Duquesne: Big man could be big find

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Get something straight: Morakinyo Williams isn't a basketball vagabond.

Even though he attended three high schools and Duquesne is the second college for the 21-year-old sophomore from just outside Birmingham (England, not Alabama), the people closest to him are certain that isn't the correct tag for him.

"I'm not sure that would be accurate," said Pete Davey, a Virginian whose family opened its home to Williams in July 2006 and remains close.

"In a lot of this, he didn't have a choice; forces moved him. He was just pushed or pulled in a direction. A vagabond is someone who moves willingly, of his own accord. And that hasn't always been the case with him."

It surely hasn't.

How Morakinyo Michael Williams -- some call him "Mike" -- arrived at Duquesne and started to take root as the Dukes' center is a story complete with deportation, survival through big-time high school basketball's meat-market culture, two host family situations that ended poorly, a stint at Kentucky that didn't go as planned, a heart procedure and feelings now and again, no matter how hard he tries to fight them off, of homesickness.

"But I feel like everything is starting to be really positive for me right now," said Williams, the fourth 7-footer in Duquesne history and first since Ricky Lopes played for the Dukes from 1992-94. "The last couple of weeks we've lost some close games, but I feel like people here at Duquesne are beginning to see I could have a good future."

It's a future that never would have materialized had he not decided to pick up a basketball and begin playing at 13 -- if for no other reason than his hulking size.

Asked when it first became noticeable that he was larger than his peers, Williams quickly shot back, "Always."

"When I was 12, I was 6 feet 1. By the time I was 13, I was up to 6-6, and at 14, I was all the way up to 6-8 already. I just kept growing."

So did his basketball game -- so much so that he went to a tryout camp in Chester, England, when he was 14 to be seen by the right people.

After all, the scuttlebutt was that there might be a chance that if a strong enough impression was made, the people who facilitated the workout had contacts in the United States and could use them.

"Me and another kid got approached," Williams said. "And going to the States was something I wanted to do."

With the blessing of his mother, Patricia Oke, and older brother Ola Oke -- Williams has a limited relationship with his father, who lives in Nigeria -- he was off to the United States at age 14, headed for basketball-rich Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C.

That first trip lasted one day.

The totality of his initial American experience was the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility at Dulles International Airport.

"I got deported, didn't even make it out of customs," Williams said. "They fingerprinted me, questioned me, weighed me, took pictures of me. It was bad. Then, later that day, they sent me right back on a plane home."

Because of a problem with Williams' student visa paperwork, a red flag went up and he was denied admission to the United States. After getting his documentation in order and arriving late, he started attending Archbishop Carroll as a freshman.

That school -- and the host family he was living with -- didn't work out, Williams said, because "there were a lot of things going on with that family and they weren't ready to host someone."

So after a stint at a D.C. public school to finish his freshman year, he was off to Bishop Ireton in nearby Alexandria, Va., where Williams attended grades 10-12.

Davey, who is the director of technology at Bishop Ireton, said he was concerned that the people with whom Williams was living were "shopping him around as a basketball commodity." Just before Williams' senior year, Davey took legal guardianship of Williams, moving him in with his wife and two children.

In the recruiting process -- largely because of his size -- Williams was noticed by former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.

Smith offered a scholarship, Williams accepted and it seemed a perfect match.

The Kentucky assistant who was the point man in Williams' recruitment was Scott Rigot, now an assistant to Ron Everhart at Duquesne.

"We just liked what we saw in him," Rigot said. "Great hands, great kid, very intelligent kid, and he worked so hard to get better."

But the Tubby Smith-Morakinyo Williams match never happened. Smith left for Minnesota as Williams' senior year of high school was winding down.

After an assurance by Smith's replacement, Billy Gillispie, that he would be given a fair shake, Williams decided to stick with his commitment to Kentucky.

He averaged 0.8 points and one rebound in five games and did not get to play in the final 19 contests. All four points Williams scored in his Kentucky career came against Central Arkansas in his first game.

"And we didn't have the best relationship, me and Gillispie," Williams said. "I got on his bad side for something that I could never figure out, and it was like I was done. There was no chance to get back on a good side. It was a strange situation."

One that benefited Duquesne.

When Williams was released from his Kentucky scholarship, he considered Tulane, Penn, American and a few others, but after visiting Duquesne -- and having a familiar person there in Rigot -- Williams quickly understood the opportunity Everhart's program afforded him was a precise match.

There was a stipulation.

"All we asked was that he keep working hard," Rigot said of Williams, who weighs about 272 pounds but ideally would like to be 255. "He needed to make sure to keep his weight down. He needed to continue to understand that it just wasn't going to be given to him."

Last season, Williams -- who will earn his degree in communications this summer -- had to sit out due to NCAA transfer guidelines. He used that time to tune up his game and transform his body into a more toned, muscular mass.

Fall workouts came and went and as the season approached, he looked to be a pivotal cog in Everhart's plans.

Then, in the early stages of this season, he felt his heart racing a few times.

"This pounding in my chest," he said. "It just didn't feel right."

The heart monitor Duquesne trainers attached to him verified Williams' suspicions.

Something was wrong.

He had supraventricular tachycardia, a condition characterized by occasional rapid heartbeats.

When Williams should have been practicing with the Dukes, he instead was being prepped for surgery at UPMC Shadyside.

Williams missed an early portion of this season with the successful surgery and recovery -- a total of about 21/2 weeks -- and has been slowly making his way back.

But there has been a huge upswing as of late.

Williams has played in nine games this year; in the first six, he averaged less than five minutes, but in the past three (all Atlantic 10 Conference contests) his minutes have spiked to more than 21 per game.

In three conference games, Williams has not committed a turnover and, although he has scored just five points in that stretch, his improvement is evident.

He alters opponents' shots, he hedges to the dribbler and he forces the opposing offense to deviate. On offense, he has developed a baby hook and is working on becoming more assertive when he catches the basketball. And Williams has two more seasons of eligibility remaining.

"I know he can really make a big difference for us," Rigot said. "I think the main thing with him is that there's no question he has a lot of potential; we are trying to help him maximize it. He's already come a long way."

He sure has -- in a lot of regards.

Colin Dunlap can be reached at cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459. First Published January 18, 2010 5:00 AM


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