Pandemic slows DC college student’s march to madness

The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament kicks off Friday afternoon, and lots of small schools will be hoping to pull off an upset and become a Cinderella story. But for one D.C. hoops player, it’s the coronavirus pandemic that has him once again waiting another year to try on a slipper.

After a high school basketball career filled with accolades at Sidwell Friends, Jelani Williams went to the University of Pennsylvania hoping for both academic challenges in the Ivy League and athletic challenges playing hoops for one of the Ivy League’s top basketball programs.

His freshman year, the Quakers won the Ivy League and went to the NCAA Tournament. Williams didn’t play at all that year though, after he had surgery on a torn ACL. The two years after that, Williams sat out again because of more knee surgeries.

Last summer, he was finally medically cleared to return to competitive basketball. The clearance came in the middle of the pandemic.

Months later, the Ivy League announced it wasn’t going to play this year. It’s the only league that sat out.

With many in his incoming class ready to graduate, Williams still hasn’t played a single minute of college basketball.

“I haven’t been able to play yet, I’ve had three consecutive ACL surgeries,” Williams said.

“I missed my first three years, rehabbed to get back this year and the Ivy League was the only league — I believe still the only league that canceled the winter and spring sports at this point.”

When dozens of other schools tipoff their postseason today and tomorrow, the smaller ones will be hoping to become this year’s “Cinderella,” the underdog that knocks off a higher seeded program.

Williams remembers the excitement of vying for that status as one of the top 64 teams playing in 2018. “That was a great experience just for me being able to see and kind of get a taste,” Williams said.

“It gave us a point to work towards for the next three years. We were the 16th seed slated against Kansas in the first round. We played them in Kansas so we had their whole crowd out. It was just a great experience to be able to see other teams in one place and play some high level basketball. For me watching high level basketball, being part of that atmosphere, definitely something I want to get back to my last year here.”

Williams and other players returning to Penn’s basketball team next year have been working out and practicing, all while watching other teams play in the tournament they all hope to play in too.

In fact, one of the schools playing in the tournament is Drexel University — whose campus is only a few blocks away from Penn’s.

“That part of it is definitely frustrating,” he said.

“March is a great memory, a great time. Being able to see those guys, being able to experience that and going to the tournament is exciting for them, but it sucks for us because we felt like not only last year but this year as well we had an opportunity to make the tournament so that part is frustrating.”

Typically the Ivy League doesn’t allow for fifth year seniors to play, but because Williams sat out a semester during his junior year, he will retain eligibility to play again next season.

“Knock on wood I stay healthy and everything goes as planned and we have a normal season, I’ll be able to play one more year here, hopefully make a run in the tournament,” he said.

And if all that goes according to plan, he said he hopes to continue his career for one more season beyond that as what’s called a “graduate transfer,” allowing him to use a fifth season of eligibility at a school while working on an advanced degree.

So while everyone else will be watching games and studying brackets, any of these NCAA tournament games being played this weekend will be about scouting for next season. After all, he’s made it so close to getting back on the court that he isn’t willing to give up just yet.

Watching the games today, “it’ll be more about trying to maybe look ahead to some of the teams we might get to play against next year,” Williams said.

“Look at different ways that college basketball teams are playing. See how we would shake up with those matchups, so it’s more like looking at it from the perspective of a competitor rather than a fan.”

And if all goes the way he hopes, next year he will be the one that everyone else is watching try to put Cinderella’s glass slipper on his foot.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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