As former Illinois State University men’s basketball standout guard Madison Williams looked on from the end of the bench, supporting his teammates in street clothes on senior night, one can see still see his love for the game.
For those who have been to an ISU basketball game within the past two years, Williams’ involvement with the Redbirds was more than just a role player, presenting himself as a leader and an overall floor presence.
However, it’s clear that Williams’ early retirement wasn’t much of a decision at all.
On May 4, 2018, it was announced that Williams had decided to end his playing career due to chronic and repeated inflammation of the kneecap.
On Feb. 22, Williams donned a red and white jersey for the last time to celebrate senior night. Williams received a framed No. 25 jersey to commemorate the past four years he’s spent with Illinois State basketball.
That beautiful moment of triumph and perseverance left Redbird fans thinking: What could have been?
Coming into his sophomore season in the fall 2017, Williams had seen action in 28 games for the ’Birds and made some solid contributions on the winningest team in Illinois State’s history.
In a very solid follow-up to his freshman campaign, the Augusta, Georgia, native averaged 5.3 points per game to go along with 2.5 rebounds.
Where Williams really stood out was on the defensive end, wreaking havoc for opposing guard in the half or full-court setting. Williams averaged just over one steal per game and was named Defensive Player of the Year at the team’s annual postseason banquet.
It’s hard to bring up Williams without covering his rim-rocking dunk all over Valparaiso's Mileek McMillan on Jan. 28, 2018. On a fast-break opportunity, Williams took it himself and caught the body of McMillan on the way to a thunderous one-handed slam. The highlight helped carry the Redbirds to a 76-65 win that night.
The standout play even garnered national attention, cracking ESPN’s Top 10 Plays. The dunk is without a doubt in the conversation for the best in Redbird history, if not given the title outright.
ISU finished only 18-15 that season, but seemingly had a lot to look forward to. Without a senior on their roster, seemingly every player could return for the next season.
Williams' selfless, hard-nosed play was on the verge of bringing together a team that loved playing isolation ball from the top of the key when not overusing the pick-and-roll. It was a gut-shot to the program when it was announced that he was medically unable to play out his two remaining seasons in Normal.
If it was tough for those in and around the team to navigate such a talented player being stripped of his opportunity to play the game that he loves, one can only imagine how hard it was for the player himself.
Williams has taken it all in stride by staying with the team and finishing his degree in engineering technology this spring. Williams attends practices and even travels with the team on occasion, in addition to being at every home game.
In a statement for The Pantagraph, ISU head coach Dan Muller said, “I'm not sure there's a more impactful voice than Madison Williams to the players and coaches."
That kind of leadership is essential to any team. Though it may be hard to watch Williams on the sideline with the struggling ISU teams of the past couple years, he’s still a difference-maker as a leader and veteran of the game who has battled through hardships.
His obvious high-character personality is sure to bring him success in life after college, and Redbird nation will be supporting him the entire way.