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Cardozo hoopster gets serious

On May 17, 2006, Jamel WilliamsÕ life as he knew it changed.

His best friend, Maurice Parker, who he affectionately referred to as his cousin, was murdered two blocks from his Flushing home, shot down in cold blood by members of the MS-13 street gang.

It was a random shooting, Williams was told by detectives, a murder by the Flushing gang to add stripes. Williams was informed he could be next. He didnÕt leave his home over the next four days except to attend ParkerÕs funeral.

ÒThatÕs a scary feeling,Ó said the then-Holy Cross sophomore.

One day later, he was shipped away, sent to Tennessee by his mother and grandmother to live with his second cousin, Robert Stewart. Williams didnÕt want to go. It felt like he was abandoning his family, including his mother, Seglinda, who has battled drug addiction for years.

The year away, though, not only ensured his safety, but taught him the value of living every moment of his life, forced him to improve his grades and, above all, sped up his maturity.

He pushed his average up to a B. His anger issues have subsided, said his grandmother, Margo Drakeford, whom he now lives with in Little Neck. And Williams is a far more controlled and unselfish player on the court.

He no longer hangs outside all hours of the night or messes around in school, instead staying home, watching television or studying.

ÒEverything is not a joke anymore,Ó he said.

ParkerÕs death, Williams said, Òtaught me to take life more seriously. You never know when youÕre going to go.Ó

When he arrived at Dobyns-Bennett High School in eastern Tennessee, he clashed with the coach there. A self-described freelance player who knew little about a set offense or pick and roll, he became a point guard, learning to balance scoring and getting his teammates involved, averaging 16 points and eight assists in leading his team to the Tennessee state tournament, its first appearance in 11 years.

Williams, one of the newest Judges who took part in CardozoÕs open practice, scrimmaged recently in front of dozens of college coaches. The Bayside schoolÕs coach, Ron Naclerio, knows very little about Williams. He has only seen the 6-foot-2 guard on the court three times.

He has been told by numerous sources Ñ coaches and former players Ñ the senior will be his best player, better than the six other transfers and his returning nucleus. Naclerio was impressed with his performance in front of the college coaches, his ability to finish in transition, willingness to find the open man, and poise with or without the ball.

ÒHeÕs very talented,Ó the longtime coach said. ÒI like him a lot.Ó

What appeals to Naclerio goes beyond a jump shot or crossover dribble. Unlike previous transfer students, or even current ones, Williams doesnÕt come to Cardozo with an ego or expectations. He is just thrilled to be back in New York, playing basketball at a high level, at home again. He will likely see time as a swingman, playing shooting guard or small forward, but should also see time at the point.

ÒHeÕs got a lot of potential,Ó guard Reynaldo ÒJuniorÓ Walters said.

Where Williams plays doesnÕt matter much now. His life is starting to come together for the first time since that tragic May evening. By the two-year anniversary of the killing, he may have a diploma in one hand and basketball scholarship in the other. Those who knew Williams before he went down to Tennessee say he has changed dramatically as a basketball player and person.

But he stills wears his scars. HeÕs building a relationship with his mother, who has been in and out of drug rehab centers. And he still thinks about Parker.

The two issues, Drakeford said, have taken their toll. When the subject is brought up, WilliamsÕ words get jumbled together, his eyes darting and speech speeding up, sentences mixing together.

Williams doesnÕt like discussing his motherÕs battle with drugs, nor does he care to relive ParkerÕs death, except as a way of showing others how cruel life can be. When the murderers were brought to justice, police told Seglinda, the weapon used in the slaying had killed 16 others. Williams has a tattoo of a cross just below his left shoulder, Maurice ParkerÕs name written underneath as a tribute.

ÒIt was a wake-up call,Ó Drakeford said.

Walters, who has played basketball with Williams for five years, noted his maturity immediately. He has yet to see him angry since he enrolled at Cardozo. Williams is taking more time with everything, whether it is class work, basketball or lifting weights.

ÒWhen you face certain obstacles growing up, you learn from them and you become better from them,Ó Walters said. ÒHe matured a lot.Ó

Although gone, Parker is still a part of WilliamsÕ life. Hanging out all hours of the day, Parker taught him the game of basketball, what it meant to take responsibility and, above all else, how precious his time on Earth can be.

ÒIÕm always thinking about him,Ó Williams said. ÒHeÕs on my mind all the time.Ó

By coming back home, Williams has moved on from that day. HeÕs one of several vital cogs on Cardozo, one of the boroughÕs PSAL contenders, joined by Edison and Forest Hills, doing what Parker wouldÕve wanted.

He has just one season there, one season to prove to college coaches he is deserving of a scholarship Ñ one year to live out his dreams on a basketball court. One year to make Parker proud. Williams would like to put up lofty numbers and win Queens AA. But he also wants to think big. Life has taught him to take advantage of this situation.

ÒI want to beat Lincoln in the Garden,Ó he said, adding: ÒThis is my chance to make something of myself.Ó

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