Former University of Maryland basketball star Walt Williams has traded in his signature knee-high athletic socks for sleek gray suits and black loafers.
Williams, a former NBA player largely credited with saving the Maryland basketball program during a rocky period in the early ’90s, has taken on a second career as a financial adviser. He now advises clients on how to manage their wealth at UBS Financial Services Inc. in Hunt Valley.
“Athletes have been put in a box by many, including themselves,” said Williams, who picked up the nickname “The Wizard” at Maryland. “I chose to use the things I learned in sports and applied them to life.”
The towering, 6-foot-8 former forward-guard now looks at home in his suburban Maryland office, sipping from a metal thermos with a sugar cookie in hand and walking through the dimly lit halls making basketball jokes with his co-workers.
Williams was at the University of Maryland from 1988 to 1992, arriving two years after the drug-induced death of basketball All-American Len Bias and playing through a period when the university had been sanctioned by the NCAA. Williams decided to stay at the school despite the sanctions — which included bans on appearing in the postseason or on television —and helped turned the team around along with new coach Gary Williams.
Williams was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in 1992 and over the course of his 11-year career in the NBA also played for the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks.
A Temple Hills native, Williams never lost his Maryland roots. He always kept a home in the state to come back to during the off-season. For the first four years of his career, he actually went home to his mom’s house in Prince George’s County.
Williams, 42, started down the financial career path a few years ago. He was meeting with his own financial advisers, David R. Stack and David B. Miller, who had helped him keep track of his funds since he joined the NBA. During the meeting, Stack and Miller said they thought Williams could have a career in financial advising.
Williams retired from basketball in 2003. At first, he was busy dealing with complications from the birth of his third son, who has cerebral palsy. Williams took a job in 2006 as a TV analyst with the Washington Wizards basketball team for a few years.
Williams, who lives with his wife and three sons in Olney, said he had not considered a career in finance, or really another career at all after stepping off the court.
A life of leisure, however, is not what Williams thought it would be.
“I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would,” he said. “I am a person who likes to get out there and do things. I thought I would be the person who lays around and relaxes, but I’m not. That’s when this opportunity presented itself.”
Williams, who majored in consumer studies and personal finance at Maryland, said he had liked math since grade school.
“That just was me,” Williams said. “I was always a numbers guy.”
So when Stack and Miller suggested a financial career, Williams went for it as a way to stay off the couch and ensure his family could continue to live comfortably into the future.
That’s when he started studying. He had to take three exams to get certified as a financial adviser, a process that took him about five months, he said.
The longest test was the Series 7 exam, which he took in two three-hour sessions and spent three months studying for. The financial securities exam gives examples, and test-takers answer with strategies they would use in those situations. Williams also took the hour-and-a-half Series 66 exam, which tests knowledge of laws and regulations in financial advising, after studying for a month and a half. Then there was what Williams said was the somewhat easier life and health exam, which took him less than a month to study for.
“The amount of material, that was what was hard,” Williams said. “It was just a wealth of information. … I wasn’t really used to taking tests at that that point in my life, so I had to get back in that flow.”
He started his career at Merrill Lynch. Then the group of advisers he works with, including Stack and Miller, moved to UBS Financial a few months later, in December 2009.
Williams is part of a legacy wealth management group, advising people on how to invest and use their money for retirement.
“To be able to show clients what they need to do, how to see their plan being executed, is so gratifying,” Williams said. “It’s almost like scoring a basket.”
Most days, Williams said, he spends a lot of time researching his clients’ portfolios to create a retirement road map.
“It’s amazing what people think their expenses are and what their actual expenses are,” Williams said. “To be able to discover those things for people and go about accomplishing goals for their future is just a wonderful feeling.”
Sometimes, he said, he gets clients who are former or current basketball players, who he said often lose money quickly after they retire.
“I can help with my knowledge of finance, but also as someone that has been down that road they have to travel to make that decision on what to do with their wealth,” Williams said.
He said playing basketball taught him teamwork, work ethic and resilience — skills he said are essential as a financial adviser.
“As a professional athlete, there are things you have to overcome outside the court, as well,” Williams said. “But if you take a step back and look closely, anything can be managed.”
Financial planning, he said, is a profession for outgoing personalities — something he struggles with from time to time, since he considers himself a quiet person.
“That was a challenge for me early on,” Williams said. “It forces me outside the box. It’s been great to overcome those things.”
Some nights and weekends during basketball season, he is announcing games on the University of Maryland’s Terrapin Sports Radio Network. Williams said it was jarring at first to be a spectator in a sport where he was once the focal point of an entire arena’s attention.
“It was so weird. When you look at the game from a fan’s perspective, you are looking down at the court and there are fans all around and it looks like a pyramid,” Williams said. “When you are on the court, you don’t have that view at all.”
He said he has never lost his love for the game.
“At times, when I am watching games, you get that feeling back and I think, ‘Oh man, I could have done this. I could have done that,’” Williams said. “Then I start to feel that ache or pain in my knees, and I remember that was in a previous life.”