When he needs to get away and clear his head, Francis Williams comes to this park bench overlooking Lake Washington.
On this day, the postcard perfect view is incredible as Mount Rainier towers in the south and the Cascade mountains jut through billowy white clouds in the east.
For months, we’d planned to sit down for an interview while targeting anniversaries and holidays and waiting for just the right time to tell his story.
But then, Williams is a semiretired 60-year-old with an adult daughter, three young kids and a wife whose hectic schedule keeps him busy.
We finally met at his spot and sat on his bench when the ROOT Sports basketball analyst, who coached Rainier Beach to its first boys basketball state championship in 1988, talked publicly for the first time about what his family and close friends have known for two years.
“I have cancer,” Williams said. “Or I guess, I should say I’ve been living with cancer. It’s been over two years now. I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret or anything like that. People who know me, they knew.
“But I didn’t want to go public until I was ready. And now I’m ready.”
So why now?
“The cancer I have, multiple myeloma, this is percentage-wise more prevalent in African-American men, and I want to spread the word,” said Williams, who is African-American. “Living with this, you come to realize that as much as we talk about cancer that it’s an important message to get out there.
“You hear it all the time and people know it, but go get tested. Testing and early detection can save your life. … I’m living proof.”
During an emotional conversation interspersed with sobering testimony and lighthearted laughter, Williams remembered he knew “something was not right” during an 11-day trip to Shanghai in August 2016 while he worked for the sports apparel giant Adidas.
“I just wasn’t feeling well,” he said. “I had no idea. I wasn’t suspecting I had cancer. I just didn’t feel good. I get back home and go to the doctor and for weeks I’m getting images, MRIs, CT-scans and X-rays, but not the regular kind of X-rays. In fact it was the X-rays that found the lesions.”
Still, a blood analysis discovered an iron deficiency and abnormal protein levels, which led to one final test, a bone biopsy.
A few dates are significant in Williams’ bout with cancer. The first is Sept. 30, 2016.
“That was the scariest day in my life because that’s the day I found out I had cancer,” he said. “It’s like somebody is speaking in a foreign language. Obviously, you know that something could be wrong because you’re seeing an oncologist, but you’re not expecting them to say cancer.
“Once I got over the shock — and I wasn’t emotional or anything like that — I was like, OK, this is what I have. This is where it is as it relates to me. And this is what you’re saying we’re going to do. OK, let’s get to it. That was on a Friday. I literally started treatment the next week.”
Williams began treatment Oct. 5, which included five months of chemotherapy that ravaged his body. He lost over 30 pounds and swelling in his joints, particularly his feet, restricted his mobility, which was torture for the former basketball coach.
“We didn’t tell the kids until I was in remission,” Williams said. “They knew something was wrong. I did everything I could to make their routine as normal as possible, but the minute they hit the door and were off for school I was wiped out.
“You learn simple things like taking it one day at time. That’s all you can really do.”
Another date Williams will never forget is April 19, 2017, which is the day he underwent a stem-cell transplant. It’s a day cancer survivors recognize as their “new” birthday.
Three months later, the cancer went into remission in July and two years of tests and checks have been clean.
These days, Williams doesn’t take anything for granted, which is a lesson learned after overcoming a bout with multiple sclerosis when he was 26, back surgery at 37 and a double-bypass heart surgery at 46.
“Sometimes I feel like a cat with nine lives,” Williams said. “But what I want people to realize is that everything that’s happened to me, medically I wasn’t afraid to see what was going on. Most things, if you catch it early enough, then the better off you are.”
Williams was buoyed by a strong support group led by his wife Denéa, lifelong friends Bruce Loyd, David Oliver, Brent Jones, Rick DuPree and Pete Nordstrom as well as his ROOT Sports colleagues.
“When I was at my lowest, I had people help me out,” Williams said. “You can’t get through anything like this by yourself.”
Williams also attributes his recovery — in part — to his positive attitude, upbeat personality and faith in God.
“I can laugh about it today because today is all I have,” he said. “I have test results that I’m waiting for. Each part of the test they’ll let me know my levels. I could get bad news tomorrow. They could call me and say something doesn’t look good.
“But there’s nothing I can do about it. Being negative doesn’t help. Hell, somebody always has it worse than you so I was never one to feel sorry for myself or anything like that.”
Williams is proud to be considered one of the grassroots architects of the Northwest basketball explosion, who mentored former local stars including Doug Christie and Michael Dickerson.
Williams, who got his start as a Garfield High girls basketball assistant in 1982, has dedicated most of his adult life to basketball. He compiled a 117-44 record during an eight-year stint at Rainier Beach before joining the Sonics radio broadcast team and serving as a scout for the Charlotte Bobcats from 2012 to 2015.
“I’ve reinvented myself a couple of times,” said Williams, who spent 18 years working in Seattle public schools. “I love basketball and the game has been good to me. I’ve got total respect for it and I’ve tried to give back to the game.
“I hope to do that as long as I can.”