by Troy Landrum Jr.
Alert and engaged, I sat in the second row at the Othello-UW Commons, on the evening of Thursday, April 13, with ears sharp and eyes focused on one of the most popular athletes and coaches in the state of Washington. Will Conroy, the associate head coach of men’s basketball at the University of Washington — or as we know it, UDub — allowed us to explore his life and spoke about his thoughts on “The Future of the Student-Athlete.” This was one of the many topics presented by University of Washington’s “Louder Than Words 2023,” a series of monthly conversations that cover the influences that divide our communities, with a focus on finding what unites us and building a better tomorrow.
Moderators Sally Clark, the interim vice president for campus community safety at UW, and Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs, facilitated the audience’s questions and helped narrate Conroy’s journey through thought-provoking questions and connections between athletes of the past and the present.
At the start of the conversation, Taylor helped us envision young Conroy. It was like the start of a sci-fi movie as I closed my eyes for a second and then opened them, suddenly transported by way of time travel to the mid-to-late ՚80s when 9-year-old Conroy walked down the streets of Othello in southeast Seattle. The vision was so clear because where we sat listening, we were only blocks away from the streets that paved the way for him as an adolescent, the community centers such as the Union Gospel Mission, the Central Area Youth Association, and the Van Asselt Community Center that developed him into one of the greatest point guards to come out of Seattle.
Conroy showed us his younger self walking the streets and going to the Safeway to get a 25-cent soda — the Safeway and the Union Gospel Mission that have stood the test of time in the face of so much gentrification. Conroy tells us the story of him and his friends taking over all the local courts in the neighborhoods, expressing a little remorse for those in the community who had to buy new nets and rims for the numerous games of pickup, one-on-one, and dunk contests that filled the summers for him and his friends. The scene laid itself out before our eyes. It was a vision so rooted in community and loyalty for an athlete — now a coach — to be speaking, working, and investing in the very area he grew up in.
Conroy, who doesn’t need much of an introduction for his legend and playing career, moved from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle at the age of 7 with his mom. He went to Bailey Gatzert Elementary School and Washington Middle School, then spent four years establishing his stardom at Garfield High School, leading them to multiple league championships.
After high school, Conroy had plenty of options to choose from as a high school basketball standout, but he chose to stay home. He chose the University of Washington as a walk-on player without a scholarship but soon became a starter and the all-time assist leader in UW basketball history. Conroy was named captain his junior and senior season and led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament, the Sweet 16 one year, and Pac-12 MVP and champion his senior season. After college, he played professionally overseas and had stints in the NBA and the NBA’s Development League.
Conroy achieved every professional goal he set his sights on with a grit and passion that he shares with the superstar players who come from Washington — Isaiah Thomas, Jamal Crawford, and 2023 Rookie of the Year Paolo Banchero, just to name a few. But Conroy’s story is different from that of the hometown sports star excelling, making money, and never looking back. After his playing days, the call of home pulled him back to the city because of his deep love for the community where he grew up, and his decision was one that would break that narrative and influence others to do the same. Conroy is close with Thomas and Crawford, like-minded pros with close connections to their home cities.
“I never really left. So, every summer I would come back and I would put open gyms together. … I’ll have a high school group come in, and just work those guys out and try to teach those guys habits that translate to college and pros. And so that kind of led me into coaching,” said Conroy.
He eventually made his way back to Seattle for good after his pro years, and in a full circle motion, found himself coaching at the University of Washington, the school that gave him so much in the community that gave him so much.
“Send the elevator back down,” said Conroy, a motto he stands by and repeats with players like Thomas and Crawford. It means, “Now that you have made it to the top and fulfilled your dreams, now help the community and, more specifically, the young people to fulfill theirs.” This motto echoed throughout the evening’s conversation between Conroy and Taylor, leaving us with a deeper sense of who Conroy is and represents, a community member deeply invested in the wholeness of his community as reflected in the many events he has created and sponsored for youth and the approachability he shows to the people of Seattle, approachability that shows up in simple but meaningful moments like his presence at his son’s AAU games.
“And so I want to make the kids feel something. So I can say whatever I want to say, but they need to watch me walk it more than I say … So, I have come to know the platform that I have and I know the importance of when I was 10, 11, and someone who I probably looked up to, if he would have said these things to me it could have pushed me a little harder,” said Conroy.
Taylor connected Conroy the community person, to Conroy the father, and to Conroy the coach, hats he wears seamlessly and proudly. This connection gave the audience a broader picture of how Conroy has handled and thought through the rampant changes in college sports where a new culture has shifted its focus to college athletes having the choice to transfer and monetize their own image and likeness — topics we dove into with Conroy that evening. He had many thoughts surrounding the transformation of college sports, but the things that stood out most were his love for community, family, his athletes, and the sport.
This love has helped him navigate the chaotic waters of collegiate sports, but this doesn’t feel to me like a naive love that will conquer all, but one that is personally transforming, community transforming, and transformative for the athletes who have been recruited, who have stayed or left. Conroy believed that if he led in love in all these areas, things would eventually work themselves out. He believed that the right players would stay, that the star athletes would send the elevator back down, and that he would be one of the many faces that would help continue to transform his community with a gentle reminder of the street outside the UW-Othello Commons that had groomed him for such a task.
I believe that sports in southeast Seattle is in good hands under the influence of the amazing athlete, coach, father, and community member that we have in Will Conroy — an influence that will continue to draw amazing players to the area, keep hometown heroes connected to the community, and change the way we invest in local sports and open up opportunities for local talent.
Watch the discussion with Conroy at the UW Undergraduate Academic Affairs official YouTube channel.
The next installment of UW’s Louder Than Words series will take place on May 11 where two Harborview doctors, Deepika Nehra and Frederick Rivara, will speak on healing the root of the epidemic of gun violence.
Troy Landrum Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently a program producer for KUOW’s “Radioactive” program. He has spent the past few years as a bookseller at Third Place Books in Seward Park and recently graduated with a master’s in fine arts at the University of Washington, Bothell. Follow Troy on Twitter at @TroyLandrumJr.
📸 Featured Image: Local basketball star Will Conroy attended Garfield High School and the University of Washington before going on to a professional career in the NBA. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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