Judging by the reactions of people who wonder why he’s in the state, Deron Williams might hold the distinction of Most Surprising Utahn.
Yet, seven years after his messy final month as an employee of Utah’s flagship professional sports franchise, Williams is relieved to have rid himself of another title: Most Vilified Former Jazzman. The Jazz have rebuilt themselves twice in this decade, requiring a long climb after the 2011 trade of Williams to New Jersey and then a much shorter recovery period after Gordon Hayward went to Boston in free agency last summer.
The franchise’s performance this past season impressed Williams during his first winter away from the NBA, as the Jazz won another playoff series. “I don’t think anybody expected that, after losing Gordon,” Williams said. Fans “were ready to blow up the world when he left. I’ll tell you what, he took over Public Enemy No. 1 from me, real quick.”
And then Williams smiles mischievously, as if he’s dribbling toward the 3-point line, stopping and delivering a big shot: “Thanks, Gordon.”
He’s in a fairly good mood for someone who just posted a 6-over-par 78 — having deserved a much better score, based on his good ball-striking and frustrating, edge-burning series of putts — in the first round of the Provo Open at East Bay Golf Course. This is not a celebrity appearance stemming from a special invitation, as Greg Ostertag, Kyle Korver and Williams received to play in the Utah Open during their time with the Jazz.
PROVO OPEN: First-round leaders (a-amateur). 63 – Steele Dewald. 65 – Justin Keiley, a-Kyler Dunkle. 66 – Braxton Miller, Patrick Fishburn, CJ Lee. 67 – Mark Owen, a-Derek Penman, Milo Lines.
Williams is in Provo, a year after playing for Cleveland in the NBA Finals, just because he loves golf and craves competition. And because he’s a Utahn, spending most of the summer in Park City with his wife and four children, escaping the Texas heat. Winters are in the picture as well, now that he’s finished with basketball (although not officially retired) at age 33 and has discovered skiing, learning so quickly that he was tackling black-diamond runs by his third day on the slopes.
“I love Park City,” Williams said. “There’s just a lot to do, and I made a lot of great friends. … It suits my lifestyle. People are nice ...”
Except, well, for the folks he regularly encounters who want to know what Deron Williams is doing in a place where he’ll forever be perceived as the player who drove the legendary Jerry Sloan out of coaching in February 2011 — two weeks before the Jazz traded him to the then-New Jersey Nets.
Utahns like people who like Utah. This guy loves Utah, coming across an ambassador for Glenwild Golf Club and the Park City Chamber of Commerce and a major advocate of the Jazz organization and expressing thanks to Sloan and the Miller family. So all of this makes Williams an interesting case study. In one sense, the enduring image of him is of a player who was continually booed when he came back to Salt Lake City and never will be forgiven around here.
And now he’s Deron Williams, Utahn? “I get it all the time,” he said: “ ‘What are you doing in Utah?’ ‘I live here. What are you doing here?’ ”
That’s a plausible conversation, judging by my dealings with Williams’ over his five-plus seasons with the Jazz, and occasional visits in the years that followed. Good questions almost always received an engaging response. Other stuff? He never plays along with just anything tossed at him. That’s fair.
He certainly warmed to the subject of the Jazz. I was the one who pointed out how the current Jazz haven’t matched the 54 wins of his 2007-08 team. Williams expects that standard to be overtaken soon. “That Donovan Mitchell kid is something special,” he said. “They’ll have a good team for a lot of years to come.”
Reflecting on his Jazz career, he said, “I had a great time. It gets overshadowed by how things ended. For me, I remember more of the good than the bad — and there wasn’t much bad. The Jazz were definitely my favorite team to play with. Coach Sloan was my favorite coach to play for, regardless of what everybody thinks.”
And so it went Thursday, when the novelty of being one year removed from the NBA Finals and playing in the Provo Open didn’t register with him as any kind of oddity. He acknowledged being “definitely more nervous” on the course than on the court, even in the Finals — considering he didn’t play much for the Cavaliers last June, as he wryly pointed out.
Sporting a 3.9 handicap index at Glenwild, Williams has improved steadily as a golfer. His swing is athletic and effortless, with an abbreviated follow-through that gets even shorter when he misses a shot. When he teed off with an iron for the sake of accuracy on the par-5 No. 13, I sensed trouble when he dropped the club soon after making contact. Sure enough, splash. Yet in a classic illustration of the nature of golf, Williams took a penalty stroke and ended up saving par with a 60-foot putt — on a day when he lipped out three times and made hardly anything else beyond a tap-in. “That’s how the game goes,” he said.
Williams’ demeanor was interesting. In the middle of that 13th hole, having hit his worst shot of the day, he was the nicest version of himself. The other members of his threesome, East Bay regulars Derek Hislop and Taylor Hollingshaus, left the course looking forward another round with him Friday afternoon. In advance of Hollingshaus’ 8:50 a.m. starting time Thursday, East Bay pro Brett Watson asked him, “Do you know your pairing? It’s with Deron Williams.”
He just shrugged. And then he walked onto the practice green, saw the former NBA All-Star and realized, “It’s that Deron Williams.”
Yeah, the Utahn.
ABOUT DERON WILLIAMS
Family • Wife, Amy; two daughters and two sons.
Jazz career • 2005-11; 439 games, 17.3 points, 9.1 assists. Team averaged 51.5 victories and won four playoff series in 2007-10.
NBA career • 2005-17; 845 games with four teams, 16.3 points, 8.1 assists. Appeared with Cleveland in the 2017 NBA Finals.
Home course • Glenwild Golf Club & Spa.
Handicap index: 3.9.