
Each had had “some tough things happen in their lives,” Zach said. Each was welcomed into the Zegarowski-Carter-Williams melting pot, and remains there.
Michael committed to Syracuse as a high school sophomore, but scarcely played his first year on campus, trapped behind the perimeter triumvirate of Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters and Brandon Triche. Carter-Williams called that season “really hard.” Mandy went so far as to say it was “probably the toughest year for Michael in his life.”
“Michael wanted to transfer,” she added, “and we talked him out of it.”
Actually, that’s not entirely true, she then admitted. It was more a case of she and Zach listening to their son’s complaints and giving their blessing to a transfer, and Michael doing an abrupt about-face. No way, he told them, was he going to cut and run.
“I knew he would [stay], because that’s how he is,” she said.
While he never rediscovered the perimeter touch he displayed in high school, he did everything else as a full-time starter for a Final Four club last year, averaging 11.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists. The Sixers made him the 11th overall pick.
“Without that [first] year at Syracuse there would be no last year and there would be no this year,” Zach said. “It really humbled him, and refocused him.”
Last season was not without its travails, however. Mandy, in San Jose with her daughter to watch Michael and the Orange beat Cal in an NCAA tournament game in March, took a call from Zach, who was home with the twins. And that’s when he broke the news: A fire, originating in a faulty chimney flue, had broken out in the family’s home. Everyone had gotten out safely, but the place was left a charred ruin.
“When you lose your house, you kind of lose your identity,” Zach said.
They have been living in a relative’s summer cottage while their place is being rebuilt, and helping Michael lay the foundation of his NBA career as well. Zach, who late Tuesday night returned a call after accompanying Michael to a gym to shoot free throws –- a daily ritual -- plans to shuttle back and forth between Massachusetts and Philadelphia all season, depending on when the Sixers are home. Mandy, working around the twins’ schedule, will be in and out of town as well.
It’s a dizzying time for everyone. Michael was identified as “cruisy” by Brown early on, as a guy who appeared to go only as fast as any given situation required. But the new coach quickly discovered that MCW’s seeming nonchalance masked his competitive spirit, and Brown, a Maine native, has only been too happy to entrust the ball to his fellow New Englander.
“That really helped,” Michael said. “I’m able to play through my mistakes.”
Before Monday, there had been surprisingly few. There were only highlights, cheers, even an admiring tweet from Magic Johnson. But now Carter-Williams finds himself in a stretch that began with the game against Curry and continues with showdowns against some of the league’s best point guards. There’s a rematch with Wall on Wednesday night. Kyrie Irving in a back-to-back at the end of the week. Tony Parker next Monday.
“It’s a feel-good story right now,” Zach said. “But it can go the other way real quick.”
No one seems to understand that better than Michael. And that could make all the difference.