“The darkest moment of my life, Chris was there.”: Monty Williams, Chris Paul and a relationship that transcends basketball

Don’t miss one of the most significant events of the Phoenix Suns clinching a trip to the Western Conference Finals.

It came after the final buzzer, after Denver had been swept. Chris Paul and Suns coach Monty Williams hugged. And in that embrace, they illustrated a story worth telling, worth talking about. About a coach and his player. About true friendship. About love. About heartbreak. About tragedy. And now triumph.

They walked off, each with an arm around the other, a new experience added to their bond.

It is easy to focus on the brilliance of CP3, who padded his Hall of Fame résumé with 37 points in Game 4 at 36 years old. Paul averaged 25.5 points and 10.3 assists in the series, and he did it on 62.7 percent shooting with a grand total of five turnovers.

It is hard not to notice how Williams has changed the Suns culture. Devin Booker is playing like a superstar. Center Deandre Ayton has now put together back-to-back stellar series. The Suns seem to have a bottomless pit of quality role players. All of it is meshing together so well the low expectations coming into the postseason now feel disrespectful.

But Sunday revealed another reason why these Suns are the feel-good story of the postseason. There’s a warmth to them. Paul and Williams have a relationship dating back more than a decade when Williams coached Paul in New Orleans in 2010. But their relationship transcends coach-player and basketball completely.

“Chris has meant so much to my career, so much to my life,” Williams said. “The darkest moment of my life, Chris was right there. And one of the highlights of my life, he’s right there. So I’m just grateful to God for him. And all of our guys.”

In February 2016, Williams’ wife Ingrid died in a car accident. Williams is such a well-liked figure in the NBA, his heartbreaking loss rendered players and colleagues heartbroken with him. He then revealed the attributes that make him so beloved when he gave an eloquent speech at his wife’s funeral and forgave the other driver involved in the collision. The strength Williams showed, the courage, the wisdom, have come to define him even more than his considerable basketball expertise.

A good coach can change a game, John Wooden said, but a great coach can change a life. I think we are seeing that in Phoenix.

“Mont has been through things in his life that a lot of people don’t necessarily come back from,” Paul said. “The mental stamina, who he is as a person — basketball aside, he means so much to me and my family.”

Williams spent two and a half years away from coaching before getting back on the bench with Philadelphia in 2018. Phoenix hired him as head coach in 2019, tapping into his leadership and molding of men, and the dividends were immediate.

Williams, along with some great drafting by the Suns front office, was enough to lure Paul to the Valley.

Now, Williams and Paul are four wins from reaching a pinnacle together — their first trip to the NBA Finals.

Yes, marvel at CP3’s handles, his midrange jumper, how he can still manipulate defenses and always get to his spot, especially at the elbow. But also marvel at how one of those spots he worked his way to was right next to Williams in that darkest moment.

Yes, appreciate how fast Williams has turned around the Suns, how he took over a 19-win team with some young talent and lit a spark in them, in two seasons making them resemble a team that could survive the gauntlet and come out of the West.

But also appreciate how Williams is a leader who leaders follow. Despite Williams having just two winning seasons on his résumé, Paul chose to play for him.

A coach puts a player in position to succeed, but these two transcend the traditional coach-player relationship.

What was your darkest moment? That time when you cried so much you ran out of tears, when the agony ate a hole inside you and the weight of suffering left you limp. Many have gone through theirs recently. Some might be in theirs right now. Who was there with you through it? Crying with you. Holding you up. Proving that you aren’t alone.

Do you still see them, talk to them? Five years later, do you still get to say thank you by squeezing a little tighter, a little longer, on hugs? Do you get to work with them, lean on them, build something special on the foundation of trust built through trials?

That’s what Paul and Williams have. A foundation of trust.

They have something so special it can’t be measured by playoff results. It’s a beautiful thing to see, a reason to hope they succeed together.

Both of them get it, that life is bigger despite being uber-competitive. Paul is known for his relentlessness on the court that borders on maniacal. But even when he was going through his shoulder issues, he kept making it clear people are going through worse and he’d be fine.

“To be on this journey with him and to see it paying off is nice,” Paul said. “We’re a lot alike. We stay locked in. I don’t feel good until the buzzer sounds. Mont’s the same way. When the series is over, and the game is over, it’s nice to share those moments.”

Perspective doesn’t rob them of intensity. But when the final buzzer has sounded, when the adrenaline of competition has started to wane, the coach and the point guard can easily find their way back to what’s important. They’ve each been through so much, yet have remained so grounded in who they are as people, it’s impossible for them to lose sight of what is right in front of them.

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