HARRISONBURG – Whether it’s home or away, when Jalen Williams steps on the floor for Harrisonburg High School, a buzz emanates from the crowd. When he gets his hands on the basketball, the buzz grows louder.
It happens for different reasons.
Those laying eyes on Williams for the first time are probably astonished to see a 5-foot-2, 110-pound varsity basketball player. Those a little more familiar with Williams are likely expressing a Rudy-like enthusiasm for the tiny 16-year-old, hoping that he might make one of his high-arching 3-pointers or snag an improbable offensive rebound.
And then there are a select few who truly know Williams, his shoulder-length dreadlocks and his infectious wide, toothy smile. They cheer for him with a little extra volume, aware that the little guy is lucky to be alive.
Williams is so small not because he inherited the short-height gene from his parents, nor because of a genetic anomaly. He contracted a rare form of leukemia when he was younger, one that could have killed him; ultimately, it stunted his growth.
It hardly stunts his enthusiasm for basketball.
“Height really doesn’t matter to me,” Williams said during practice recently. “It’s hard at the varsity level, but I know how to overcome.”
At age 6, Williams – whose friends and family sometimes call him “JJ” – was diagnosed with a cancer known as Acute Myeloid Leukemia. It’s a common type of leukemia among adults, but extremely rare in children. Doctors told Williams’ parents that he had a 30 percent chance of survival.
After a roughly three-year battle with the disease – it included extensive chemotherapy, stays at both the University of Virginia and Duke University hospitals, and finally a bone marrow transplant – Williams went into remission at the beginning of 2005. He was officially pronounced cancer-free in 2009.
“It was a hard thing to fight through, but ever since then it taught me – like what my mom says, what don’t kill you makes you stronger,” Williams said. “It just made me stronger.”
Williams, a junior guard, will always be short. One of the side effects of the radiation was that it attacked his pituitary gland and disrupted his growth hormones. He didn’t break the 100-pound weight barrier until last summer, when he added 12 pounds of muscle working out with his father.
“He was excited about that,” Jalen’s mother, Jameesa Williams, recalled with a laugh.
As one might imagine, Jalen has been constantly battling the perception that he’s too short to be any good.
“When he was coming in as a freshman, seniors would be like, ‘I’m not picking him up in open gym, he’s short,’” said senior Brian Rodriguez, one of Williams’ closest friends.
First-year HHS coach Scott Joyner said he noticed Williams’ stature this year in open gym before the season started. But Joyner didn’t truly understand Williams’ height disadvantage until his teammates stood next to him.
“I guess it wasn’t until team camp where I realized how small he was,” Joyner said. “We went to team camp, and I was like, ‘Who’s he going to guard?’”
But Williams doesn’t mind the questions. In fact, he thrives on them.
“That’s my favorite thing: They underestimate me,” Williams said. “I come out and I do my thing, and they all shut up. That’s my favorite thing is looking up in the crowds and seeing ’em [surprised]. That’s what I like.”
Williams said proving his ability to his teammates wasn’t as much of an issue, because he’s known many of them since middle school – but Joyner admitted he was initially unsure how useful Williams could be. Fittingly, it took a moment of adversity – Williams didn’t come off the bench during a 71-52 home loss to Spotswood on Dec. 11 – for him to make a splash.
“I talked to all the kids [after the Spotswood game] about, ‘Life’s about how we respond the next day,’” Joyner said. “He [Williams] came out the next two practices, and he knew what he was doing. He got his shot against Eastern Mennonite his next game, and he was phenomenal.”
He scored a career-high 12 points in that 59-23 win over Eastern Mennonite, including two 3-pointers. On every make, Joyner said, the Harrisonburg bench went “absolutely berserk.”
Since then, Joyner said, he inserts Williams off the bench “to see what he’s got every night.” Williams thrives mostly as a 3-point shooter while occasionally using his quickness to beat his man and create shots for others. He doesn’t always play much – only a couple of minutes Friday against Turner Ashby, for instance – but it’s never because he’s timid.
“He’s just tough,” Rodriguez said. “He don’t back down from anybody. Some people are probably scared because people are bigger than ’em when they play against other teams, but he’s been going through that his whole life, so he’s not scared against anybody.”
Williams is also rarely reserved. If Harrisonburg’s players are goofing around, Williams is usually involved. If anyone makes fun of his height, he’ll crack a joke right back. One of his nicknames, “JJ The Jetplane,” stems from him spreading his arms like an airplane during a game in middle school.
As much as he sticks out physically, he’s just one of the boys with Harrisonburg – and one of the most well-liked ones.
“Jalen, he’s been through more than some folks go through their whole lifetime,” said Don Burgess, a cousin of Jalen’s father, Kevin Williams, and now the men’s basketball coach at Bridgewater College. “For him to stay so positive, so upbeat and be such a pleasant young man. … It’s just been a stepping-stone for him to be successful.”
Even if that stepping-stone cost him some height.
“Jalen, even though he’s small in stature, he has a huge heart, and he’s just big on the inside,” Jameesa Williams said. “That’s what I always try to remind him: ‘It’s OK to be small in stature, just don’t shrink away from things just because of that. You are big on the inside. You’re strong.’”