Seven years ago, Kelly Williams tried to step away from the game that he poured his heart and soul into. His spirit was very much willing to continue, but the constant battle with his own body became too much to handle.
His goodbye wasn't planned, nor was it eloquent. It was barely a statement.
"It just happened," he said. "One day I came here for practice and I talked to Coach Norman (Black) upstairs. I couldn't even get a word out. I just started crying. I couldn't even explain myself at that time but he knew what was coming."
Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura or ITP, a rare blood condition characterized by an abnormal decrease in the number of platelets, was going to end his career.
Williams, who was the top overall pick of the Sta. Lucia Realtors in the 2006 PBA Rookie Draft, was known for his explosive athleticism. He made a mark early in his career by winning the PBA Rookie of the Year award and earning a spot on the Mythical First Team in his first season. The very next year, Williams was named the league's Most Valuable Player, beating other big-name nominees in Jayjay Helterbrand, Mark Caguioa, Asi Taulava, and Arwind Santos, not knowing then that they would all be members of the PBA's 40 Greatest Players.
However, his heyday would come after he got traded to the TNT franchise. There he became an important part of the franchise's dynasty that included the Philippine Cup reign from 2011 to 2013. It was still supposed to be the prime of his career, but ITP became too tough a foe for Williams.
He came into their practices dead tired because he often didn't get any sleep. Williams took a long list of medications that had side effects like fatigue, insomnia, sudden weight gain, and mood swings. He battled all of these challenges every single time he put on his TNT jersey.
Finally, Williams decided in 2013 that battling ITP required a lot of his effort, and that his basketball career had to come to an end in the process.
Over the next few months, Williams stayed in Nebraska with his family with the sole focus of trying to get better. He cheered his team from afar but it was difficult for him to watch the perennial champions struggle without him and other key players who were recovering from their Gilas Pilipinas duties.
Basketball did not take up a lot of space in Williams' mind until Black told him about a training camp the team would have in Las Vegas. With a new form of treatment in his back pocket, Williams did better than he expected in that camp, and three days after returning to Nebraska, he decided to pack up and move back to the Philippines to give basketball another shot.
Although the TNT franchise was no longer the dynasty it was before, the return was still well worth it for Williams as he added to his title collection by helping his team win the 2015 PBA Commissioner's Cup. Williams will no longer be with the team when they try to end their current title drought, but he has already left his imprint on the squad for the years to come.
In Williams, we saw a player gifted with extraordinary physical attributes. Even during the final years of his career, he still surprised PBA fans with thunderous put-back dunks from out of nowhere. We saw a player who was challenged by a curveball that life threw at him. We saw him struggle. We saw him persevere. Amidst all that he stayed a true professional. Sure, there were times that he admitted he was irritable in practice or lethargic in a game because of the concoction of medication he was taking, but we always knew that was not his real self.
Even though the decision that led to saying goodbye to the PBA for the second time was partly forced by the pandemic the entire world is currently in, he steps away more prepared this time.
Williams exits the PBA leaving us with so many memories of a player who left everything on the court, during his peak and even while battling sickness.