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January 31, 2023 23 mins

Kevin Willis takes us inside his journey from junior college, to Michigan State, and then to the NBA. Kevin shares how he felt when he was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks and then he talks about playing against the Celtics teams in the 1980s. Later, Kevin explains why he used his famous elbow pads, he shares the mantra he brought to each team, he gives details about his trade to the Spurs, and then he shares when he knew the Spurs would win a championship in 2003.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:08):
Welcome to another edition of Sound of Spurs podcast. A
very special edition today because we got one of my
favorite all time Spurs with us. A guy who played
in the NBA for a long long time and he
played very well too, and we'll talk more about that later,
but a member of the OH three championship team, guy
who wore elbow pads better than anybody in the history
of the NBA. My man, Kevin willis goodness, Kevin, and

you look like you could still play, and we you know,
we talked about that because it was just yesterday you
were still playing, right, that's right, man, It's it's time.
Is just amazing. Sometime I think about it and it's
like twenty years past that quick, and Um, it's just
it's truly a blessing. And it's the fiftieth anniversary of
this organization. And obviously you played in the latter part
of your career for the Spurs, but I know, being

a Detroit guy, you had to follow the ice man
and he was a he was a hero in this Troy. So,
is that your earliest recollection of the Spurs when the
Iceman was playned, Yes, it is. Um. In high school,
I remembering ninth grade, going to the grade. When I
was encountering high school, I played against his brother Derek
in high school and everybody, the whole city was talking

about the iceman, the iceman, George Gurban. Now they're talking
about Derek Gurban and it's like, Wow, I played against
this guy every year, every year that was in high school.
And um, but great memories though. Yeah, I believe Derek
played at UTSA here in San Antonio, if I'm not mistaken. Well,
let's start at the beginning. We mentioned Detroit. Obviously, it's
a big basketball city, motown city Ice is on the show.

We talked a lot about growing up in that those days,
of course for him was the height of Motown and
the Temptations and how much music was really a part
of his growing up. But I'm sure it had an
impact on you as well, even until this day. That
Motown sound at Motown music is so inspiring, has so
much inspiration, such an incredible message behind it that I

I go to it today. I mean I listened to
it every single day in the Motown. Yes, the Tim Tayston's,
the Marvin Gaye. Um you're talking about um, especially Marvin?
You got um? Unless goes on all the board jobs
to the tops. I mean you got I mean tons
of guys to Jackson, I mean my goal. I mean
you've got just tons of guys all the way through.

And music was kind of a background Ice was saying
for you know, his growing up, and uh, maybe that
was part of yours too. But Detroit obviously is a
city that's got a lot of basketball. Uh. And were
you recruited by Judd Heathcote of Michigan State or how
did that work out? Not until Let's see, I have
to go to junior college first, and I went to
my junior college in Jackson, Michigan. And after that, Dan

I got picked up. Jail was coming. Okay, tell me
about him because I always see him from a distance.
And Judd Heathcote is kind of a legendary coach, old
gray haired guy, remember, But what was he? An old
school type guy, old school to the max um, no nonsense,
funny guy, but no nonsense, demand a lot from your
thumbers players, very disciplinary and things like that. But he

was really on me a lot, and I really didn't
understand why at that time. But he's one of the
key personnel to help me get not only through college
but through the pros How I did a prose pro
and he he taught me a lot and um bless
his soul. I mean it was he was just so
instrumental in my life, my development, my maturity, my mindset,

how my outlook on basketball. He was just amazing. I
always think of Michigan State is kind of a hard
nosed team. Of course, tom Izzo took over and they
had that tough nosed, hard nosed defense with Draymond greened
players like that. Uh, and you kind of fit that
mold even though you were before. Uh, tom Izzo, But
is there a certain type of player that he was
looking for at Michigan State that he wants you to

be at that physical enforcer type guy. Yeah, he wanted
me to be that guy who sort of controls the middle, rebound,
block shots, calls havoc in the middle, and score one
opportunity to presented itself obviously, but he just made sure
that I mentally was always ready and prepared to play
basketball and knew how to play basketball. And he taught

me how to play basketball because I started in such
a late part of my career. I mean I started
sixteen years old. Seventeen years. That's amazing. You didn't start
playing until you're Yeah. Yeah, I played one solid high
school year and that was my senior year. I started
my junior year, but it really didn't develop anything until
my senior year. But didn't take you a while to
catch up at me because obviously this guy's had a big,

huge start on it. Well they had to start. But
my my my work ethic and my discipline and my
focus and my dedication and my belief and my faith
in God. That's saying that just keep working, keep working,
keep working. And once I got going, it was better
than energized money. I never cut off. Plus, the Big
Ten has always been a good conference. That was good
competition for you, I'm sure. Yeah. It was very physical,

very physical. So I had to go from you know,
playing in junior college competition to the Big Ten. And
it was bigger guys, stronger guys, more experienced guys, and
so you have to take those bumps and those bruges.
But after my sophomore year was like, Okay, this is
what it's about, and now I'm going to control this
thing now. And Jerald allowed me to do that. As
far as far as from a physicality standpoint, but the

play smart though. Yeah, the Atlanta Hawks took you, and
I believe. So what was that like? Because you're a
guy from Detroit and from up north and you go
to school right there in Michigan, and now I gotta
go south. It was a surprise. I always starts gonna
go somewhere else picked up and it got to the

right off the and I wanted to go to New
York so so bad because of the fashion, the whole
nine yards. But you know, then we end up going
to Atlanta, a great city, and um they picked the
number eleven, and um they were an up and coming
team young with Dominique Wilkins and Tree Rollins and Danny

brown Field and all these guys. It was like, you
know what you got going to help these guys to
his team and help these guys learn how they and
build a build a strong foundation the chemistry. And we
had at that time young Mike Patello, and he was
he was like his first year, so he was trying
to learn and and no win to move and were
not to move. But we end up doing pretty good

and Doc Rivers came eventually. Doc was there before I
was there. It was Doc Dominique Tree Rolins, Dan Round
feel that he got traded. And we had Cliff uh Livingston,
Antoine Car. We had a good core Randy Whitman, Uh, Doc,
We had a good core of guys. Yeah, and you
were contenders for a while, mister. But it was very

tough in the Eastern Conferences. Celtics man, they were they
were Achilles, heel and um. But eventually, um, you know,
we even though we couldn't overcome that, but we we
learned a lot from it. You got to play in
the old garden, Yes, what was that like during their
heyday when you know Burdon Parish, Michale were going. It
was it was fun. It was um. Every night it

was all about the Boston Celtics. So we don't care
about them. The opposing team and Celtic Celtic Celtics. The
referees were Celtic Celtic Celtics and um. But we wanted
to go and to improve that we're better. We want
to go and improve that we can beat to these
these guys. And in some nights we had our moments,
but more and more, more more nights than we we

we lost more than we want, but we picked up
a lot of experience and we carry that with us
every type. Is it safe to say the officials let
a little bit more go back then, because I think
of those nixt teams of course, the Pistons teams during
the late eighties, and it seems like there was a
lot of banging going on. It was a lot of banging.
It was two referees at the time, so you could

just go in and bang. They can't catch everything. You
get busted in the mouth, to get ailble in your chin,
whatever it was, and sometimes you get caught, sometimes you don't.
But that's how that's how we played. That was an
Eastern conference and I loved it. I welcomed it, and
they taught me a lot, and so I knew how
to after a while. If you get more experience, you
understand how to use that physical part, and then you

know the mental part. Who who what referee you can
get away with stuff, and what referees you can't do
anything with. I was kidding with you before we started
about your elbow pads, because that's way a lot of
people do remember you because you always have the Zolbo pads.
Look like you're ready to go out in place on
offensive line. Right, where did those elbow pads come from?
And why did you use them? Well that's then my
first year in Atlanta, I ended up injuring that funny

bone on one on on this left arm. It was
like I hit it and it never every time I
would touch it or get hit and practice, I get
this this nerve shocking thing up my arm. And I
was like, man, this thing is killing me. So I said,
trying to say, let me put this on. You put
the alport pad on me, and he said, this shit
absorbed some of that, and so I did that, did
that like the rest of the year, and and it

was like funny, I got one on and one off.
I was like, no, man, I got put both of
them on, and so I'll put them on the next year,
I have two of them on. And he was like,
now I'm look like a superhero now. So I'm really
like this is really cool and it's been my my
my trademark ever since. Right, and they're not shooting sleeves
like they have now, right, No, I can't imagine Kevin
Willis wearing a shooting sleep. That's kind of letting not

your style. Then you go to Miami and you played
for them for a little while. Yes, Miami was a
great team. It's my surprise. I mean I was all
of a sudden, I'm in the hotel in Utah. All
of a sudden, I could have called my Asian car teammate.
You know what, wake up after nine years? Right? Actually? Wow, yeah,
you're in your tenth season just started. Yes, and they
say it, well, you're you just got traded to the

Miami Heat. I'm waking. I'm like, yeah, Miami Heat. I said, um,
for who Steve Smith, Grant Long and the draft pick
would later become a teammate that's right in the Champion.
So it was like, okay, cool, I see it. Um,
Now it's for real. Now it's about the business of basketball.
All this other stuff we're talking about, that's cool, but

now this is the business side. Now, Now I gotta
wake up. I got a mature and I said, because
I can play basketball on the other side of the world,
I don't care where am I. I can always play basketball.
So if you Miami, if Golden State, wherever it is,
I can play basketball. And I'm packing my bags. Man.
I was the next thing in Miami. They open arms,
welcome me. In and hey, it started from that moment.

And you've always been a guy that was a good
locker room guy and a good glue guy. Did that
help you later in your career, especially when you know
teams wouldn't wanted a veteran guy on the on the
ball club, maybe to be a mentor to some of
the younger players. I always want to do something like this.
I got older, Um, because my my ego never played
a role, and well, I'm not starting anymore this than that.
Because I went to Houston. I had Charles, Kim and Clyde,

and I was starting before I went to Houston, and
it was like, well, I'm bagging up a cheam. I'm
not to bag up Charles, but that's cool. We're trying
to win a championship and that's what it's about with me.
So it was like, I'm gonna play my minutes and
I can still be productive, but I'm just not starting.
So it was all good with me, and I could
go in the locker room and be a strong voice

if I need to be. But we had leaders on
that team as well, So any team I went to,
my thing was be a leader, be a professional, bring
what you bring to the game and whatever you bring
to your locker room that you can help these younger guys.
I'm all for it. And that was certainly one of
your main roles when you came to the Spurs. Take
us through how that whole thing with Pop and r

C happened and how you ended up in San Antonio.
I was at home in Atlanta and um obviously every summertime,
and I get the call and it was from the
Spurs front office. It was Lance Blanks, the man, Lance Man.
I've know Lance a long time. I was the voice
of the texts long words and who was playing for
you to how about that? Yeah, we get a call

from the GM at Houston saying, hey, Kevin, san Antonio
is interested and you're playing for M I said, okay, cool,
And so they said, hey, Carci Beauford and Greg Papa,
maybe give you a call. I said cool. And so
that he told me that they already have spoken with
him already and next time they like on the phone's Pop,
I'm talking to Pop. You. I mean, I'm like, I

would be honored. I'm thinking, my man, David Tim Yeah,
I'll be honored to come to San Antonio and play
and he said, um, well, here we are and we
we we've talked. The Rockets totally told the same thing
about you, like what we heard, and here we are.
And once I got here, man, it was on and

you knew this was a contender right away with that
kind of front court and good role players like Malik Rose, him,
Steve Stephen Jackson. These guys could play man, Jasku play man.
And defense was a priority back then. Priority it was
party one in Orthern winning. You gotta play some defense.
What was your first impression when you got to the
Spurs organization, because at that point at all, you have

been in the league for quite a while, playing against
the Spurs all these years. You know, My thing was
it was it was like, cab, just just come and
be you, come and just give what God's giving you
and given to you your whole entire career. Just bring
that to the Spurs, bringing just like you've always done,
the professional attitude, the locker room, the togetherness, the unit.

I'm moll it with me, man, And it was like, wow,
you know when we had the when we had the
big team dinner over at the owner's house before the
season started, right, and yes, and I really didn't know
the guys personally. I mean, I knew Steve Smith obviously,
but although the guys, I really didn't know him. So

I just planned against him obviously. But and David and
and and Tim told me later on that when I
went down to the pool the lake area down that
where it was just eating and just having fun, jumping in,
swimming and things like that, and they were trying to
plan on how to grab me and throw me in.
But I walked over there. I was no nonsense, right,

And they were like, no, we may, we may not
want to do that, and so um I would talk
to him. I was for some shorts I was gonna
do it. I said, no, I'm just gonna just walk
off to the side of the river here and just
walk and kind of think a little bit and put
this whole thing in perspective. And I went down to
the end up, not to the end of it, but

I went probably about five yards down and I'm just
sitting on the water and I'm just looking at the
water and it's so beautiful and serene. I'm like, wow,
And so I do I say a prayer. And I
said this prayer and I asked Gods, I said, listen,
just allow me to give what you've always given me.
A great person, character, hard working, i've been injured, free,

the work ethic, the voice to of a leader. Just
allowed me to deliver that. And after I said that prayer,
I had a couple of tears in my eyes. And
then before I got off that rock, the Lord told
me you're winning the championship this year. You told me
you're winning the championship this year, and I was like wow,

and I believed it right. So after we've got started,
I went back down to have fun and I had
a great time. And then the season, preseason started, everything
was going. I started to get used to the guys,
they got used to me, and I had my little
thing about he had certain handshakes for guys, all these
things and and it was just amazing. And this thing

came over me the whole for the whole season. And
then we got to the playoffs. I had this big thing,
payoff playoffs going on. We're doing good. I get kicked
out against the Phoenix Sun for that knocking the fire
out of somebody. I get to spend it for a
game and I'm like, okay, kay, okay, you got off
the way okay, cool, and so you set the tone.
I'm good. But we kept persevering. We kept going. We
got through Dallas, We got through Dallas, got through the Lakers,

and got some little miracles were happening along the way.
That year by Steve Kerr came off the bench. Steve
had not been playing very much, but those four threes
he hit man Tony was ill, and it was like, okay, no,
the faith that we're not gonna lose the faith We're
gonna keep going. We got the hell of my team here,
so we kept going. We kept going, and then when

we got to the finals, I was like, wow, the
first time, every first time, I'm so excited, but I'm poised.
And then long story short, as we got going, we
we beat Phoenix four too. Then we turn around, we'd
beat Dallas and then we beat No we beat the

Lakers or two. Then it was Dallas. I think it
was ending the Lakers run. Say won three in a row,
and that was the semifinals, the conference semi five. Okay,
so we won that one for too, and then we
got to the finals and now we won that one
for two. So every round was four two four two

four two four two. I was like, Okay, we want
a championship. But then I said, oh, God told me
the beginning we was gonna win a championship. And every
round was four to my number four two four two
four two four two, And I see it from that moment,
see no weapon, this is this is this is a

hell of a rat. That's exactly right. I was thinking
the O five Championship, which also had some similar bumps
along the way, and that OH three title. Yeah, they
lost the first game one first one man and um
came back, regrouped and every round what's four two? And yeah,
after we won it, Man marb shot and Paris say, Kevin,

did you realize Yeah, one every round your jersey number
four two four two four two four two. Right then
you got to go to Paris. So we'll get to
travel internationals. And I know you love that part of it,
especially being a fashion guy. That's right. We haven't talked
about your fashion year. We'll get to that. Meat Self
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Housing Lenders. Results very details itself, inc. I asked everybody
that does the podcast with me about the legacy of
the Spurs, because, um, it's fifty years now, as you mentioned,

starting in the old A B A. And I know
the people that have such fond memories of number forty
four the Iceman, and they can't think of the early
days of the Spurs. But but it's now now fifty
year legacy, you know. And after you left, of course, uh,
Mono who started to really blossom, and and and Tony
and of course him kept going. So your thoughts, uh
having on the legacy of this franchise as far as

the entire NBA is concerned. I think to Pop after
they won the the third when they want to know
the fourth championship seven. I talked to Pop on the phone.
I was like popping, congratulations, Um, I just don't know
how you do it. Man, You're You're amazing coach. You're

just unbelievable all the way around, organizations, unbelievable all the
way around. I said, I wish I was, I wish
I was here in the in the mid nineties. Man,
I'll be in the whole of fame right after they
drafted Timmy made you. Oh my god, just just amazing.
But just how they the whole organization, the city, the fans,

everybody that's involved in that circle, how they commit themselves
to this program. And you come with a purpose and
you're very successful with you. You buy into it, you
believe it, and you have a hell of a leader.
And um, when you have that type of commitment to

a great team, a great city, a great ownership, things happen,
Think things happen. So I think they're definitely on the
top extra line of the greatest team teams ever. I
appreciate that certainly. But when you talk about community, and
it's real with the Spurs, you're involved in your community
in Atlanta, and I wanted to give you the opportunity

to talk a little bit about the nonprofit that you've
got going on. My my nonprofit is Atlanta Children's Foundation.
My brother and I started back in tooth often and
two UM wanting to impact UM. The sports. Sports has
been so such a blessing for me and my family,
and it's awarded us to do so many amazing things
and to to have so much and to turn around

and not be able to dispersiate and give and help
and give someone else another person an opportunity and a
chance to be successful and live a certain life. Just
what in the car from you? I knew I had
to do something because I never knew off can go
play pro. I never know it's off to college and play.
It was just truly bless a blessing and being focused

and dedicated and UM and someone gave me an opportunity
a chance one day and I was able to couple
last off of it. And you're giving these young guys
and ladies, I'm sure an opportunity is an opportunity to
not only UM and not necessary from necessarily sports, but
just life in general, to have a chance to be successful,
chase their dreams, be safe, be raised in a in

a in a nice family, wholesome family, and have their
siblings together opposed to being dispersed and all over the country. Um,
Atlanta is almost, I think of the top for sex trafficking.
So these little young girls are innocent and little boys
are innocent, but they've they've been taken and kidnapped and
done all these horrible things too. So we're trying to

to prevent these things, some of these things from happening.
That's awesome, Kevin, that you're involved something like that. And
before we let you go, I know that you're really
involved in the fashion industry. And that is that was
or your passion all along, right, You majored in fashion
to Michigan State, So you had this vision, this dream
of clothing and fashion from the very younger. My mom

my mom with a seamstress, and I used to as
a child. I used to watch my mom do what
she did for many many years and just went into me.
And I got off to college and I changed my
major from communications to broadcasting to passion textiles. And once
I started it, got to the league and understood immediately
that there's a lot of players like myself six eleven

to seven five who have this problem. We can't find
the right fashion. You can't they don't sell it. Everything
has to because for made and guys are like I
wanted right now. So I said, hey, man, I'm gonna
start my business back in and I haven't looked back
since long time. And you never did get Tim dunking
to get out of jeans, did you. That was a project.

But that's that's tell him. But Tim, Tim has been
a great supporter of UM for my rand and that's awesome. David, Yeah,
just great. Guys. Well, it's great that you're here. They're
gonna honor you tonight. I've already seen the videos, so uh.
And you've got the elbow pads work and you're working
hard in there. Kevin Willis, thanks very much for joining us.
Appreciate that. I'm happy that our paths crossed us. You're

you're you're a great guy, and I'm so happy that
you're here. And we'll see you probably Atlanta later in
the season. We'll be that's today's Salts Spurs podcast, brought
to you by the fine folks itself, and we'll see
you next week.
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