About 30 minutes after the Toronto Raptors knocked off the Boston Celtics 110-107 last Wednesday, Lou Williams sits at his locker in the TD Garden visiting locker room, chumming with his new teammates. He dumps a packet of oyster crackers into a cup of clam chowder and begins spooning the New England delicacy into his mouth.
Kyle Lowry sits to his right. Reporters are waiting to speak with DeMar DeRozan a few lockers to his left. In the opposite corner, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas bob their heads to whatever is bumping on their headphones. This up-and-coming Raptors squad, Williams says, brings back memories of the Philadelphia 76ers that took the Celtics to Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"It reminds me a lot about that group. Very similar. Like, everybody's so young and hungry and wants to win," Williams says. "I think that was the same way with that group, we had so many guys on the team that wanted to prove themselves and at the same time, was playing well together. So, that reminds me a lot of here."
Williams is now almost two years removed from a season-ending ACL tear back when he was with the Hawks in late January 2013. Suddenly, he's in his 10th year in the NBA, with his third organization and 28 years old.
When I tell Williams I'm from Philly, he looks up, smiles and simply says, "Me too." He notices the funny look I give him: Williams grew up in Georgia before entering his name in the 2005 NBA Draft fresh out of high school. We slap hands. "That's what's up," he says.
"It was really a family atmosphere," Williams remembers. "We damn near grew up together. I had my first child when I was in Philadelphia. [Andre Iguodala] had his first two kids in Philly. Everybody really knew each other's families."
Williams arrived in Philadelphia a wide-eyed 18-year-old. He left following that 2011-12 season as the team's leading scorer and a lethal offensive weapon off Doug Collins' bench.
It was a squad the 6-1 guard thought had a legitimate chance to contend.
"I thought we just had a solid basketball team," Williams says. "I think we put a very young basketball team together and we had some success. I thought they should have kept that group together, but you know the business is the business and everybody just went their separate ways. It's one of those things where you just say what could've been, what should've been and what if?
"The last group we got to the second round and we were two possessions away from going to the Eastern Conference Finals. I think that was a pretty good group to keep together."
That's when Williams shakes his head. He says that locker room was infiltrated by the constant swirl of Iguodala trade rumors. And with new ownership coming into town, the players knew their team only had a short shelf life remaining.
"We kind of knew it was going to happen, based on how the season was going and you know how everybody was vibing, we kind of knew it was going to be a few guys to go their separate ways," Williams says. "I was a free agent. Andre, they were saying they were going to trade him every other week. It was always something going on. You've been around long enough, you can kind of tell when things are just gonna fall apart."
Sure enough, Iguodala was shipped out of town for Andrew Bynum. Williams inked a multi-year deal with the Hawks and now Sam Hinkie's rebuild has dispersed Jrue Holiday, Spencer Hawes, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young all across the league as well.
The group still shares a close bond.
"Everybody keeps in close touch," Williams says. "I just spoke to Dre a few days ago. I talked to Evan last week. I haven't spoke to Jrue in some months, but other than that, everybody still speaks."
Williams tells me Turner is one of his closest friends. They speak at least once every two weeks.
Both players find themselves in different situations this season. Turner's in year one of a two-year midlevel deal with Boston, essentially fighting to prove he can still be a contributor in the league. Atlanta traded Williams to Toronto this June in a move that was simply a salary dump by the Hawks. He's an old 28 with a lot of miles on his skinny legs looking to play his first full season since he left the Sixers three years ago.
"It's good," Williams says of his new situation. "Just to land on my feet somewhere where it's another young, up-and-coming team, guys are putting together a solid group, it just feels good to be apart of a team that's got a winning build."
Back home, we're all rooting for you, Lou.