“I’ve had a new bed since moving here and it’s done a number on my lower back,” Morakinyo Williams says upset with his early performances for the Surrey Scorchers.
He once called 10-time NBA All-Star Kevin Durant a teammate, but now Williams struggles to get comfortable in a temporary apartment ahead of his fifth stint in the British Basketball League. Standing at seven-foot-tall, it’s an issue the Solihull-born center has experienced all around the world.
Six weeks after his introduction at the Surrey Sports Park and with back problems gradually improving, we sit down in the stands to discuss how the 30-year-old is finding life after swapping China’s coastal province of Jiangsu for leafy Guildford. The struggling Scorchers were enduring a six-game losing streak prior to hosting the Sheffield Sharks, so the 90-69 victory is a significant turning point for Williams.
He joins his teammates in greeting several young fans before heading to the changing room for a shower. While the squad rush off ahead of their night in London to celebrate the win, Williams emerges back onto the court with a smile on his face. He takes a seat on the bleachers and lets out a sigh of relief. “We needed that.”
Despite being a well-travelled hooper, this is William’s first venture near the capital. He looks relaxed in his new surroundings, but so he should be. He’s already visited over 70 countries and played on three different continents. “I’ve always loved travelling,” he says. “I left home at 15 to go to the United States so it started then. A lot of places I went to were under basketball circumstances — mostly tournaments — and then on vacations as I got older and had my own money. I just love to see new places and I want to explore most of the world.”
Williams featured for the Kentucky Wildcats, Duquesne Dukes and Citadel Bulldogs during his college career, and rubbed shoulders with some who went on to earn million-dollar deals in the NBA. Meanwhile, he went unselected in the 2012 Draft before heading to Western Slovakia.
“I played in a summer league called Amateur Athletic Union and I had Durant on my team, Ty Lawson too. I had Mike Beasley on my team the year before with Nolan Smith. And then at Kentucky, I had Patrick Patterson on my team… Jodie Meeks too. I played with tons of NBA players earlier in my career.”
Durant has become one of the sports’ biggest names, while the others all enjoyed distinguished careers in the league which has set them up for life. Meeks recently signed a 10-day contract with the Toronto Raptors, and while Williams’ name may not be mentioned in the same capacity anymore, he hesitantly suggests he’s happy with how things turned out for him.
“If I’m honest, I feel like I underachieved a bit,” he admits. “The thing about basketball is you can never know how a situation is going to be. You get to a new country and things could be good, great or horrible. But you don’t have much choice in that and have to make the most of it. I think I’ve made the best of it and I’ve had a different life because I’ve become this traveller that’s seen a third of the world. If I’d have gone to the league, I may be richer but I wouldn’t have as much world experience.”
In recent years, Williams has been as far as China and Thailand and enjoyed the smaller European countries of Kosovo and Malta. The list of destinations goes on, and those are solely from his time on the court. But the jet-setting lifestyle isn’t chosen at random and every decision is scrutinised by Big Mike and his close friends. “Before I ever accept an offer, I always do a lot of research on the place,” he says. “I always ask where the team is located and I try my best to see if I’ll enjoy it, as well as considering the salary. That always comes into play when I make a decision. It has to be enticing.
“When I played in Thailand, I knew a lot of people go out there on holiday. Bangkok was going to be a lively place, and I knew there’s a lot of things to do as well as basketball. I knew I’d be able to enjoy life and make friends out there.”
Back on home soil, Williams is unlikely to feature in the BBL play-offs this season with the Scorchers battling in the lower echelons of the table. Instead, he has his eyes set on a quick return to China to play in their summer league. “My ultimate goal is to play back in the Chinese NBL,” he says with a reminiscent smile. “I played there before coming to the Scorchers, and if I can do that for the next few summers in my career I’ll be very happy.
“But travelling is starting to become a little tiring; I’ve turned down a few offers this year so I can stay in England. I decided that I would stay with the Scorchers unless there was an offer so ridiculous that I couldn’t refuse it.” Williams mentions an offer from an unnamed Greek second-division club he received the day before, but the financial difficulties the country has endured were enough to scare him away from the opportunity.
“I might just stay in Britain and play in the BBL if I can consistently get that Chinese contract in the summer,” he adds. The two leagues run in succession and an offer would mean Williams can play for 11 months of the year while enjoying a short break in August.
British players are regularly forced into these decisions if pursuing a full-time career in basketball, and Williams explains that there’s a lot more to the life-changing moves than just ball. Several players simply can’t handle the lifestyle changes and sacrifices made. “The thing about England is it’s really convenient,” he says. “You have 24-hour supermarkets and you’ve got corner shops everywhere. It’s really easy to get what you need. The services are good and we’ve got different varieties of food. When you go to other countries, it can be more limited.
“When I played in the South of France, restaurants were only open for lunch from about noon to 2:30 pm, and then in the evening, they might open from 6 pm until 10 pm. If you have training or want to eat late, you’re stuck with only fast food options. That can be quite difficult. England is a very convenient country and culture wise it’s my home. That’s what I love about it and I always enjoy being able to play here.”
And despite the ongoing financial instability and lack of security that plagues the British Basketball League, Williams’ favourites moments remain in England. “It can be really difficult to pick a favourite place because everywhere has pros and cons,” he reveals. “But when I was 22, I played for the Mersey Tigers and I lived in a house of six guys. I’m still really good friends with two of those — Myles Hesson and Devan Bailey. They both played in the British Basketball League for part of their careers. We just had a lot of fun and I’ve really got good memories with them.”
Williams has a refreshing openness about his struggles in basketball, but he’s not alone. Despite being one of the biggest participation sports in the country, Team GB Basketball faced extinction less than a year ago when they lost emergency funding from Sport England. UK Sport also fails to provide at a national or regional level. “It’s a concern that you can be playing Fourth Division basketball in France and making double what you make in the BBL, easily. I don’t know what the issue is with that, but I assume more funding is needed? I don’t know. I don’t know how teams use the money here exactly. We’ve even got a better product when it comes to media coverage and the way things are set up here. It looks good but when it comes to players' salaries, they need to find a way to get it up.
“Some guys are making a good salary — there are certain teams with a big budget — but no one’s getting rich from playing in the BBL. Maybe a few guys have quite a good living, but it’s really rough for a lot of players, especially young ones because they can be on really low money.”
Williams is briefly interrupted by passing supporters who congratulate him, and he turns back with a swagger. Especially in the British leagues, it’s not just about basketball but the relationships created by the sport too. “We do community stuff about once a week and usually with kids, trying to get them involved in basketball,” he says. “It’s nice to see so much enthusiasm, kids really love the sport. It’s great. Some teams in other countries don’t do anything with the community. It’s like the teams already have their fans and a set-up and you don’t have to do anything other than play basketball. But I know in the British leagues, it’s always been about teams getting involved in the community and I think that’s how it should be.”
The conversation momentarily turns away from sport, with a quick online search presenting a photo of Williams towering over Paddy McGuinness. Just hearing the words Take Me Out brings an immediate reaction out of the ladies man. “Oh my goodness.” Williams appeared on the popular dating show in 2013, and despite heading off to the Isle of Fernando’s with Clare, returned unlucky in love.
“Well I want to mention I didn’t apply for it,” he quickly announces. “At the time I was playing for the [Manchester] Giants and they had a researcher that asked me to do it. I thought it’d be a good test of my own confidence, but I wasn’t really going on trying to find somebody. It was a good experience, and for me, life is all about experiences. I enjoyed the actual show, although I didn’t really enjoy the Fernando’s part.”
The TV show may be all fun and games, but it highlights one obstacle for the globetrotter. Williams finds basketball places a substantial strain on his family and any potential partners, but admits that “everybody is used to it now”. That’s just the way it is for many players. “I have to make quite a lot of effort to maintain my relationship with friends,” he says. “I’ll constantly hit them up and check on them. Obviously, it helps now with social media because people can keep an eye on what you’re doing and know even if you haven’t chatted. In a way, you don’t miss a beat and when you do get back to your family and friends, it’s like you never left. But it can definitely affect relationships because of travelling and commitments, that’s one of the sacrifices of the job.”
Williams even has his family to thank for kick-starting his basketball career. His posture changes as he talks about his family, and as he relaxes, he lets out a smile and opens up on past memories. “It’s quite hard to remember exactly what got me into basketball but I know my brother gave me an Orlando Magic basketball at a young age,” he says. “I used to play with it outside but I wasn’t totally into it at that point. But I remember going to a BBL game and then I got my first pair of basketball shoes. I think I was 13-years-old and I had some Allen Iverson’s in size 16. They randomly had my size, just one pair.
“Then I became more curious about basketball. Everyone’s felt the excitement from a new pair of shoes, and I wanted to play more. I started playing in school in year nine, and just fell into the sport from there. I obviously had a big advantage because when I was 13 I was already around 6'6″. I was quite a chubby kid so to be good at something at a young age, it just felt so good. I always wanted to continue but I never thought it’d be serious until I got the offer to go to the United States. That’s when reaching the NBA became my goal.”
With the NBA now out of reach, Williams is happy to see his future in Britain. But he hopes the English game can take some lessons from the United States. “There are so many people that watch the NBA,” Williams says passionately. He’s no longer relaxed and appears more serious. “There’s tons of guys I know that love to watch NBA basketball, love the shoes, and love NBA players. If we could somehow convince them to also watch or support the BBL, I think we’d see a huge increase in attendance. It could mean more sponsors and more money, which you can allocate to players salaries or wherever else to improve the league even more.
“It’s about finding a way to connect with fans that watch the NBA and convince them to watch the BBL — it’s a good product. There are leagues ranked higher than ours and we’re now on the lowest tier, but we’re not at that level. We’re just not seen enough. We don’t play European basketball because it’s a bit more fast-paced, but when you think about the talent level, you’re having three Americans on each team, one EU slot, and the British players have definitely come up in standard over the years. We’ve got a really solid league and I always say it’s at least mid-level.
Williams may not be collecting the $30,000,000 salary of Durant, but he’s happy nonetheless. He’s devoted to basketball and hopes to see his home nation flourish. The passion is just as strong as it was when he was competing stateside.