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Thursday, February 21, 2013
Two-sport romance for Gabby Williams

By Walter Villa

As a toddler, Gabby Williams used to sleep while cradling a miniature basketball. Sometimes, with her eyes closed and half asleep, she would air-dribble an imaginary ball.

The 16-year-old Williams can trace her love affair with basketball back to her crib.

But a relatively new flirtation, with track and field, may steal her heart.

Last summer, at age 15 and with little training, Williams shocked everyone by finishing fifth in the high jump at the U.S. Olympic trials. She was the youngest person in any event at the track trials, yet her top leap of 6 feet, 2 inches was the sixth-best ever for a high school athlete. She also tied Amy Acuff's 21-year-old best mark for a high school sophomore.

"I like the high jump more than basketball right now," said Williams, a 5-foot-11 junior point guard at Reed (Sparks, Nev.), who can dunk a softball. "I like the atmosphere -- there's no trash talking. Either you are good or you're not."

On the court, Williams is certainly the former. She led Reed to a Class 4A state basketball title last year and is averaging 32 points, 12 rebounds, 9 assists and 6 blocks through 11 games this season.

Basketball runs deep in her family (both her sister and father played at a high level), and her love for hoops showed in the sweatshirts -- "Raiders Basketball" -- she wore at the trials.

So which sport will she choose in college?

Both.

While most kids her age would be nervous talking to college coaches -- especially at heavyweight basketball programs such as Connecticut and Stanford -- Williams calmly flips it around and interviews them.

"My first, second and third questions are always the same," said Williams, who has a 3.59 GPA. "I ask them: 'Can I do both sports? Do you have a good relationship with the track coach? Can I redshirt my sophomore year so I can focus on making the Olympics in Rio [de Janeiro in 2016]?'

"If they are iffy about it, then I will be iffy about them."

So far, no school has backed away from her requests, and Reed basketball coach Sara Ramirez is not surprised.

Ramirez has known Williams since her basketball love affair began. She was coaching with Williams' father, Matt, for an AAU program when Gabby was born.

Ramirez has seen Williams grow by leaps and bounds -- giant leaps, in fact.

"She's the best athlete and player I've ever coached," Ramirez said.

Ramirez knew Williams had potential when she saw her as a 4-year-old, dribbling between her legs with one ball in each hand. By age six, Williams could keep a basketball scorebook.

"When Gabby was in the fourth grade," Ramirez said, "she could tell me what defense our opponent was running and how to beat it. That's when I knew she was truly special."

By eighth grade, Williams could grab the rim.

Combine her knowledge of the game with her off-the-charts athleticism and it's no wonder college coaches are lining up. Williams can hang in the air to get her shot off, and Ramirez recently witnessed her outrebound a 6-foot-4 opponent.

"She didn't even box her out," said Ramirez, who is in her eighth season at Reed. "She just outjumped her."

Williams appears to be well on her way to outshining her 6-foot-4 father, who played at Nevada Reno, and her 5-foot-11 sister Kayla, who played one year of pro ball in Australia.

And even if she said the high jump is her favorite right now, Ramirez isn't buying it.

"She's only been doing track since middle school, so it's new to her," Ramirez said. "But I can see it in her eyes how much she loves basketball."

Williams, who won three gold medals at the 2012 state track meet, has some interesting goals for 2013.

She wants to surpass the state high school record in the high jump, which is 6-foot-4.

She also wants to goaltend a basketball.

"I'd at least like to pin a ball against the backboard," she said.

Williams, the middle of five children who lists math and science as her favorite subjects, said she is open to going to college anywhere in the country but won't start to home in on her decision until June.

So far, she has one regret: not focusing on the high jump earlier.

"London was not even in my dreams," she said of the 2012 Games. "I took it seriously at the end, but I had no idea I was so close or I would have gone to more meets."

No matter what happens, Ramirez said she doesn't expect her star player to change her personality. Williams, who watched all the presidential debates, is studious, but she also has another side to her.

"She's goofy," Ramirez said. "Before the state final, she and [teammate] Tyler Sumpter had these cheap glasses with white frames and no lenses. As soon as the game was over, they got the glasses and posed for every photo with them on.

"Gabby just has that playfulness."