Natalie Williams: A Two-Sport Legacy
by Michelle Smith
Natalie Williams didn't go to UCLA thinking about how difficult it would be to be a two-sport athlete. It never crossed her mind.
"No, because I wasn't even planning on playing two sports," Williams said.
Williams went to Westwood on a volleyball scholarship out of Taylorsville High School in Utah, where she didn't even start playing volleyball until her freshman year in high school.
But there was basketball in her blood. Her father was former NBA guard Nate Williams, who had an eight-year career in the league.
"I missed basketball so much and I asked the [basketball] coach if I could play on the team," Williams said.
After volleyball coach Andy Banachowski and basketball coach Billie Moore talked it over, Williams got the OK to become a two-sport athlete.
She would go on to become one of the most accomplished multi-sport athletes in the history of the Pac-10 Conference. The 6-foot-1 standout was the first woman to earn All-America honors in both basketball and volleyball in the same year.
She was a four-year letter-winner in both sports and led UCLA to NCAA volleyball titles in 1990 and 1991.
Williams was named the Pac-10's Athlete of the Decade in both sports. And she is believed to be the only athlete in college sports history to play in both a basketball game (an exhibition game) and a volleyball game on the same day.
Her name is littered throughout Pac-10 record books in both sports.
What Williams did simply isn't done much anymore, and certainly not at her level. Two-sport athletes are becoming increasingly more rare given the demands of each sport and the number of youth athletes that begin to specialize, even before they get to high school.
"It was fun and everyone was pretty amazed that I was doing it," Williams said. "Looking back on it, it was a little crazy. But for me, I didn't really know any different."
Williams said she had to pay extra attention to her academic work, focus on time management and keep her body healthy.
"I remember at one point I went straight from losing the national championship in volleyball against Stanford [in 1992 and flying out the next day to Ohio State to play with the basketball team and I hadn't even practiced," Williams said.
With hindsight and perspective, even Williams has to be a little impressed at what she accomplished.
"It was a pretty amazing thing, to be at that level and to be able to compete and succeed," she said.
As much as she loves basketball, her fondest memories as a college athlete come at the volleyball net. But winning championships tends to create such fondness.
UCLA won titles in Williams' freshman and sophomore years, 1990 and 1991 respectively. In her sophomore year, the Bruins were lucky enough to be playing for the national championship at home in Pauley Pavilion.
"We were playing Long Beach and we lost the first two games," Williams said. "For us to come back and win the next three, the energy in the building was amazing. It was a huge personal and team accomplishment."
As a basketball player, Williams' best season came in her senior season in 1994, when she led the nation in rebounding and the Pac-10 in scoring. She still holds the Pac-10 record for rebounding average for a career and a season.
While Williams played with the U.S. national volleyball team in 1991 and 1993, she did not make the 1996 Olympic team.
Williams did go on to a professional basketball career, however. She played three seasons for the Portland Power in the American Basketball League and was a two-time All-Star in that league.
After the ABL folded, Williams was chosen by the Utah Starzz, giving her the opportunity to play in her hometown. She played for the Starzz for three All-Star seasons before she was traded to the Indiana Fever. In 2000, she won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the U.S. national team in Sydney.
She retired from professional basketball in 2005 to concentrate on raising her adopted twins. She has since had two more children, and she jokes that she has about five jobs.
Williams is currently working for a company called Athletic Quest, which helps to match athletes with college scholarships. She is serving as a mentor to approximately 50 high school athletes and working part-time for a telecommunications company. She is also a club basketball coach for her daughter's team.
And she can look back on her experience as a Pac-10 athlete and see its value.
"I don't think I really understood the history when I got there, but I went to an absolutely amazing school in a great conference," Williams said. "And I would do it all over again. If only I still had a 28-inch vertical leap."