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West Orange Times & Observer Friday, Mar. 18, 2022 3 months ago

Heart of a Lion: Foundation basketball player nominated for Naismith Courage Award

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Foundation Academy senior Justin Williams has had a long road, but is now a finalist for a national award.
by: Chris Martucci Sports Editor

Imagine being born with a condition that limits your ability to use your hands for normal everyday tasks and affects your whole body. Now imagine having the determination to live your best life — not only in everyday activities but in sports, as well.

That is the life Foundation Academy senior basketball player Justin Williams lives every day, and he does it with a smile on his face. 

That perseverance has paid off for him as he has been nominated for the Naismith Courage Award, an award given to one male and female basketball player around the country who has consistently gone above and beyond throughout the basketball season and has demonstrated courage in their approach to their team, school and community. 

Williams was born with Apert Syndrome, a disease that fuses one’s skull bones together prematurely and causes distortions in the head and face. The bones in his fingers and toes are fused together too, which gives him mitten-like hands and webbed toes. 

There is no cure for Apert Syndrome. Because of this, Williams has had to endure 12 surgeries over his life to keep his bones from completely fusing together. The latest was in 2018. 

Even with all these challenges being dealt to him at birth, Williams has not let his condition stop him in any way. In fact, he said, it has become an asset to him in standing out in the crowd. 

“Foundation is such a great school,” Justin Williams said. “They know my story and what I’ve gone through and have helped me along the way. The coaches have been great in pushing me just like anybody else and have made me a great basketball player in the process.” 

While Williams isn’t the leading scorer or go-to option when they need a big shot, he contributed to Foundation’s success by being the official team-spirit guy. When the team is down and in need of a morale boost, Justin Williams is usually there to deliver it. 

His attitude and demeanor has left a lasting impact on Foundation head coach Nate Hughes.

“I wish all my players were like Justin in the way he carries himself,” he said. “He never complains or has any excuses for the way God made him. He’s the heart and soul of our team. That’s the long and short of it. He keeps everyone together and is a great team player.” 

During the times Williams is on the court, everyone in the gym is behind him, even those on the opposing team. That wave of support from everyone was something his parents, John and Stacy Williams, didn’t expect when Justin was born. 

“It overwhelms a momma’s heart,” Stacy Williams said. “When he plays, the crowd turns different. Justin has always been the kind of person that gets everyone into the game. It’s overwhelming to watch him play because everybody gets excited.” 

When the news reached the Williamses that their son had been nominated for the Naismith Courage Award, they were thrilled at the amazing honor to be nominated. 

“I wasn’t surprised,” John Williams said. “(Justin)’s kind of a famous guy. He’s highly recognizable, everybody knows his name. It’s just an amazing story.” 

From the beginning, John and Stacy Williams were unsure of what to do because they had no resources to help them raise a child with Apert Syndrome. But they chose to raise him like they would any other child. Even so, they didn’t expect him to live the life he has lived so far. 

“When you have kids, you have expectations, so when things don’t go the way you expected, you don’t know if he’s going to be able to do all the things the other kids do,” Stacy Williams said. “We never treated him any different than anybody else.” 

Justin’s love of sports was influenced by his many cousins. He’d join in games with them and be treated no differently than the rest of them. Even so, there were several difficulties along the way. One such thing was having to learn cursive writing. 

“I was like ‘Come on, man,’” John Williams said. “But he can do it better than I can. He can write cursive great now.” 

“If Justin can do it, everyone can,” Stacy Williams said. 

With his senior year drawing to a close, Justin Williams has his plan laid out for what he’s going to do next. He said he’ll attend Valencia College before moving on to the University of Florida. 

One of his favorite memories was scoring 17 points in a game for the Lions. He’s proud of always being the guy who kept a positive outlook, too. He hopes his story will serve as an inspiration to others with Apert. 

“I want to be remembered as a great role player who did everything he could for the team,” Williams said. 

The Atlanta Tip Off, the organization that awards the Naismith Awards, will name the winners April 12. 

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Chris Martucci is the sports editor for the West Orange Times & Observer,  Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. He holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri — Columbia School of Journalism, as well as a bachelor's degree in...

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