He got the phone call on the morning of Dec. 15. Within seconds, everything became a blur.
His heart sank into a pit. His mind said, be strong.
But the truth was, he didn’t quite have the strength to stand tall that day. His teammates and coaches stood there instead. His mom. His family. Dexter Williams leaned on them all.
His cousin and best friend, Dre Street, was gone. A freshman at the University of Alabama, Street apparently took his own life in a dorm room.
Basketball had always been a source of dreams for Williams. Now, the game is also a refuge from the storm.
"I told my teammates. They never show emotion, but that day was different. One of them was crying," he recalled. "That made us a stronger team. We were more together."
Williams got stronger, bit by bit. Sharanda, his mom, had just spoken to Dre the day before; Dre had been experiencing major stress. After the news arrived, Sharanda wasn’t herself, not for some time.
"She’s taking it better now. She says nothing is worth killing yourself. I’d never seen her like that."
"She is more than tough," Moanalua coach Greg Tacon said. "A lot of his maturity goes to his mom."
The gift of the game was never lost on Williams.
"Basketball was my getaway. I don’t know what I’d do without basketball," he said. "I tried to figure it out. My mom said to do it for him."
Williams played that night at Kahuku. He stopped at midcourt before the game and prayed.
"I knew he’d want me to play and win."
Na Menehune lost in overtime at Kahuku, 48-44, their second OT loss in three days.
"That is the longest road back," he said of the dark, quiet bus ride home from the North Shore. "I blame myself. I missed big free throws."
Along with his stepdad, Curtis Giles, Dexter became his mother’s rock, staying back home to help look after his three younger brothers while she went to Florida for the funeral at Christmas time.
Whatever steeled his soul also brought strength as Moanalua hit highs and lows in the following weeks. With Wesley Armbrust (13.4 points per game) recovering from an ankle injury, the team notched five tournament wins in a two-week stretch. Two losses to Academy of the Pacific dotted an otherwise successful stretch.
The regular-season slate resumed with Moanalua (1-4 in the OIA) lagging. Two weeks later, following another overtime loss to Kaimuki, defending champ Moanalua was 3-6 and desperately clinging to playoff hopes.
"We knew we were mentally tough. Other teams couldn’t do what we were going to do," said Williams, a regular double-double producer who leads the team with 15.9 points per game. "Coach said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up. The season is not over. It’s far from over.’ "
Tacon’s persistence prevailed, but he had reason for hope, especially in a lead-by-example senior.
"There’s an old soul inside of him," Tacon said of Williams. "He’s genuine. One of the easiest kids I’ve had to communicate with."
Keven Amaral. Armbrust. Slashers and clutch shooters. Richard Villasenor. Dillon Turk. Carl Ko. Bangers down low. Moanalua had returnees in bulk, but they had to learn on the job.
"People say we’re peaking, but we’ve played well. We just didn’t play at the end of games well," Tacon noted. "Eight seniors returned, but last year, it was (the outgoing) three seniors who dominated."
Sure enough, Moanalua ran the table and finished fourth in the OIA Red East at 6-6. In a playoff opener at Radford, Moanalua had a four-point lead in the final minutes. They passed up open midrange looks and opted to kill the clock and hit foul shots instead for a 45-40 win. It was a chickenskin moment for Na Menehune fans. Their boys were finally growing up.
A loss at Kahuku didn’t derail them in the double-elimination format.
"We knew we would meet ’em again," Williams said.
After a win over Mililani, Moanalua got its chance. A 53-47 win over Kahuku forced a winner-take-all battle, and Moanalua (22-13 overall) prevailed again, 46-44, to claim the OIA title on Saturday.
"I never knew the road was going to be so tough. Last year, it was so easy," Williams said.
A team that was on pace to miss the playoffs is now the No. 2 seed in the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships this week. On the menu: AOP or Roosevelt on Thursday night.
Tacon has orchestrated his team with savvy.
"They like to share the ball, and that’s satisfying since we don’t have a true star player," Tacon said.
He does have a great asset in the versatile Williams. After three years of weekly work at Kalakaua Clinic, he’s become a threat at any position.
"He’s one of the reasons we’re the team we are," Tacon said. "Though it’s hard at times, the maturity comes through."