Meet Jelani Williams: The DMV’s Hometown Hero

Attending class with Malia Obama and playing in an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) circuit facing off against now-Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young and Denver Nuggets small forward Michael Porter, Jr. with Mokan Elite, Howard University graduate guard Jelani Williams is no stranger to having to perform in elite environments.

 Play with the elite and get elite results. While playing with Team Takeover, Williams found himself playing in front of every Division I coach a high school senior could dream of at Nike’s EYBL Peach Jam in Atlanta.

 “Every game was high intensity, and every game was exciting,” Williams said. “All of the college coaches are right there on the sideline. It was a point in the game when we were playing Mokan and I was taking the ball out. I was standing right in between Coach K [former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski] and Roy Williams. They are some of the biggest names in basketball and being able to compete in front of them was a totally different experience.” 

With six to eight games happening at one time in a packed intimate gym setting with scholarships on the line, the pressure was on to perform. 

“Jelani is a competitor,” Williams’ former Team Takeover teammate and current Phoenix Hagen in Germany player Aaron Thompson said. “He is a team player kind of guy. He is going to make sure he gets his shots in while also looking out for the best interest of the team.”

Williams credits his time playing AAU with Team Takeover for teaching him how to play basketball the right way. Team Takeover has produced many NBA players and exposed their players to high-level competition across the country. 

“I learned how to compete,” Williams said. “We were in the gym practicing every day with 15 to 20 of the best players in my area which is in my opinion the best area for basketball. Being in that environment and having to fight for that opportunity and fight for minutes and have to produce, it makes you better.”

While positioning himself to excel athletically, in the classroom, Williams received his high school education at the highest caliber. As he started high school, he earned the opportunity to compete and learn at one of the best high schools in the world, Sidwell Friends School. 

Sidwell Friends has historically served as learning grounds for President Bill Clinton’s daughter Chelsea Clinton, President Richard Nixon’s daughters Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and, most recently, President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia Obama.

“I was able to get the best of both worlds at Sidwell,” Williams said. “It was a bit of a culture shock for me, but it also provided an opportunity for me to grow both on and off the court, especially off the court. I was able to develop critical thinking skills and get a world-class education. I started to realize what was important to me.”

Williams added not only did he attend classes with Malia Obama, he also shared the classroom with students from the homes of parents working with Fortune 500 companies. 

Outside of exposure to people from different backgrounds, overall, Williams is grateful to be able to be exposed to what all life has to offer. He also expressed through this experience how important it is to remember these are regular people similar to himself. 

The school offers a close-knit setting with a student body from pre-K through 12th grade only rounding out at 1,000 students. Williams was able to get to know his classmates at the core. 

During Williams’ senior year at Sidwell Friends, he would get his first exposure of what it feels like to be a champion and he has chased the same feeling ever since. He led the school to a Mid-Atlantic Athletic (MAC) championship after coming in last place in the MAC his freshman year.

After high school, Williams continued to raise the bar for himself by earning an Ivy League scholarship to attend the University of Pennsylvania. He missed the first three seasons of competition due to ACL injuries. The following season, all fighting Quaker sports were canceled due to COVID-19.

All of these cancellations only made Williams craft a new path to the same dream. As a senior during the 2021-2022 season, Williams was second on the team in steals (29) and third in assists (51).

“My biggest area of growth has been my ability to lead,” Williams said. “I had to sit back and learn what it takes to lead and be successful at the college level. As I was able to get healthy, I continued to grow. I’m still growing as a leader, but I think that’s really what I bring to a team.”

Basketball has taught Williams the true definition of being resilient. Suffering three anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL) injuries throughout his time on the court, Howard’s captain has been faced to answer the question, “How much do you love this game?”

“He’s (Williams) been through a lot,” Thompson said. “When he’s on the court, he has a coach-player mentality. He competes fiercely.”

After making his mark in the State of Independence, Williams decided to bring his talents back home to the DMV area to attend “The Mecca,” Howard University. 

He graduated from Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies. At Howard, he is pursuing a master’s degree in finance to add another dimension to his skill set. Being in his backyard again, allows the 6-foot-five captain to play in his backyard filled with longtime supporters.

“I come into a random home game on a Saturday or whatever and have my family there, friends from high school, and people that still live here come to see me play. When I was at Penn, they did not really get to come up because of the distance. Being able to see my mom and dad at the games and my little brother who is a junior at Sidwell now playing basketball, seeing me play in a college atmosphere has been great for me. It gives me an extra boost on the court.”

Williams had a career-high against the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore with 23 points and continues to ride on this momentum. 

In true Williams fashion, even while having to sit on the sideline, he never let any time go to waste. These absences from the game forced him to zero in on what he cares about other than the orange sphere that has controlled his life. This turned out to be advocating for women’s rights.

As fall 2019 commenced, the Washington, D.C., native was picked to be a development fellow with the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up. At Girl Up, Williams’ primary role was to research beneficial partners for the foundation. His time advocating for women in this environment caused him to ponder on the opportunities given to women in sports.

“People are starting to pay more attention to women’s college basketball,” Williams said. “South Carolina, UConn, and even LSU have been climbing the rankings recently by making some noise. Things are getting more competitive, and people are beginning to watch. In the WNBA, you see big-time teams being formed. You see stars pairing up which is what we are used to seeing in the NBA. I think as the talent pool continues to grow, the issues will take care of themselves. People will watch more and more money will be made.”

Transcending his beliefs forward, Williams wanted to spearhead Howard’s men’s basketball team service. The group collectively decided to focus on women’s maternal health. The overturn of Roe v. Wade also propelled the group into action. 

“We wanted to do something timely and something happening on a large scale right now,” Williams said. “Typically, people focus on police brutality, voter suppression, and voting rights. We wanted to take it a step outside of that and focus on an issue that is just as important.”

Howard’s student body is comprised of 72% women. By bringing attention to this issue, Williams and the team felt they were serving their immediate community and women beyond bounds.

The team’s efforts around the nation’s capital would later be noticed by CNN and their yearly audience of over 166 million viewers. 

“All of it is a part of the beauty of going to a school like Howard,” Williams said. “You really get the opportunity to expand on and off the court. The Howard brand is so strong. It almost feels like anytime we do something, it always makes big news. It was really cool to be on a platform like CNN and highlight an issue outside of ourselves.”

Growing up in the DMV area, the political news CNN is reporting on occurs right in Williams’ backyard. Being back home playing at Howard, allows the 6-foot-5 captain to play in his backyard filled with longtime supporters.

Beyond basketball, Williams plans to make a career in sports management. Pairing his master’s degree in finance from Howard and bachelor’s degree from Pennsylvania in communication and media studies to blossom a career in an NBA front office.

He’s also interested in being an NBA scout.

While outlining his career plans, the Howard guard made sure to emphasize his post-basketball plan is entirely that: a post-basketball plan. He plans to continue shooting, dribbling, and playing defense until his body no longer lets him.

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