Chip Scoggins
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– An ongoing debate exists inside the Tennessee locker room over how Grant Williams achieved dual status as basketball star and nerd.

“Was he an athlete and became a nerd, or a nerd who just happened to be athletic?” senior guard Lucas Campbell asks, laying out the two options. “I think he’s a nerd that happened to be athletic.”

Williams doesn’t dispute that.

“I’m definitely a nerd,” he said. “I embrace it.”

His mother offers a different theory.

“He’s a Renaissance man,” Teresa Johnson says.

Indeed, basketball represents only a sliver of Williams’ interests. His life has many interesting layers beyond his burning desire to lead the Vols to the Final Four in Minneapolis.

His mom works for NASA as an engineer in the program that designed and developed the International Space Station.

His father, Gilbert, played basketball at Mankato State and later worked in the music industry as a bodyguard, providing security for a client list that included Prince and Michael Jackson.

As a child, Grant learned to play seven instruments, including clarinet, violin, piano and drums. He became a nationally ranked chess player in elementary school and competed in a Math Olympiad.

He performed in musicals in high school, singing a duet in the production “Anything Goes” as a senior.

He is nearly fluent in Spanish and hopes to learn French next.

He chose Tennessee after considering several Ivy League offers, including Harvard and Yale.

When he’s not on the court, Williams probably can be found engrossed in a board game called Settlers of Catan. He plays several times a day in a group that consists mostly of the team’s walk-ons. Williams brings Catan on road trips to pass time in the hotel. He even autographed a fan’s Catan box after a public practice in Columbus, Ohio, last weekend.

“He enjoys everything life has to offer,” Williams’ mom said.

His present focus is basketball, and he excels in that arena too. The two-time SEC Player of the Year saved his team’s season last week with clutch plays in overtime against Iowa in the second round after the Vols blew a 21-point halftime lead.

Williams scored six points with an assist and steal in overtime, sending the Vols here to face Purdue in the Sweet 16. Williams’ stat line vs. Iowa — 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks — is a testament to the toughness and versatility that make him one of college basketball’s best players.

“I feel like a fifth-grader who just ate Skittles,” he said after the game.

That answer describes Williams’ personality perfectly, teammates say.

“He’s like a big kid because he’s always joking and laughing,” guard Lamonte Turner said. “He doesn’t have too many dull moments.”

A Final Four appearance would bring his family’s ties to Minnesota full circle. Gilbert Williams helped Mankato State win the North Central Conference title in 1975-76. He got involved in security after his playing career and worked in the music industry for years. Williams said he worked on two of Prince’s concert tours in the 1980s.

He also taught his son the game of basketball.

“That’s why he plays an old man’s game,” Gilbert said.

Williams wasn’t highly recruited because he’s an undersized forward at 6-7. But he’s strong with crafty moves around the basket. He lost 25 pounds after arriving on campus, reshaping his body into a chiseled bruiser.

And he’s a fierce competitor, allowing him to negate any disadvantages when facing taller post players.

“He’s a unique player,” teammate Jordan Bowden said.

Unique personality, too. His teammates know about his high intellect, but Williams often surprises them at weird moments.

“When we’re on the free-throw line in games, Grant loves to shout out [the shooter’s] free-throw percentage,” senior forward Kyle Alexander said. “I don’t know if he’s trying to mess with their head or what. But we’ll be ready to block out and he’ll say, ‘This guy is a 66 percent free-throw shooter. It’s coming off.’ Or, “This guy shoots 83 percent. First one is going in.’ We’re like, ‘Grant, how do you know this?’ ”

Williams’ mother wasn’t keen on him turning down an Ivy League education until Vols coach Rick Barnes gave her a detailed presentation about UT’s renowned supply chain management program in the business school.

Johnson has worked at NASA for 34 years in a variety of engineering jobs. She’s currently manager of Safety and Mission Assurance Directorate Space Act Agreement.

Johnson walked into Grant’s bedroom during a phone interview this week and noted the walls are adorned with both athletic and academic awards.

“Grant is a strategic thinker,” she said.

He also might be the most popular student on campus, according to teammates.

“The student body loves him because if he meets you twice, you’re his best friend,” Campbell said. “He knows more people than I know, and I’m from Knoxville.”

Said Brad Woodson, a senior walk-on and one of Williams’ closest friends: “He’s almost too nice sometimes.”

Except when he’s on a basketball court. He’s not a nerd there. Just a hard-nosed player willing to take on any challenge.

Chip Scoggins • chip.scoggins@startribune.com