Despite the cliche, the phrase ‘ball is life’ pretty much sums up Watkins Williams.
A professional basketball player who’s played everywhere from Puerto Rico and Spain to Saudi Arabia and now here in China, Williams has passionately pursued his basketball dream since graduating from high school in the US. His college tenure consisted of just enough game film to get the man on the next overseas flight to play on a team willing to pay him to ball out.
“It was either basketball or work, and I was all about basketball. A nine-to-five [job] has never really been my thing, and I just had a lot of people behind me that pushed me to keep playing basketball, so I just stuck with that,” Williams tells us.
His basketball journey can easily be summed up as nomadic, having spent his eight-year pro career playing in over 10 countries. Williams says, “The normal overseas league [season] is around five to seven months, while some leagues are four months.” But after each season, there’s no guarantee where a player may end up next, which is reflective of how they performed. Different leagues offer different wages, meaning when a player performs at a high level for the season, he may have jumped a pay grade, and therefore played himself out of the league.
“Normally if you have a kid playing overseas, he may go back to that same league, but that team’s budget may not be there for him. He may have put up 30 points a game, and so now he’s not worth USD1,500 anymore, he’s worth USD3,000-4,000. So, now you have to go to a higher league, which would be in a different country.”
Now based in Shunde, Guangdong, 31-year-old Williams is currently playing in China’s Wild Ball League, a unique semi-pro basketball league that’s been described as “a form of basketball with Chinese characteristics” by NetEase Sports.
By our assessment, the underground basketball league operates quite differently from the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) and professional minor league National Basketball League (NBL), with rules seemingly laxer and games more localized.
Unlike a fixed schedule league, Wild Ball is a tournament-focused league that’s generally sponsored by companies in China’s second and third-tiered cities for any number of occasions. Foreign players will get the call to either play with local basketball players or join an international squad with high expectations to win the tournament.
There’s good money in it, too. According to a short documentary by Jianchang Video, Wild Ball players can potentially earn a professional basketball player’s yearly wage in a short time period, depending on their play. Foreign players can earn anywhere from RMB8,000-10,000 per game, although there’s no guarantee when the next tournament will be.
For Williams, playing Wild Ball has been a great opportunity to tour the country. “I’ve been in North China, East, West, just about everywhere,” Williams recalls, noting Shenzhen as one city he’s really enjoyed competing in so far.
And besides just getting paid, he’s enjoying his latest overseas destination. “I can honestly say that I’ve probably had the most fun playing in China. Besides playing in the top league in Lebanon, the atmosphere [in China] is definitely up there… The amount of people that play basketball stands out to me. Their style of play is cool – they definitely like that street ball style of play, which makes the game fun.”
With a wealth of experience playing basketball overseas, Williams is now putting his network to work, having started Overseas Basketball Advice LLC (OBA), which serves young and aspiring basketball players looking to get their foot in the door. Through the OBA placement program, Williams helps link players to credible agents and teams around the world, charging a flat fee. “It’s been a blessing because I have a lot of players that trust me, because they can see my track record, they can go on my Instagram, on Google, and they can actually see where I’ve been and what I’ve done.”
The company started after Williams put out a Facebook post looking to help anyone interested in playing overseas, and the response was positive. So far, he’s found success bringing players to China to play Wild Ball, as well as a couple of ballers now playing in Germany, in addition to other countries. Future plans for Williams include starting a local gym to provide Chinese youth players with American-style basketball training.
But the side work hasn’t distracted Williams from his ambitions while living here in China. “My goal is to play in the NBL, which starts in March-April, and then hopefully I can at least get a CBA workout. That’s all I really need is just a workout.”
You can follow Watkins Williams on Instagram (@pro_watkins) or add him on WeChat (watkins0812).
[All images provided by Watkins Williams]