Kevin Willis was Dwight Howard before Dwight Howard. Throughout his lengthy 20-year NBA career, Willis has maintained tremendous shape, was an NBA All-Star in 1992 and won an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003.
After he retired from the NBA, Willis had time to recall how he first arrived in San Antonio. The team meeting was scheduled at a ranch of team’s owner, Peter Holt.
“On the back of the property, there was a river flowing through it that you could actually get in and swim,” Willis recalled. “There was mountain water cascading down. It was beautiful.”
Even though Willis had played against them for years, he greeted Tim Duncan and David Robinson for the first time as their teammate. Willis also introduced himself to a pair of younger teammates: Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
“I met these guys and they were all cool and laughing,” Willis said. “It was a great time. I could feel the harmony there.”
Then Willis recalled how the Spurs wanted to throw him in the water – as sign of welcome to the new team.
“They were trying to decide if they should try to grab me and throw me in the water,” Willis said.
Duncan and Robinson eyed Willis, who, despite being 40 years old at the time, still cut an imposing and chiseled 7-foot figure.
“I was in tip-top shape,” Willis said. “I was swole.”
Whatever it was, the players eventually decided not to try anything with their new center.
“They said, ‘We might not want to grab him’,” Willis recounted with a laugh.
Willis was also happy to know that his favorite jersey #42 was available for taking. This was the number he wore with the Atlanta Hawks for more than a decade.
Later at that same function, Willis wandered the extensive property to take in the scenery. After a long and quiet walk along the river, he found himself a sizable distance upstream.
“I sat on a rock for about 15 minutes, just getting my mind right,” Willis said. “I was thinking about how thankful I was to be there. I broke down and I started to pray. I asked God to allow me to give this team what I had from within.
It was an emotional moment for Willis.
“After I said the prayer,” he said. “I broke into tears. I said, ‘This is the year I’m going to win the championship.'”
The Spurs won a hard-fought series against Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and the Lakers. Then they eliminated Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and the Mavericks. In the Finals, they won against Jason Kidd and the New Jersey Nets, capturing the title.
Not only did the Spurs win the NBA championship, they also won every series by a 4-2 margin. The significance of the similarity of those wins to Willis’ beloved number 42 was not lost on him. Even in that instantaneous moment of celebration, he thought back to his prayer on the river.
Kevin Willis played in 1424 NBA games (891 started), averaging 12.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg in 26.9 minutes on the court.
Throughout his career, Willi played for Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggers, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.
He was selected to the NBA All-Star game in 1992, and won the NBA championship with San Antonio in 2003.
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