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What's a wager between family members?

Wake's Eric Williams has an ongoing challenge from Mom - top her game-high rebounds (30).

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

TAMPA -- Here's the deal: If Eric Williams pulls down 31 rebounds in a game, he'll pocket $1,000.

It's not against Wake Forest's rules. Not against the NCAA's, either. It's his mother's challenge.

Debra Williams will pay up if he gets one more than the 30 she grabbed in a game at Wyandanch High on Long Island 25 years ago. She never came close to that at Livingstone College.

Eric said he once got 21 in a game at Wake Forest-Rolesville High, then the coach sat him down. He had 10 each in victories over South Carolina State and Florida State.

Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum, Debra was the 6-foot woman in a gold and black derby, cheering for Little Eric, the 6-11 freshman center wearing No. 31 for the Demon Deacons.

Yes, Little Eric. He's really Eric Williams Jr., the only child of Debra and Eric Sr., "but when he was real young we started calling him Little Eric," she said, "and it's a hard habit to break." His father, Debra's former husband, still answers to Big Eric.

In Wake Forest's first-round win against East Tennessee State, Eric had a team-high 20 points and nine rebounds.

Debra said he has told her that surpassing her 30 rebounds is impossible (the NCAA Division I record is 51) "because basketball was different way back when I played. It wasn't that far back -- 1978. It wasn't so different. We played 5 on 5. He said, 'Well, maybe you were playing against shorter people.' I told him, 'No, everybody was a little shorter then.'

"I don't care how you look at it, basketball's basketball. The only thing different is everybody's size and the classic uniforms. Eric would never wear those shorty shorts they wore back then."

Debra and her twin sister, Diane, played together at Wyandanch High. Debra wore No. 15, Diane 21. "If by chance I got into foul trouble, at halftime the coach would ask us to switch jerseys. Diane didn't usually have many (fouls). The refs never noticed. I probably had six or seven fouls sometimes."

Both separately and together, Eric's parents have built their lives around their son. "Big Eric and I are still the best of friends," Debra said. "It's what he's used to. He'll never see another side of us."

They drove together to many of Wake's 29 games. They missed only four road games -- at Georgia Tech, FSU, Wisconsin and Marquette.

She is a patient account rep at WakeMed, a medical center in Raleigh, N.C., 30 minutes from her Wake Forest, N.C., home. She holds a second, three-day-a-week job at a Sam's Club membership services desk. He lives 4 1/2 hours away in Georgetown, S.C., and is a supervisor at Georgetown Steel. They take vacations a day at a time to attend their son's games in Winston-Salem, N.C., and elsewhere.

For the four they missed, it was TV and a conference call involving Big Eric, Debra and Diane in Raleigh. "They do most of the talking," he said. "I basically listen."

Said Debra: "Little Eric's my only child. I have no social life. His basketball is my social life." She said she has no regrets.

"Watching by myself, I put on my gold felt hat (a Thanksgiving gift from a nephew) and I'm ready. ... I know when he's about to get a foul. I yell at the TV, 'No, Eric, don't. Stay back.' We talk after every game. Even if he's had a bad one, I don't say anything negative because he takes it personally. I tell him, 'Eric, you know, I was in that situation. You've got to concentrate, try harder next time.' "

Big Eric is less animated but just as intense. "I want him to do well," he said. "I can't be there to talk to him. I don't want to hear anything else (but the game), don't want to do anything else, don't want to leave the room. I don't want to miss anything."

If the score is close in the final minutes, Debra might walk away from her TV. Too much pressure, she said. She used to leave her seat at his high school games. "Now (at Wake Forest) they make me stay because I'm in the middle of the row."

Her derby has become her trademark. "People come over all the time. 'You're the lady in the hat. Can I get a picture with you?' Sometimes I feel like Oprah. ... Only one time I didn't wear it, to the Carolina game. I had to walk nine blocks from my car to the arena, and I didn't want to be gold and black when everybody was powder blue."

Wake's band has followed her lead, wearing plastic replica gold-and-black derbies.

Eric already is thinking about an NBA career, albeit a couple of years from now. Debra wants him to stay until he has his undergraduate degree. Education comes first she said, adding with a laugh, "Four years of free tickets. That's all I ask for."

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