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Playing under the influence -- of his brother

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2002

CHICAGO -- Label him, if you must. It is easy enough to do.

CHICAGO -- Label him, if you must. It is easy enough to do.

Antwonne Williams was a high school dropout. A drug dealer. A felon with multiple convictions. And, finally, a grim, violent statistic.

Although you should not necessarily stop there.

Antwonne Williams was a mentor. A hero. A crutch on which to lean. And, ultimately, a reminder of a life better left behind.

This is the best thing that could be said of Antwonne. That he led by using all the wrong examples.

Ezra Williams buried his older brother a little more than a month ago. The junior from Georgia rode to the cemetery in his brother's hearse because he felt it was his duty to lead the way. In a way, he was returning a favor.

"By the time he was 18, my brother was rich," Ezra said. "He had four Lexuses, two Mercedeses, he owned a house. All of that money, he was getting it from doing the wrong things. But he was rich. For me, a little brother looking up to him, I was like, 'Man I wish I had the cars and the girls he had.'

"I used to get out there and run around with the wrong crowd. It took him one time to see me. He punched me in my chest and sent me home. He came home, he saw me and said, 'I better never see you out there again.' " There were four of them growing up in Marietta, Ga. Four brothers with the same opportunities, the same road blocks. The first three landed in jail. The fourth is a college basketball star on schedule to graduate in the next year.

Ezra Williams, 21, says he is blessed. Blessed to have a talent for playing basketball. Blessed to have had the sense to follow the correct path. Blessed to have had Antwonne demanding he stay out of harm's way.

Maybe Ezra would have been fine without Antwonne's guidance. Maybe he would have figured out life's priorities on his own.

After all, he had seen enough heartbreak to understand the risks of the streets. He was 12 when he saw Antwonne chased down by police and slammed to the sidewalk before being led away in cuffs. He saw anguish in his parents eyes when their sons would walk into prison visitation rooms. He saw friends lose their innocence, and sometimes their lives, to the lure of drugs.

Ezra said he grew up in a household filled with love, but on the other side of the front door were temptations too easily chased.

This is where Antwonne stepped in. Unable to keep himself out of trouble, he at least was determined to make sure Ezra did not follow.

Ezra is his own man now. A second-team All-SEC pick. The second-leading scorer on a Georgia team that could advance to the Sweet 16 with a victory against Southern Illinois today. Yet even now, Ezra hears his brother's words -- "Don't even think about it" -- whenever a misdeed is presented to him.

"He was my hero," Ezra said. "I've got a big picture of him at home and that's what I have written on top: My hero. He influenced me so much. He was always pushing me. Even when he was in jail he would write me like 10 letters a week. I always thought I could make him proud of me."

Without quite realizing it, their roles eventually reversed. Ezra became the role model Antwonne, 26, strived to emulate.

In recent months, Antwonne had gotten a construction job. He talked of leaving Marietta and moving in with his brother in Athens. He brought up the possibility of returning to school and perhaps studying real estate.

The brothers talked on the phone Feb. 8 about Antwonne driving to Auburn to watch Georgia play the next night. Antwonne said he would call back. It was the last time Ezra spoke to his brother.

He was getting off the bus after the Auburn game on Feb. 9 when Ezra's cellular phone rang. When he answered, he could only hear his mother's sobs.

"She said, 'He's gone. He's been shot,' " Ezra said.

Ezra has heard few details of the shooting and has no desire to learn more. His brother apparently had been in a scuffle and a bullet wound to the leg had ruptured his femoral artery. Antwonne bled to death.

The funeral was held in a Pentecostal church where Williams' grandfather is a minister. Georgia coach Jim Harrick sat beside Ezra in the first row.

"I actually got up and walked out," Ezra said. "It was so hard. I busted out crying. It was like I wanted to get up and take him out of that casket and leave. So I got up and walked out the door."

The devastation of the first few days gradually receded. The void remains, although the pain is not so raw.

Ezra figures the best way to honor his brother's memory is by continuing on the same path Antwonne demanded he follow.

"I get motivation everywhere," Ezra said. "When I go home, it's an influence all by itself. I look at my friends and I know I can't end up like that."

Ezra said he has tried to work out his feelings in solitude. He spoke to his mother about Antwonne, but prefers to spare her the grief. Instead, when the mood strikes him, Ezra said he prays. His prayer has not been answered, but he still has hope.

You see, a long time ago, Antwonne taught him the importance of chasing the right dreams. So at night, Ezra prays for a dream in which his brother still lives.

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