Williams' run fueled by memory of lost loved one

Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams reacts after scoring a three, Saturday, January 22, 2022 during the second half of a basketball game at Walton Arena in Fayetteville. Check out nwaonline.com/220123Daily/ for the photo gallery.

FAYETTEVILLE — Largely because of covid-19, Cora Williams did not get a chance to watch her grandson, Jaylin, play live and in person during his freshman year at Arkansas.

Bound and determined to take in a game in Bud Walton Arena in the 2021-22 season, Cora, decked out in Razorbacks gear, was present for Arkansas’ 86-69 victory over Gardner-Webb on Nov. 13. Despite experiencing troubled breathing and essentially being carried to her seat by her son and Jaylin’s father, Michael, she cheered with all her might.

“Every time somebody would say something or Jaylin did something good, she’d always stand up and say, ‘That’s my grandson!’” Michael said.

In 24 minutes, he finished with 3 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. After the game, Jaylin shared a hug with the woman who battled her son for the right to be known as his No. 1 fan. It was a moment he will never forget.

Above all else, Jaylin vividly recalls the joy on her face.

“She was there with my dad and my brother, and she was just so happy to see me play in person,” he said. “She said it was crazy to be there and she was super happy. She told me she couldn’t wait to come to the next one.

“But that ended up being the last one she came to.”

On Nov. 17, Arkansas hosted Northern Iowa and defeated the Panthers 93-80. Jaylin flirted with a triple-double, contributing 11 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists to go with 3 blocks. Not long after the final buzzer, Michael informed Jaylin that Cora was in the hospital and her outlook was not positive.

The following day, Jaylin had plans to visit her after the team’s practice, but he wound up canceling because the Razorbacks had another workout the next morning. On Nov. 19, he woke up at roughly 5 a.m. to a text message that read Cora had been given 24 hours to live.

Within three hours, Cora, 75, passed away. Jaylin was en route to Fort Smith when he received the news.

“I remember her just caring for everybody regardless of what was going on with her,” Jaylin said. “Honestly, the one thing that’s going to stick with me for the rest of my life is how she was going through all this pain and all she cared about was everybody else. She wasn’t in the best of shape and she knew that her time might’ve been coming up, but she still came to watch me play just a few days before she passed away.

“Even with her in not good shape, she still showed so much care and love for everybody in the family like she did her whole life.”

Soon after Cora’s passing, Jaylin followed through on a promise he made her last year. He had a grand plan to honor her with a tattoo that featured four Cora flowers — representing Michael and his three siblings — and her name through the middle. It would also include her birth date in Roman numerals.

After learning of his idea, Cora teared up and hugged her grandson. On Dec. 23, her birthday, Jaylin’s design came to life below the elbow on his right arm.

“I ended up not being able to get it while she was alive, so I made sure that was one of the first things that I did as soon as she passed away,” he said. “Like I tell my dad, it’s right there on my arm, so I see it every time I brush my teeth when I’m looking in the mirror. Brushing your teeth is the first thing you do when you wake up and it’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep.

“I feel like it’s a constant reminder for me for the rest of my life.”

Cora was the family peacekeeper, Jaylin said, and her house was the place to be on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and any time there was a get-together. He visited her home in Fort Smith countless times growing up, often playing football or throwing a frisbee in the side yard.

She could get a little crazy or mean every now and then, Jaylin joked, but Cora was also the type to hand over her bottom dollars to little ones in the family who had the itch to visit the concession stand at Boys and Girls Club games.

Michael said his mother believed in Jaylin the same way he does. And she assisted in developing the Razorbacks forward’s magnetic personality.

“You guys wonder the reason why he’s kind of playing differently, that’s why,” Michael said. “That’s the whole reason he’s riding on Cloud 9 now. She always told him he needs to start playing the way that he’s capable of playing. It seems like some kind of a switch has turned on for him.

“Everything that he does, it actually sends chill bumps down my arms.”

In 10 games since getting his new ink, Williams has begun making his star turn, averaging 12.6 points and 10.2 rebounds. In that span, he has set career highs in minutes played (42), points (19), rebounds (15) and steals (6) and made more high-IQ plays than others might in an entire season.

“One thing I do whenever I walk out on the court at the beginning of the game is kiss my hand and point up to the sky, just knowing that she’s watching me and being protective over me every single game,” Jaylin said. “Throughout the game sometimes I feel like I can hear her talking to me.

“I can feel her watching me.”