FULLERTON — Things have never come easy for Cal State Fullerton basketball player John Williams.
Not even basketball.
From the time he was 15, he was virtually on his own.
At that point, Williams moved into a small apartment in his hometown of Moreno Valley.
Williams said he had no other choice when he wanted to be away from what he called his "problems" when he lived with his mother and a stepfather.
"I just didn't want to be around it," he said.
His father also had remarried, but Williams said he didn't feel comfortable there either. However, he was able to work one day a week at his father's small business selling used tires, and his father helped him pay for food, clothing and the apartment while he attended high school.
"I never had a chance to be a kid," Williams said. "I always had to take care of myself."
Then, before he had finished high school, he had a son of his own to be concerned about. "I guess I needed some kind of family," he said.
Williams named his son, who is 5 now, Isaiah Dominique, after Isiah Thomas and Dominique Wilkins, two of Williams' favorite basketball players.
By then, basketball had become a stabilizing force in Williams' life. He recalls that he might not have returned to high school after he was suspended for a fight if it hadn't been for the sport.
"Basketball would take things off my mind," he said. "Even now, when I'm on the floor, it makes my mind clear. It's all I think about. I guess basketball has been an escape for me, but I know I can't use it that way forever."
Basketball also brought its brand of physical aches and emotional anxiety.
For one thing, Williams suffered a broken jaw during his freshman season at Mt. San Jacinto College, which led to an agonizing recovery period when he had to be on a liquid diet for almost three months.
Then there were was the strain of his decision to leave Utah State after signing a letter of intent to play there.
Fullerton asked the NCAA to review Williams' transfer before allowing him to begin playing this season. Williams had withdrawn from Utah State after what he called "only a short time there" in the fall of 1994 because of hardship reasons.
"There were some problems with my son, and I felt I needed to leave and be back home with him," Williams said. "I went to Utah State, and I realized he needed me with him, and I needed to be with him. And there was no way I could afford to bring my family there. If I could have, I probably would have stayed there."
Williams left the Logan, Utah, campus and sat out the 1994-95 season, returned to Moreno Valley, worked and played some pickup basketball. But it wasn't the same as being on a regular team.
"I got to play with some other pretty good players, but I was badly out of shape at the time because I wasn't playing as much," he said.
Fullerton Coach Bob Hawking had heard about Williams when he was playing at Mt. San Jacinto College, but by the time Hawking became interested, Williams already had committed to Utah State in the early signing period.
"They showed they were more committed to me then than anyone else was at the time," Williams said.
An NCAA's administrative review committee voided Williams' letter of intent with Utah State, and he later signed with Fullerton. "I wish now I had come to Fullerton in the first place," he said.
The NCAA confirmed his eligibility before the season began, and Williams, a 6-foot-5 power forward, has been the best thing the Titans have had going so far in this 1-4 season.
Williams said he's as happy now as any time he can remember.
"The other players joke about me going around with a smile on my face all the time, but I really am happy," he said. "This is great, and I'm trying to take advantage of it. I almost feel like a kid again."
Williams is averaging 14 points and 8 rebounds, team-leading totals. He had four consecutive games scoring in double figures before he was held to six points by Loyola Marymount and San Francisco.
In an 85-83 victory over San Diego State in the third game of the season, Williams had 23 of Fullerton's 49 points in the second half and overtime, including 18 of 21 points during one stretch.
Williams had 23 of Fullerton's 57 points in a one-sided loss to Gonzaga. Gonzaga Coach Dan Fitzgerald came away impressed, and remarked: "Williams' play was a pleasure just to watch."
Hawking is optimistic Williams will continue to improve as the season goes along.
"John is still a toddler in this game in a lot of ways," Hawking said. "As he develops more skills and experience, he's going to keep getting better and better. He's very strong. He's fast. And he runs the floor well for his size."
Williams regards the time he lost with the broken jaw as a freshman as a setback, just as he perceives sitting out last season.