By Mike O'Brien
On April 7, 2013, the Amherst men's basketball team won its second NCAA Division III national championship title in program history with a decisive 87-70 victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor. Six months later, Willy Workman '13 is living out his dream by doing what he loves the most.
The dream began as a child and came to fruition this summer. It started during the Jeffs title run. Unable to speak to agents until after the season, a local friend of the Northampton, Mass. native used his NBA ties to expose Workman. A former player of the Dallas Mavericks, the unnamed friend reached out to prospective agents already in town (Atlanta, Ga.) for the Final Four, and told them they needed to watch Willy.
In 2013, the NCAA celebrated its 75th anniversary of March Madness by hosting the Division I, II, and III Championships in the same city. For a Division III athlete with goals of playing professionally, the exposure couldn't have been better. Playing in the national spotlight, Workman posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds in 39 minutes; adding four assists, two blocks and one steal. Filling up a box score was Willy's game, and as head coach David Hixon liked to call it, "Willy stuff."
"Willy stuff" translated to wins and agents liked what they saw from the talented 6-foot-6, 195-pound forward. Within days, the senior had received several calls and emails.
After some careful research following the season, Willy found the perfect representative in Dave Gasman. The Philadelphia-based agent invited Workman and his family to New York City for lunch, and brought the contract with him. Once the pen touched that paper, Willy's journey began.
Now under Gasman's guidance, Workman flew out to Las Vegas, Nev. this summer to work on his game for seven weeks at the highly touted Impact Basketball camp ran by Joe Abunassar. Founded in 2006, the camp has trained over 200 NBA professionals, men's and women's national teams, McDonalds and NCAA All-Americans, foreign professionals, as well as numerous talented youth players from all over the world, counting players like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rudy Gay, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and Chauncey Billups among its alums.
Workman not only had the opportunity to train at Impact Basketball against NBA and high caliber Division I players, but he had the advantage of playing in front of NBA summer league scouts. The league essentially became an international recruiting ground with only 2-to-3 players from the 12-team rosters earning a spot on the parent team, which left 9-to-10 guys vying for a job.
During his time in Vegas, Willy matched up against 15-year NBA veteran Al Harrington from the Washington Wizards, 2010 first-round draft pick Quincy Pondexter of the Memphis Grizzlies and the 14th pick of the 2007 NBA Draft Al Thornton.
"I guarded Al Harrington, he called me 'mouse' though," laughed Workman. "He always called me mouse, I was like, 'I'm 6-6, 200 pounds, people don't usually call me small'."
The recent graduate was no longer playing Division III basketball. The game was now quicker and the players were bigger and stronger. The game he played and the moves he made at Amherst no longer came as easily to him. But it was all a part of the transitional period. A transitional period he compared to high school and college.
"The guy coming from the weak side is 6'11 instead of 6'6 and he can jump, and his arms are long," said Workman describing the adjustments he has had to make. "That little finger roll that worked in college is now a floater or that scoop shot is now a pull-up jumper. Everything is a little harder so everything you do has to be a little better."
Luckily for Workman, his style of play and ability to hold his own against NBA-caliber players caught the eye of one team in particular, Hapoal Galil Elion from Israel. The team, located in a small city in the northern part of the country, has a strong tradition with a great fan base. Galil Elion helped develop several NBA players such as Omri Casspi of the Houston Rockets and free agent Jeremy Pargo.
The team thought Willy's game would translate well in the European league, something he has heard before. Negotiations with his agent went on for nearly a month as both sides went back-and-forth until coming to an agreement.
Now in Israel, he is currently in the process of becoming a valuable commodity in more ways than just his performance on the floor. Workman, the son of a Jewish mother, is becoming an Israeli citizen. The benefit? It allows an Israeli team to open up roster space for another American player. With limited roster room for foreigners, an Israeli citizenship will give Workman more opportunities and increase his chances of staying in the league.
Also increasing his chances are continued improvements. Despite a style of play that resembles the European game, Workman still had to adjust to new rules and techniques. For example, what may be considered a travel in the United States is not considered a travel in Israel, and vice versa. Still getting used to the little nuances of the game, Workman has already become the victim of a Chris Webber-esque moment.
In the team's first scrimmage, the swingman got stuck in the corner and called a timeout, a normal occurrence in the US. However, this time the ref looked back with confusion. What Workman did not know, was that only coaches can call timeouts, not players.
When asked about his future, Workman replied, "I will play basketball until I am not good enough to play anymore, I don't really think long-term a lot. Usually I'm thinking, what can I do today to become better at my craft? What can I do today to improve as a basketball player, as a person. I set small goals because that's how you improve."
The enthusiasm and passion in Workman's voice cannot go unnoticed. "I wake up every morning with a smile on my face. I love what I do. It's not lost on me how special that is and how lucky I am."
Despite his excitement for the future and the opportunities that wait, he takes a moment to cherish his stellar college career that ended with a national championship. Meeting his Israeli teammates helped him feel less nostalgic, but he will never forget the people and the memories he made at Amherst. The bond the team formed was special and that became more apparent once it was gone.
"It couldn't have ended a better way, they gave me a ring and a degree," says Workman. "Who would have thought."