Basketball rescued Isaiah Williams from tough New Jersey streets where violence and murder were a part of life. Twenty-four close friends of his weren't so lucky.
The Iona hoops star comes from an infamous neighborhood in Newark called "The Jungle," and he wasn't always sure he would live to be a grown-up. As reporter Matthew Stanmyre reveals in a feature published by NJ.com, Williams keeps a list on his phone of the loved ones taken away from him by violence.
At the same time, he worries about a similar fate for his younger brother, Kevin. Those close to Isaiah say his fear of another loved one dying has him in a perpetual state of fear. Every text his phone receives sends him into a panic.
"I'd probably be done [if Kevin died]," Isaiah says through tears to NJ.com. "I probably can't take it no more."
Williams' story is one of escape -- or rather, an inability to fully escape. Basketball helped him leave The Jungle, but with loved ones still stuck in the neighborhood, he can't fully escape -- not emotionally, and sometimes not physically, either. NJ.com reports that he briefly left Iona at one point to return home and keep a watchful eye over Kevin, although he later returned.
Even now, as he leads his team toward a possible conference championship and NCAA tournament berth, Williams doesn't feel like he's actually escaped. He's in a different place geographically, but he remains close to the source of The Jungle's pain.
Growing up, Williams' mother made every effort to keep her boys inside and safe. She bought a mini-basketball hoop and invested into video games, which were safer than playing outside. But Isaiah was determined to play basketball on the outdoor courts. It was out there that he punched a ticket out of the neighborhood through a college basketball scholarship.
At first, that was a ticket he didn't want to accept.
"I had an 'I-don't-give-a-(damn) attitude' where I don't care about school,'" he tells NJ.com. "'I'm not going to school. Nobody can make me go to school.'"
Williams ultimately did, and his past was winding: He needed post-graduate year before entering college and played at two different schools before arriving at Iona. Along the way, various tragedies back home interrupted his ascent and kept the reality of his upbringing ever-close, but he has overcome those challenges to flourish as a junior, averaging 13.5 points while shooting 51 percent from the floor.
He's been a big part of Iona's success. And it gets better: Kevin and his mother attend as many games as they can. They're able to witness his success, while he can look behind the team's bench and see that both of them are safe.