The end of the professional athlete life cycle can happen quickly.
Five months ago, Deron Williams was playing on pro basketball's biggest stage, the NBA Finals, alongside LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Today, he's your casual hoops fan.
On opening night, as his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, took on the Boston Celtics in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch, Williams was at his Dallas home, cooking with his wife, Amy. He had planned on watching the game that was playing in the other room but got sidetracked in the kitchen, only learning of Gordon Hayward's horrific injury through a series of text messages from friends. He tried again for the night's second marquee matchup but failed at watching that as well.
"I started to watch the Houston game [against Golden State], but the ceremony was taking so long. I didn't want to watch that, and I think I turned something else on then fell asleep," said Williams in a phone interview with B/R in late October.
"I'm disconnected from basketball life right now."
Williams is a free agent. He's not retired, but he's not necessarily looking either. Caught somewhere between anxiety and indifference, the 33-year-old three-time All-Star is experiencing his first fall in over a decade without an NBA team to report to.
He combats his new reality by staying busy. Prior to opening night, he had just returned to Dallas from a golf trip in Monterey, California. He has gone back and forth between his homes in Texas and the place in Park City, Utah, close to where his NBA career began.
"I love the outdoors. I love to golf. It has great golf in the summer," Williams said of maintaining a home in Utah. "My family loves to ski. I've never skied, but now that I'm not playing, I would want to try skiing."
He also monitors and manages his multiple business ventures, from his upscale MMA gym in Dallas, Fortis MMA, to his stake in Rockwell Watches, to his real estate properties. The singer Adele recently rented the gargantuan Tribeca rooftop condo he owns and lived in during his tenure with the Brooklyn Nets, according to Elle Decor's Kelsey Kloss. Every week or so, Deron records an MMA/sports podcast called Ballers and Brawlers with two friends he made during his Utah days.
But most importantly, he has more time to be around his wife and four kids, the eldest of whom, daughter Danae, started high school this year. It is the stability he has been yearning for after playing for three teams in the past three years.
"The guy is an amazing family man, and I know he is loving right now spending time with his family and kids," said his friend and co-host of Ballers and Brawlers, Johnny Riche. "But even in our last podcast, he said, 'I could get stir crazy. I could get antsy. My wife might get sick of looking at my face, and I got to do something.'"
Could that "something" be getting back into the NBA? Sure, he thinks about it. He's salty over how his Finals appearance with the Cavs—2-for-16 against the Warriors—played out and would like to write a new ending to his NBA story.
But the story of Williams' life right now is not one of a man who can't let the game go. It's one of a man who wants to play or not play on his own terms.
"Basketball doesn't define me as a person. If this is my last season or I'm done playing basketball at this point, I feel like I could look back and say I had a great career," Williams said. "Not many guys get to play 12 years in the NBA and win gold medals and get to compete for a championship. So, I got a lot to be proud about."
Williams is outrageously regular. His Instagram feed gives off more of the vibe of a soccer dad than of an NBA star who made more than $141 million in career earnings (not including endorsements), according to Basketball Reference. His posts are free of expensive cars, exotic trips and famous friends. There's barely even an acknowledgement on there that he played professional basketball.
Rather, he posts constantly about his wife and kids, golf, MMA and the Pittsburgh Steelers. When you talk to him, you quickly discover how easy going, funny and likable he is.
"He has a great sense of humor. He's a great guy," said former teammate Brook Lopez, who fondly recalls the epic Halloween parties Williams hosted. "A lot of people might think he's stoic, but that's not him at all."
In this respect, there are things he does not miss about working in the public eye. Being a humble family man can contradict a profession that comes with constant invasiveness and scrutiny. Politics, internet trolls and, especially, the media, top his pet peeves list. It is not surprising he has had a rocky relationship with reporters—most notably during his tenure in Brooklyn.
"I'm the type of person who gets annoyed easily with the same questions or dumb questions," Williams said. "So, I don't like questions about me. I don't like to talk about myself, honestly."
Williams feels he has been burned multiple times in the press, particularly by the New York media. There was the time he raved about living in New York City to local lifestyle publication Resident but admitted he faced challenges in sending his four young children to different schools. "It was a tough situation, but that doesn't even matter," he said of a resulting New York Post article. "The title of the story is like 'I don't like New York.'"
He also scoffs at circumstantial stories constructed by "sources." In one instance, he reportedly argued with coach Jason Kidd in practice. That resulted in their playing one-on-one to settle it. In another, Deron decided to coach practice after Avery Johnson was fired.
Williams quips: "Me and Donald Trump don't agree on anything except fake news."
Media personalities such as Stephen A. Smith were often critical of Williams' inability to be a franchise player and live up to his massive contract. Williams shrugged it off. "People like that just like to hear themselves talk and to bring other people down," he said. "They get off on it; they have bigger egos than half the NBA."
"I definitely think there are some unfair assumptions that were created by the media, but it's always tough playing in the market we did out there," added Lopez, who was traded to the Lakers in the offseason. "They were always looking for something."
But if you can't beat them, join them. During his stint with Cleveland, Williams appeared on then-teammates Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson's popular podcast Road Trippin' and instantly enjoyed the experience. He felt it was a platform he could be himself, without being jaded and where no journalist could take his words out of context.
In the offseason, he teamed up with Riche, a former local MMA fighter in Utah and TV commentator, and Sean O'Connell, a UFC veteran and sports broadcasting professional. They have had guests from Jefferson to UFC fighter Court McGee.
"This is something that we can enjoy and make it about MMA, but also we talk about anything," said Williams, a former high school wrestler. "We're not just going to have MMA fighters on. We'll have basketball players. We had a hockey player, a golfer, all sports. We talk about what they go through, relate it maybe to MMA if they have a love for it or any stories or whatever. It's just a fun way to shoot the crap really."
Riche says Williams has advanced knowledge on MMA, and the former fighter can envision MMA commentary in Williams' future after his playing days.
"If he picks a guy he thinks is going to win, he's really going to lay it all out why that guy is going to win," Riche said. "And not just because of that guy's persona, but Deron is almost a statistician. He knows their wins, their losses, how they've lost. He's like an encyclopedia of fight knowledge. He's cool, calm, collected on the radio because it's truly what he knows and he loves talking about it."
Williams says his top-five dream guests would include LeBron ("gotta have the King on"), James Harrison from the Steelers ("I just think he's awesome"), Phil Mickelson and Barack Obama ("just because").
His last one? There is a long pause followed by an awkward chuckle. He hates talking about himself.
"Hmm…this is a tough question right now. See, this is why I don't like doing media. I'd want Mike Tyson for sure."
So about that Warriors series…
Williams wasn't on the court much during the Finals. He averaged just 12.2 minutes in five games (versus 20.3 minutes in 24 regular-season games with the Cavs), as his role and minutes steadily decreased as each playoff round passed. When he did see action, his play seemed a step behind his matchups. He couldn't get around Warriors defenders, and on the other end, he couldn't stay in front of them. His 12.5 field-goal percentage became an unfavorable storyline.
"I definitely didn't go out the way I want to," Williams said, "if this is how it ends."
It was a performance that was not indicative of his output earlier that season, where he averaged a respectable 7.5 points and 3.6 assists in a backup role with Cleveland. The matchup was unfavorable for him against the Warriors, which also was a poor reflection of his accomplished career, where not long ago, he was the scouting report nightmare for opposing teams.
"Deron was a very, very good player," Hall of Fame power forward and former NBA coach Kevin McHale said. "The one thing is, he shot it well so you had to get up on him. He could make plays for others, so if you got up on him and he got by you, he could draw two and kick the ball. He finished in the paint well—he wasn't a Kyrie Irving-type finisher—but he was big and strong: get a little contact and get to the line. He was a hard guy to defend."
The University of Illinois product was drafted third overall by the Jazz in 2005, a spot ahead of Chris Paul. Particularly in his early years in Utah, the mainstream public used to debate who was the better point guard.
"I definitely had my best years in Utah—as a team my best years, individually my best years and the most fun playing the game of basketball early on," Williams said.
Despite receiving All-Star nods and All-NBA accolades with the Jazz, he was clashing with legendary head coach Jerry Sloan by the 2010-11 season. Midway through that campaign, he was shipped off to the Nets.
"I don't think Deron was ever the same [after] he left Utah. He just…I don't know, there was just something about it," said McHale, now a TV analyst for TNT and NBA TV. "His numbers may have looked the same, but his game wasn't the same."
After a 2011-12 campaign where he averaged 21.0 points and 8.7 assists, the Nets rewarded Williams with a five-year, $98.7 million deal in the summer of 2012, as the team transitioned from Newark, New Jersey, to Brooklyn. With the combination of Williams, Lopez and the newly acquired Joe Johnson, from Atlanta, the Nets were poised to dethrone the Knicks as New York's team.
But the results were tepid, if not disappointing. Despite its high payroll, the team never advanced past the second round. There was a carrousel of coaching changes. There were chemistry issues, and high-priced gambles such as trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett flopped. Injuries slowed Williams, and he reportedly fell out again with coaches—this time, Avery Johnson and Kidd.
"Being injured sucks. It ruined my confidence, not being able to do the things I could do, because I was playing on two bad ankles so long, it just took a lot out of me," said Williams, who added he and his family enjoyed living in New York City and building lasting friendships. "Caused me to be depressed, hate basketball at times."
Teammates could sense their point guard's frustration.
"I wouldn't say standoffish. He and I were never standoffish. I would say he probably kept to himself a little more as he was getting through injuries," said Lopez, who played four-and-a-half seasons with Williams. "I get that. I've been through my share of injuries, no question. You are in your own little world."
In July 2015, the Nets bought out Williams' remaining contract. He spent a season-and-a-half with a struggling Mavericks team before the powerhouse Cavaliers threw him a lifeline midway through last season.
"When he went to Cleveland, I thought, OK this is going to be good for Williams," McHale said. "And he had moments there. It just didn't seem like that was a great fit either."
A traditional point guard, Williams often looked lost in Cleveland's LeBron- and Kyrie-dominant system. His lowest point came in the Finals.
"I feel like things would have been different if I were there from the start and I would have got a whole camp in and been there through the whole season," Williams said. "But it's also tough because who you are playing with. When you are playing with the greatest player in the game and I'm playing behind arguably one of the best point guards in the game in Kyrie, who is a phenomenal one-on-one player who can do anything. I'm just not used to sitting in the corner and having to hit shots."
He continued: "I've never done that. I'm not a Derek Fisher-type point guard where I can sit in the corner and all of a sudden just hit a big shot. I'm a rhythm player. I usually have the ball in my hands. It's just hard for me to play just four minutes and have to hit the two shots that come to me without getting in any flow, getting warmed up or anything."
In between golf, podcasting and father duties, Williams has been in the gym. It is not dad-bod season yet.
"I'm still young. I still love basketball. I'm definitely still staying in shape," Williams said. "Just in case something happens, and the right situation comes along—that's a big if right now."
"We just had Justin Anderson on our podcast, and I could tell when Deron was talking to Justin that he was inquisitive, like, 'Hey, how's training camp going?' 'What's happening with the league?'" added Riche. "To me, I could see that light in his eye. I could see he was still really interested in the game."
Finding the right NBA situation would be complicated. He does not want to uproot his family again. With kids who include a daughter in high school and an autistic son, their comfort and happiness is Williams' top priority. Embarking on a new NBA journey solo doesn't appeal to him either.
"I really didn't like being in Cleveland away from my family, even for the four months that I was there," Williams said. "I need them in my everyday life for me to function right. I'm not interested in doing that either, so that's why I'm not on a team right now.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen this year. I'm just kind of taking it day to day. If Jeff [Schwartz, Williams' agent] brings me something that interests me, then I'll talk to my wife about it and go from there."
Finding the right fit from a basketball standpoint would be challenging as well. Does he need to be the primary ball-handler? Is he a starter or a backup?
"He can still play in this league," McHale said. "I still think he can help a team. Unfortunately for a lot of guys, Father Time catches up to you, and that's a very unforgiving position, trying to play in the backcourt in the NBA."
"I feel like I can adapt to anything," Williams said. "I would like to play more than 10 minutes a game. Like I said, I never wanted to be a guy who plays eight minutes a game and is stuck on the bench, so I've made enough money, there's other things that I could be doing."
For now, that's what he's doing. It's his way of stalling. Everything is in place for a successful transition for life after basketball, but conflicting feelings and a desire for a better ending are keeping him from moving on and accepting just being a spectator.
"I don't know if I'm done playing basketball. I got to wait and close that chapter first before anything else happens."
In the meantime, he seems to be OK in his role as an ordinary citizen.