GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP - Richard Stockton College junior guard James Williams III took a pass at the top of the key against New Jersey City University earlier this month, flicked his wrist and watched his 3-pointer go through the basket.
As he sprinted back on defense, he glanced over at Ospreys coach Gerry Matthews and grinned.
"I can read James' face like a book," Matthews said. "I can tell when he's going to have a good game."
Less than a minute later, Williams repeated the sequence, draining another 3-pointer and glancing at Matthews. Then he did it again. And again. Williams made four 3-pointers and scored 15 total points in the first half in Stockton's 65-49 victory.
When the game ended, Matthews patted him on the shoulder.
The gesture had nothing to do with Williams' performance. He could have missed every shot and would have gotten the same support.
With Matthews' guidance, Williams has overcome a series of hardships to become a key role player for the Ospreys.
He's also become an outstanding rebounder, though that has nothing to do with basketball.
"It feels good to be back," Williams said. "It took me a long time to get here."
The letter arrived about a year ago, when Williams was at work.
Once one of the most promising players in the New Jersey Athletic Conference, he was working at a Party Rentals warehouse in his hometown of Englewood, Bergen County, seemingly resigned to helping other people celebrate.
The 24-year-old had flunked out of Montclair State College a few years ago and left Stockton in the spring of 2012 after his mother, Linda Williams, died at 48 after suffering a massive heart attack.
Linda Williams had basically raised James and his older brother Travis (29) and sister Jasmine (26) after their father, James Jr., died of heart disease when James was eight.
"It happened on the first day of spring break, just as I was getting ready to go home," Williams said of his mother's death. "After she died, I actually came back to Stockton for a few days, but I couldn't take it. My family needed me to help out at home."
His mother's death was one of several obstacles that James encountered in a five-year span.
A 2007 graduate of Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, Williams originally attended Montclair State. In 2007-08, he was the NJAC's Rookie of the Year, averaging 11.4 points per game. He was even better as a sophomore, scoring a team-high 13.6 points per game, but was forced to leave school because of academic troubles.
He returned to Englewood and took the job at Party Rentals while also enrolling in Passaic Community College. Two years later, he took the advice of a former teammate at Montclair who suggested he contact Matthews.
"I really wasn't sure if I was going to go back to college," Williams said. "But after I met coach Matthews and realized what a nice guy he was, I decided to give it another shot."
Williams arrived on campus in the fall of 2011 hoping to play basketball for the Ospreys, but was ruled ineligible by the NJAC because of a rule prohibiting players who were ineligible at one NJAC school from playing for another school until they re-establish academic eligibility. The ruling applied to Williams despite the fact that he was out of college for two years.
After his mother died a few months later, he had given up on his college dreams. Then he found a letter from Matthews in his mailbox last spring.
"He's a great kid, and I didn't want to see him waste the opportunity to get a college degree," Matthews said. "I wrote that I didn't even care if he played basketball again, just as long as he came back to school and graduated. I know that's something his mother wanted for him."
Williams decided to re-enroll and play basketball. He has emerged as a key role player for the Ospreys.
He currently ranks fourth on the team in scoring at 9.3 points per game, leads the team with an 81.1 free-throw percentage and is third with 37 3-pointers for the 21-4 Ospreys, who are the top seed in the upcoming NJAC tournament.
At 24, he's easily the oldest player on the team, which other players and coaches frequently point out.
"I'm known as 'Uncle James' around here," Williams said with a laugh. "One time, I was on the court with four seniors and (assistant) coach (Scott) Bittner pointed to each of us and said, 'You're a senior, you're a senior, you're a senior, you're a senior.' Then he pointed to me and said, 'And you're a senior citizen.'
"I don't mind it, though. It's all in fun. This team is like a family to me."
After the game, Williams shoved his warmup gear and drink into a bag, slung it over his shoulder, and headed back to his dorm room to do some studying.
He has another year of eligibility remaining and intends to play next season. But he's more concerned with keeping up his grades. Williams said he is on track to graduate in May 2015 with a degree in accounting.
When that happens, he plans to celebrate.
He will be calling Party World to arrange it.
"While I was working there, I kept hearing my mom's voice in my head, telling me to go back and get my degree," Williams said. "I'm definitely here because of her and the support of my family. But I'd also like to thank coach Matthews. If he hadn't written that letter, I don't know that this would have happened."
Contact David Weinberg:
Stockton in the NJAC Tournament
What: Hosting second-round game vs. Kean
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday