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Former Gophers basketball player Jonathan Williams thought nothing of a routine physical last September, until a brain tumor the size of a softball appeared in scans and shook his whole world.

From his family life to his passion for coaching one of the state's top AAU basketball teams, everything got turned upside down after he learned he was in for the health battle of his life.

Even after a non-cancerous diagnosis, the 38-year-old Williams endured multiple brain surgeries before he was on a path toward recovery.

It's been two decades since Williams starred in high school at St. Cloud Apollo. But Gophers fans might still remember him from his college days as a backup big man for Dan Monson and Tubby Smith from 2004 to '09. After a brief pro career overseas, he returned to work in Minnesota school districts and also coach.

As Williams fought to return home healthy to his girlfriend and young son, his second family at D1 Minnesota also helped get him through tough times earlier this year.

"When they said we had to do a second brain surgery on you, that's when I kind of felt like I hit rock bottom," Williams said.

On Friday, an uplifted and healthy Williams was on the sidelines coaching D1 Minnesota's 17U team at the Prep Hoops Battle at the Lakes in Wayzata, including Gophers recruits Isaac Asuma and Grayson Grove. Williams is back making a difference for players with goals of playing college basketball as he did.

"Jon's awesome," said Asuma, a talented Class of 2024 guard from Cherry who committed to the Gophers in March. "He came through a lot of adversity with his surgery. And I was happy he was able to recover and come back and coach us."

Back to the hospital

In late January, Williams prayed for it all to work out before a seven-hour procedure to remove the brain tumor through his nasal cavity. After returning home, he went back to the hospital a week later after waking up one night with awful chills and a severe headache.

"I couldn't function," Williams said. "My mom and my girlfriend rushed me back down to the University of Minnesota. They did an MRI and they found air pockets forming because my brain didn't heal properly. After another surgery didn't go so well, my nose was draining blood and brain fluid."

Williams then spent more than two weeks in the U hospital dealing with different procedures. Physical therapy eventually helped him move around again without support.

"Being in the ICU is not fun, so I became more grateful for life and the opportunity to coach basketball," he said. "Being a former Gopher and having the people work on me at the university gave me a deep appreciation for what they do. They really did take care of me."

After complications following his surgeries, Williams was bombarded with text messages from members of his AAU team. He had done wonders developing and inspiring those players on and off the court. And they returned the favor by keeping his spirits up during a health scare.

"They're like little brothers to me," Williams said. "After playing at the University of Minnesota and playing college basketball, I told myself when I get into coaching, I'm going to be honest with guys and give them what they need to succeed. I prided myself on that."

Former Gophers teammates such as Vincent Grier and Damian Johnson also called to support Williams. D1 Minnesota's director Jeremy Miller and others on his AAU staff stayed in constant contact with Williams to update him on his team.

Everyone told Williams to take his time returning to the court. He told doctors, though, that his goal was to be back coaching for the first AAU tourney in mid-April.

"They told me realistically you have to take it day by day," Williams said. "God willing, it all worked out."

Talented AAU team

Williams already coached a few members of D1 Minnesota's 17U squad earlier in their high school careers. Several more players were added to a group that's loaded with eight D-I prospects, including Totino-Grace's Isaiah Johnson-Arigu, Eastview's Jonathan Mekonnen, Chisago Lakes' Patrick Rowe, St. Cloud Tech's Tam Ferguson and Holy Family's Kole Hanson.

"I respect him a lot and it's motivating for him to come out and coach us," Mekonnen said. "We have a purpose to play for him."

The 6-9 Grove, from Alexandria, accepted a scholarship offer from Gophers coach Ben Johnson over the weekend. He has benefited from having a big man coach such as Williams.

"Being coached by Jon is great," Grove said. "He knows what it's like to be a big man. He really understands how I like to play."

An example of how tough it can be playing on the Adidas circuit: D1 Minnesota dropped its first three games this spring, but it still ended its first session with a win vs. the N.Y. Gauchos last month.

As much as Williams maybe loses sleep after some tough losses, he knows there easily could have been no coaching after brain surgery, especially this spring.

"At one point I made up in my mind if I can't coach, I'd be fine," Williams said. "But the goal was to get back. I wanted to be on the sidelines."