Seeing an email pop into her inbox from the top levels of Duke’s athletic administration didn’t catch Elizabeth Williams off guard.
Even while starring in the WNBA and overseas, Williams maintained a close relationship with Duke athletics director Kevin White and deputy athletics director Nina King, who oversees the Blue Devils women’s basketball program.
Respect flows heavily in both directions.
This email last month from White told Williams she would become just the third Duke women’s basketball player to have her number retired and placed in Cameron Indoor Stadium’s hallowed rafters.
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“It was really exciting,” Williams said. “That was the first thing that went through my head. I was really grateful. Duke has been great for me.”
Williams did plenty of great things for Duke during her four year career that ended in 2015.
She became the first ACC women’s basketball player named a four-time Associated Press All-American. A 6-3 center, she won the league’s defensive player of the year award four times and was the national defensive player of the year as a senior, finishing her career No. 9 on the NCAA’s career list for blocked shots (426).
She twice made the ACC Honor Roll during her career and also earned a spot on Duke’s Dean’s List for her work in the classroom.
“Elizabeth is a consistent student-athlete,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “Her talents, work ethic, and academic focus combined with her enormous individual success on the court separate her from so many other student-athletes across the country.”
A break in her playing schedule in Russia allowed for Williams’ jersey retirement ceremony to take place when Duke plays Kentucky Thursday at 7 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. She returned to the U.S. on Dec. 21 and her next game isn’t until Jan. 4.
Duke held a reception in her honor on Wednesday night. Her parents, Dr. Alex Williams and Margaret Williams, plus her two siblings -- younger brother, Mark, and older sister, Victoria, are here to share in her special moments at her alma mater.
Some longtime fans and members of the Duke women’s basketball family, who have been estranged from the program, this season, are also coming back for this game because of Williams, an Atlanta Dream center/forward.
Last spring, Duke’s human resources department conducted an internal investigation of the women’s basketball program after accusations of player mistreatment surfaced.
White announced in May following the inquiry that McCallie and her staff were being retained and that the exercise produced opportunities for improvement throughout the program.
Williams said last spring that she was one of the former players who contacted Duke’s administration with concerns about the staff. She’s comfortable her voice was heard and maintains a positive rapport with Duke’s administration.
Williams said she attended practice on Tuesday and had a chance to spend time with her former coaches and teammates who are part of this season’s team.
“I got a chance to give out some hugs,” Williams said.
Still, in light of the decision to retain McCallie, some former season ticket holders have stayed away this season.
Some will attend their first, and perhaps only, game Thursday to support Williams, who will be signing autographs beginning at 6 p.m. in the Hall of Honor at Cameron.
“That’s huge,” Williams said. “To have people coming back that’s huge. To be the reason and the joining factor is awesome. I’m excited they will be part of it too.”
McCallie said she maintains positive memories of coaching Williams and is glad Duke is retiring her jersey.
“Her competitive drive and spirit,” McCallie said. “She was definitely an intimidating shot blocker who was very consistent with her effort. She was always trying to play at the highest level, to always be chasing the highest level. Her coachability and her demeanor. She has such a classic demeanor. Internally she has such a drive.”
That drive is why, Thursday night, Williams’ No. 1 will rise to Cameron’s rafters alongside Alana Beard’s No. 20 and Lindsey Harding’s No. 10.
Steve Wiseman: 919-419-6671; @stevewisemanNC
Kentucky at Duke
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham
Online: ACC Network Extra