This could have been the celebrated, hometown return of the most heralded high school basketball player from Lee County in 20 years.
Instead, it has been shrouded in silence.
Fort Myers native Emmitt Williams V, considered a top-20 college basketball prospect, returns to Southwest Florida with Orlando Oak Ridge for the 45th Annual Culligan City of Palms Classic. The Pioneers open play at 6 p.m. Wednesday against Richmond (Virginia) John Marshall at Florida SouthWestern State College’s Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
The hush surrounding Williams stems from his Oct. 11 arrest by the Orlando Police Department on accusations of sexual battery and false imprisonment of a female friend.
The state attorney’s office has 180 days from the alleged crime to file charges and has yet to do so, which is why Orlando Oak Ridge High has allowed Williams to continue competing. He has clearance from Orange County Public Schools based on its student conduct policy.
The 6-foot-8 Williams, who transferred to Oak Ridge before this season, declined interview requests at the advice of his attorney. His mother and father also declined to be interviewed. Both of his former high school basketball coaches did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
Of those closest to Williams, only his attorney, Dean Mosley of Orlando, and Oak Ridge coach Steve Reece spoke about Williams.
“We can’t say much,” Mosley said. “I’ll say this. Emmitt is a very incredible young man. He is a very cautious young man about how he treats women. He was raised by a single mother. He has two sisters. He understands how to respect women. He understands the gravity of the allegations against him. He believes he didn’t do anything wrong.
“In this case, he believes that never happened…. He didn’t know anything about a problem for 24 to 48 hours of there being an issue. I don’t know why this happened. It shouldn’t have happened. We take the position that Emmitt is innocent.”
According to the Orlando Police report, Williams visited a female friend’s apartment on the night of Oct. 10. She alleged he kept her from leaving her home and forced himself on her despite her attempts to push him off and repeated statements of “no,” the report said.
The victim called police the next night after a text conversation with a friend in which she explained that Williams became more aggressive the more she tried to stop him, the police report said.
In the presence of police, the victim’s friend had a text conversation with Williams in which he acknowledged being told “no” by the victim while continuing to have sex with her, the report said.
Because Williams might have to defend himself in a court of law, Mosley said he did not want him talking in public just for the sake of another kind of court: the one of public opinion. Instead, Williams will be focusing on the basketball court.
“My advice to him is not to comment about this case and to say nothing about this young lady,” Mosley said. “We don’t want anybody to misinterpret it. Ask him about basketball. I told him: ‘Talk about your training. But don’t talk about this. You’ve got to keep your mouth shut until we get this resolved.’”
Williams spent his freshman season at Lehigh Senior High before transferring to boarding school Bradenton IMG Academy for two seasons, which played in the City of Palms last year. Williams missed the first two games of this season as Oak Ridge petitioned the school district to allow him to play. Since returning to the lineup, he has averaged 19 points and nine rebounds per game for 8-1 Oak Ridge.
That talent had schools like Duke, Kansas, LSU and Oregon among those recruiting Williams prior to his arrest.
Mosley, Reece and Oak Ridge Athletic Director Tony Atkins remained unclear about how Williams would handle the onslaught of media attention for a player of his caliber at the Classic.
Mosley said he might travel to Fort Myers in order to supervise Williams handling questions from the up to 120 media members credentialed for the tournament.
“I can tell you right now that he’s excited about playing in the tournament,” Mosley said. “He loves the competition. He has worked so hard to try and get better. It’s just a tough time for him to open up and talk because of what’s going on because of the legal situation.”
Mosley said he did not know where or with whom Williams lived in Orlando. Williams’ father, Emmitt Williams IV of Lehigh Acres, would not say. Athletes who are 18 or older are allowed to choose their own guardian in the Orange County Public School District.
Williams, who turned 19 on Sept. 15, lists a Lehigh Acres address on his driver license.
Reece said he had little to say about Williams because of his legal situation.
“He’s good to have on the team,” Reece said. “He shows leadership. He plays hard. He’s one of the top players in the country.”
Ron Sachs, who specializes in crisis communication for the Sachs Media Group in Tallahassee, said Williams and his attorney may have made an error in shielding Williams from the media.
“You have the presumption of innocence until you’re proven guilty,” Sachs said. “With this tournament and its reputation, being played in the court of public opinion, that’s a different court altogether. When somebody is accused of a serious crime, you are not obligated in the court of law to say anything in your own defense. But in the court of public opinion, it’s very difficult to embrace a position of standing meek and being responsive to questions arising out of serious charges.
“It’s not going to go away. It may offend some people that this player is still playing in the tournament. But he is presumed innocent.”
Because of Williams’ prowess as a player, Donnie Wilkie, the City of Palms Classic tournament director, changed the field prior to the arrest in order to have him return.
IMG Academy had been invited to the 2017 field of 16 teams. After coach Vince Walden left IMG for an assistant coaching job at Arkansas State, Williams transferred to Oak Ridge. Wilkie dropped IMG from the field in favor of Oak Ridge.
Williams first lobbied with Wilkie to include his first team, Lehigh, in the Classic as a rising freshman. Wilkie told Williams he and his teammates had to earn their spot first.
A few weeks later, Wilkie said Williams followed up by asking: “Have we earned it yet?”
They hadn’t. But Lehigh earned a spot in the 2015 Classic. By then, Williams had transferred to IMG for his sophomore season. Both teams were in the Classic in 2016.
“I feel like I owed him the opportunity to play in this tournament whether that would be if he were at Lehigh or IMG or at Oak Ridge,” Wilkie said. “From a basketball perspective, I’ve always tried to take care of Emmitt as much as I can, throughout the four years. We’re talking basketball now.
“One of the things I really try to do with this tournament is focus on kids and basketball. Whenever we can focus on kids and basketball and Christmas, that seems to make for a really entertaining City of Palms week. My job is very clearly defined. I have a responsibility to 3,000-plus fans, at least, to try to put the most entertaining tournament together.”
Clark Francis, a college basketball recruiting analyst and founder of Hoop Scoop, declared Williams the best prospect from Lee County he had seen since Teddy Dupay played at Mariner High 20 years ago while setting Florida’s record for career points. Williams won the Classic’s slam dunk contest last year.
“I would vote for him,” Francis said of Williams being a McDonald’s All-American, a distinction no player from Lee County has had since Dupay in 1998. “I’ve got him in the top 15 to 20 in the class. He’s a big-time prospect.”