If you’re a basketball player making the turn down Leston Street in Dallas for the first time, you’ll immediately think you’ve gone the wrong way into a warehouse district. And it is for the most part. There are mostly 18-wheelers parked outside long, plain buildings that consist of trucking businesses.
But that’s exactly how Mo Williams and his staff like it, for the dozens of NBA players—and rising stars and AAU teams—who work out at the Cavaliers starting point guard’s training center all year round. In between the massive facades and vehicles, a small entrance emerges with three protruding letters in red, “MWA,” standing for Mo Williams Academy.
“We got the place where [players] could pull their car in and they’re not even seen by anybody,” said the facility’s head trainer, D’Jamel Jackson, who’s known Williams since high school and has trained him since he’s been in the NBA. “They can come in super private; nobody even knows they’re here.”
Only four years since MWA was established, the facility is now the No. 1 all-purpose basketball destination in Dallas, and one of the top ones in the country. It houses NBA players including Draymond Green and Wesley Matthews; a nationally-ranked AAU team called MWA Elite that features Billy Preston; top recruits Malik Newman (Williams’ nephew) and Terrance Ferguson; Emmanuel Mudiay, the seventh overall pick in this year’s NBA draft; and dozens of up-and-comers.
“I’m not from Dallas, so when I came there it started from no one knowing about it to it being nationally known,” Williams told the NBPA. “So I can say that we’re going in the right direction. We’re evolving, doing some great things, putting together teams from second grade all the way up to seniors in high school, boys and girls. Our goal is to have a team in every category, and we’re working toward that goal.”
Building A Brotherhood
For many years in the summer, Williams was living in San Diego and working out at the Impact Basketball gym in Las Vegas, but during the 2010-11 season while playing in Cleveland, he decided he wanted his own academy for two main reasons: more intense, individual training and a location that was closer to his hometown of Jackson, Miss., so locals and NBA players could have easier access to a high-level facility to develop their skills.
Williams appointed Jackson as the facility’s head trainer.
“He knows my game inside out, and he can play himself,” Williams said. “He’s not a professional athlete, but he could’ve been. He decided he wanted to coach and train and give his expertise that way, and I thought it was a great decision on his part because he does have a lot of pros.”
Working with his realtor, Williams chose Dallas for his training center—which opened in the summer of 2011—because it was the biggest city closest to Jackson and Texas offered some tax benefits. With Williams as the sole investor, and still is to this day, there were some simple expectations initially.
“We knew we were going to have a few pros,” Jackson said, “but we didn’t expect it to take off like it did. It’s Mo’s popularity in the league, man. He’s successful everywhere he went. He’s a pro’s pro. And the NBA is a brotherhood, man. They support each other.”
Just recently, Nike (Williams’ sneaker endorser) became the main sponsor of the academy’s AAU teams. “We’re all excited right here,” Jackson said. “We’re going to play on the NYBL this year, so we’re excited for our kids as well as the program.”
Even NBA teams have taken notice. Seeing what Williams has done, each of his teams since 2013—Portland, Minnesota and Charlotte—held shootarounds at the academy when they were in Dallas. Jackson said the Cavaliers are planning to stop by on January 12 when they visit the Mavericks.
This past summer, Mudiay, Al-Farouq Aminu, Monta Ellis, Perry Jones, Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin, Jason Maxiell, Phil Pressey and Donald Sloan all trained at the center. One night in early July, the day Williams agreed to return to the Cleveland and was so pumped “to bring a championship home,” Jackson said, they arrived at the facility around 1 a.m. and left around 4 a.m., working on pick-and-rolls and corner three-pointers. Jackson pointed out that a key reason why the Cavaliers wanted Williams was to utilize him at times in the backcourt with Kyrie Irving for a smaller and quicker two-guard lineup to counter the Warriors’ uptempo small-ball attack.
Later in early September, Williams orchestrated the second annual Grind Week, with the support of the NBPA, which will continue next year as the players’ union will invite more players. This offseason, Williams was joined by Green, Matthews, Quincy Acy, Raymond Felton, Thaddeus Young and others.
“Grind Week was an amazing experience,” Young said. “The environment is free flowing and I had a chance to train in comfort. There is a strength coach on site along with a massage therapist. Mo has created a fun-filled environment for athletes to come harness their skills without any distractions. I enjoyed every minute of it and I am definitely going back for years to come.”
#grindwk @mogotti25 @money23green A video posted by Rafael B (@rbarlowe) on
After weights and on-court drills—many of which involved screen action and different attacking moves, with the trainers using toughness pads to provide extra contact—the players engaged in one NBA-style 48-minute game per day, called by actual D-League referees. For the first three days, Williams was averaging 30 points per contest and leading his team to victories. On the final day, he went 15-for-15 and made the game-winner.
Felton, who’s having a bounce-back season so far in Dallas, also benefited from Grind Week.
“They were just great runs. Everybody was just getting it in and grinding,” he said. “It was just fun. There’s always a little trash talking, especially with Draymond. It’s always fun when he’s out there. He loves to amp the game up and talk junk a little bit. It was fun though.”
Felton described what makes the workouts, led by Jackson and assisted by Keith Williams and Ashton Bennings, so impactful.
“The trainers that they have there are really good,” said Felton, who has his own AAU squad called Team Felton in Greensboro, N.C., featuring his nephew, Jalek Felton, who committed to UNC, and Kentucky-bound Sacha Killeya-Jones. “Those guys are really into it. They played the game before. They really understand it. They go hard. They take every drill serious; they don’t let you slack. It’s just good work, man. [Williams] has got a good thing going.”
Jackson chimed in more on the training, which is a testament to some of the greats who paved the way for future generations of players. Former Baylor standout and 2014 NBA draft honoree Isaiah Austin, who had to retire from competition last year due to Marfan syndrome, also helps out with the workouts.
“The one thing that we focus on over here is fundamentals, man,” said Jackson, who played college ball at Mississippi Valley State. “A lot of people got away from the fundamentals of the game, so we’re kind of taking it back to how [Michael] Jordan and Kobe [Bryant] did it, man—just basic footwork and fundamentals. The one thing that I notice is every NBA player that I work with has needed help in those areas, and they’ve been humble about learning that. That’s been the main thing.
“We’re fundamentally sound over here. We just get in. We might not even put the lights on some days. We just get in and go to work. We’ve got that old-school approach.”
Williams’ Involvement and Future Investment
During the offseason, the ultra-focused and even-keeled Williams is at his academy basically every day, running drills and coaching games with his 12 teams encompassing different age levels. That’s also because all five of his boys, ages 2, 6, 7, 8 and 16, are involved. His oldest, Kydarius, was part of his motivation to start his own training center. He’s now about 6’1″ like his father and is a “super shooter,” according to Jackson.
Jackson noted that Williams’ involvement with all of the kids in his program has made him a smarter player, and he believes his longtime friend—they were teammates at Murrah High School in Jackson—will be an NBA coach one day.
“Coaching these youngsters has helped him with his knowledge of the game because he’s a lot better now with just knowing how to play,” Jackson said of Williams, who’s averaging nearly 15 points per game on nearly 50 percent shooting. “It’s helped his game just on decision-making and poise and calmness. He’s super smart. He’s super great on drawing up plays.
“He’s a head coach, man. He’ll have a coaching career in the NBA after he gets done, I’m pretty sure. He’s good at assessing talent. As a point guard at that level for so long, I guess you can’t help but become like Jason Kidd or something.”
Williams is so tuned into his Dallas operation that he has a surveillance video-like app on his phone that enables him to view live training inside his gym whenever he wants. Weekday workouts start at 5:30 a.m. for kids before school, continue around 10 a.m. for players looking for pro deals (like former NBA standout Josh Howard, Trey Johnson and Arnett Moultrie), and they conclude at night for any other individual clients.
#grindwk A photo posted by @mwaelite on
A big emphasis for the academy is slotting teenagers and pro players in the same workouts.
“The high school kid is looking at the overseas guy go full speed, and he’s like, ‘Man, if this dude right here overseas is going full speed, then I’ve got to pick my game up,'” Jackson said. “Emmanuel Mudiay was able to see Mo Williams and Monta Ellis work, and that’s just confidence, man. So I think it just gives these high school kids inspiration to work a little harder at what they’re trying to do by seeing these pro athletes.”
Williams is also in touch with his players and their families every day to help them with their children’s basketball and life-coaching development.
“Every kid has access to call him,” Jackson said. “Whenever Mo comes to [Dallas], we get some of them tickets to sit in his suite or they sit on the floor. Through the Mavericks, they give him a good deal. After the games, they take pictures. Most of the kids have never been to an NBA game.”
Added Tracey Bingham, the academy’s executive director, “Even if Mo Williams is playing in New York, he’s going to probably have about five, 10 phone calls with parents or text messages—some kind of connection. These parents, if they text Mo Williams, Mo is going to text these people right back and have a conversation with them.”
The next phase of Williams’ program tipped off last week when he and Jackson launched their own training platform called Lucky Legend Basketball, which includes comprehensive info and videos for players to improve their basketball development, sports performance, college planning and recruiting, and pre-draft workouts.
Beyond that, Williams and his staff are in the planning stages of opening up a second facility in Jackson, set for next summer. And that would be the first of its kind involving an NBA player in the city.
“We always wanted to take it home; it was just a matter of time,” Jackson said. “We just ended up starting it in Dallas.”
Added Bingham, “I’m from Jackson, and not one time have any NBA guys done anything back in Jackson besides ease in there and ease back out. So for Mo Williams to come back to Jackson is big. We aren’t guaranteeing kids the NBA, but what we are doing is giving them the easiest path to the NBA with no distractions.”
There’s a poignant portrait in the lobby of Williams’ academy that is an artistic depiction of him bleeding beneath his left eye, which happened when he took an inadvertent elbow from Anthony Johnson in Game 3 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.
The piece, which includes the words “Gotti” (his nickname) and “Motivation,” was given to him by an artist unexpectedly at Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport where Williams was returning on a private flight after the Cavaliers lost the series to the Magic.
From humble beginnings, with many bumps along the way playing for seven teams in 12 years, Williams is now well on his way to on- and off-the-court success.
“The goal is just continue to grow,” he said of his academy. “We’ll see where the road takes us, and then we’ll just take it from there.”