Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Michael Turner was helping Alvin Williams with his math homework at Germantown Academy, they were just two high school kids hoping to play college ball someday—Turner on the gridiron and Williams on the basketball court. Neither could’ve imagined they’d reconnect at Bryn Mawr’s Shipley School 30 years later.
Williams no longer needs Turner to help him with algebra, and Turner doesn’t look at his friend any longer as “just a sophomore.” These days, each is part of the effort to level up Shipley in the Main Line’s crowded prep school hierarchy. Turner is head of school, and Williams is the Gators’ new boys basketball coach. The former Villanova standout has taken over a team with moderate recent success. The goal is to be on par with Friends League rivals like Westtown and Main Line neighbors the Haverford School and Malvern Prep.
Williams helped the Wildcats to the 1997 Big East title and was first-team all-conference that season. He also started two seasons for the Raptors before spending four campaigns as an assistant coach and director of player development. But it’s worth noting that Williams has never coached at the high school or college level. Other than his relationship with Turner, Williams has no ties to Shipley and wasn’t familiar with its league.
But no one should mistake an unconventional choice with an error on the school’s part. “It came down to a Venn diagram of what the school needs and knowing who Alvin was when we were younger and tangentially over the past 25 years,” Turner says. “He won’t just be about wins and losses.”
But Shipley fans shouldn’t mistake Turner’s comments as a lack of competitive fire. Shipley’s new head of school was one of the best defensive players in University of Pennsylvania football history, and he still holds the school record in all-time sacks. “Do I want to win? Heck, yeah,” he says. “There’s a mandate at Shipley—and most other independent schools—to succeed within the stated mission.”
Williams graduated from GA, so he understands that. That familiarity with the local basketball scene should serve Shipley well, thanks to his 12 years as owner of the Academy of Hoops. Through his skills-development concern, Williams connected players and coaches in the area—particularly in Philadelphia. That has familiarized him with the talent in the region and how it could fit into the Shipley equation. Williams won’t use his academy as a feeder program, but he will most certainly work to lure players from all over the region to play at Shipley.
Despite a low-key approach to describing the program’s aims, Williams, Turner and athletic director Justin Cooper aren’t looking to finish second—even to national powerhouse Westtown. Shipley’s roster includes several players who have aspirations of playing for Division One programs. One is 6–8 junior Raijon Dispensa, who enrolled last year. “We’re gunning for the top spot,” Dispensa says. “I think we fit in with Westtown and George School [another Friends League power]. We have good players. We don’t have a seven-footer like Westtown (the Duke University-bound Dereck Lively), but we’ve got a lot of good guys.”
When Dispensa learned that Williams had taken over the Shipley program, he thought it was “interesting.” After all, Williams’ nephew played youth football with Dispensa’s little brother.
“[Williams] mentioned it in our first encounter,” Dispensa says. “It was a Zoom call with the whole team, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Do you remember me? I remember you.’ I’m lucky to be coached by a former NBA player. He’s been where I want to go.”
Williams wants to build a program “from the ground up.” It’s about skills development, something he believes has been missing from a high school basketball culture that favors looser, AAU-style approaches emphasizing athletic ability. Williams points to mentors like renowned Philadelphia grassroots leader John Hardnett and his coach at GA, the late Jim Fenerty, as key to his development on and off the court. His Academy of Hoops focuses almost exclusively on teaching the fundamentals. “Half the practice is dedicated to skill work,” says Dispensa in reference to workouts and practices in advance of off-season competitions. Williams has also brought along Rashid Bey, a former Saint Joseph’s standout and a member of his staff at the academy.
Williams claims to have no college or professional coaching aspirations. He doesn’t want to be part of the frenetic life that comes from working at a higher level. That’s why he started the academy. It gave him a chance to teach the game to younger players without having to worry about recruiting and outside forces that can corrupt coaching. “I’ve worked at the NBA level, but I’ve never coached in college,” Williams says. “[High school] is the purest form of basketball. I don’t have the desire to be part of the other things. I have a family with young children (ages 15, 7 and 5), and those other jobs require a lot of time and a huge commitment without a lot of reward.”
Sitting in the Shipley athletic director’s office on a rainy fall Friday, Williams couldn’t provide many details about the 2021–22 team. He’s impressed with the players’ charactdo er and commitment. He enjoys how eager they are to learn and develop. And while the new coach has adopted a casual approach to results, it’s hard to believe a former NBA player and college standout isn’t taking aim at Westtown the other independent schools.
But Williams isn’t trying to be the story here. “I can say that it’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about the team. I want to lead them and be part of their development.”
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