Just Call Him Boo

Boo Williams' influence on the game extends beyond his tournament

by Matt Giles April 11, 2011 4:58pm ET
Kelly Kline/NIKE

For a man who is the founder and head of the tournament that serves as the annual (if unofficial) tipoff to the summer hoops season, Marcellus Williams—known as Boo to all (even strangers)—is surprisingly easy to track down. When you dial up his cellphone digits, Williams, who is approaching 50, is quick to answer, giving no mind to the details he's finalizing for his eponymous invitational.

What officially began as part of the Boo Williams Summer League has now morphed into a national affair that celebrated its 26th anniversary over the weekend. The Boo Williams Nike Invitational is now part of the EYBL, but the event still carries local undertones in Hampton, Va. "There is no tournament today outside of Boo Williams that has hosted top-flight talent for that long," says Rutgers associate head coach David Cox. "It started out as  a local event, but has had a profound national impact in terms of recruiting."

According to Williams, the league has a simple background. At 6-foot-8, Williams played high school ball in Hampton (at Phoebus High) and then took his game to Philadelphia, becoming a four-year letterman at St. Joseph’s. During his college career, Williams spent his summers as a big-man instructor at the Five-Star camp as well as playing in the legendary Sonny Hill League. After he graduated, Williams wanted to bring his own version of that league back home. "I got the idea from Sonny Hill," Williams recalls. "Back then, AAU was not big and nothing in the South could compare to what leagues and traveling teams existed up North. I saw the local competition and thought it would be good for our area."

Anthony Solomon played that very first summer; now an assistant coach at Notre Dame, Solomon garnered the inaugural MVP award—“a trophy,” says Solomon. Initially, Williams’ name helped generate buzz for the summer league. “I was young when Boo played in high school, but I would listen to my older brothers and they spoke highly of his game,” says Solomon.

Kelly Kline/NIKE
For decades, Boo Williams has been the face of basketball in the Hampton Roads area, bringing national spotlight to the talent-rich region. 

Because the talent level was high in the Peninsula, the competition was seen as a chance to enhance one’s skills, not to attract attention of college coaches. “We liked to play in an organized environment,” remembers Solomon. “It’s not like anyone went on vacation from the neighborhood in the summer. During the week, we organized our own summer games as a way to get better. When this tournament came along, it then gave us a chance to competitively play against other players from the region.”

As the culture of travel teams soon began to dominate the summer months, the league—which joined the trend with its own traveling team—quickly earned a national reputation. Its growth was certainly helped when J.R. Reid (North Carolina) and Alonzo Mourning (Georgetown) spent time wearing BWSL tee-shirts at the nearby Convocation Center, and their participation in turn helped bring funding from shoe companies. But Solomon notes that even while the league expanded, it continued to evince a local feel. “It was a summer league that did not travel beyond Hampton or Newport News—it was strictly a place for local basketball competition. That’s what it was all about,” says Solomon.

Tony Rutland agrees with Solomon. A former Wake Forest guard, Rutland was the high school (and Boo Williams AAU) backcourt mate of Allen Iverson. Rutland spent seven years playing in Boo's league, starting when he was 10 years old. “Even when the league became big, it still had a small-town feel. We were the local players and people would always turn out because they knew we were part of the community,” says Rutland.

Even when the league had a player of Iverson’s talent, nothing was taken for granted. “Boo would rent a 15-person passenger van that we called the ‘I-95 Special’. He would drive us through the night to tournaments in NYC or Philadelphia. We would always have to make noise because Boo would start to fall asleep as he was driving,” says Rutland.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the league continues to attract the nation’s top talent, as evidenced this past weekend. However, a new element was added last summer—a familial one. Williams’ nephew, Troy Williams, plays on the AAU squad and competed in this summer’s festivities. Expected to set foot on a college campus in 2013-14, Williams is already being ranked as one of the top players in his class.

When it started, Williams’ league was one of the first of its kind, but over the course of 26 years, now carries serious weight. “Tournaments nowadays go in cycles. We’ve worked hard at what we have here and it’s now a brand,” notes Williams.  And with his nephew now playing, expect Williams’ ‘brand’ to thrive. Says Cox, “Boo’s name carries tremendous weight. That league has a stamped reputation."