Family and Friends of Basketball Star Ryse Williams Raise Cancer Awareness
- Written byQuinn Roberts
- Photographed byShane O’Donnell
How do you cope with the loss of a son whose future was so bright? It’s a question that Ryse Williams’ family continues to grapple with nearly four years after the Redondo Union High School basketball star died of a rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer a day before his graduation.
For Ryse’s father, O’Brey, that meant forming the Ryse Williams Charitable Foundation. It’s dedicated to providing scholarships to student-athletes from Redondo Union in Ryse’s name and bringing awareness to renal medullary carcinoma (RMC). It’s a cancer so rare that fewer than 220 cases have been described in medical literature, and the median survival rate is less than a year.
“My goal was originally just to give a couple of $500 scholarships to kids at Redondo with Ryse’s name attached to them,” he says. “Now we’ve been able to raise more money than I ever could have thought and have even floated the idea of trying to get legislation passed that would screen for the specific trait that Ryse died from.”
Ryse was a standout athlete who was named Bay League MVP in 2016 and 2017 and planned to attend Loyola Marymount University in the fall of 2017 on an athletic scholarship.
Ryse was also known for his style. He may not have known the band Guns N’ Roses, but he bought a T-shirt with their name on it because he liked the logo. He wore white to a school pep rally when everyone in his class was supposed to wear purple.
“I’ve learned a lot about how he affected the lives of other people,” O’Brey says. “Ryse had the unique ability to be confident but still be humble. Ryse knew who he was, but he didn’t think he was better than anyone else.”
That personality—as well as his skills on the basketball court—drew classmates to him. One of those classmates was Matthew Yonemura, now a senior at DePaul University majoring in film. He has partnered with O’Brey and is making a documentary called Ryse Up, which he hopes will be about an hour long. The trailer was released in September 2020.
An Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign helped get the ball rolling, along with grants to fund the documentary. The foundation will soon begin raising money directly through its website (ryseupnow.org) by selling one-of-a-kind merchandise. All of the proceeds will be used for making the documentary.
“Ryse was an amazing athlete; most knew his name. But more so than that, his personality filled the room,” Matthew shares. “He made you feel like his best friend, even if he didn’t know your name. If you were talking to him, a lot of times basketball wouldn’t even come up.”
Matthew’s goal with the documentary is to tell the story of Ryse and also address the rare form of cancer that ultimately took his life. RMC predominantly affects African Americans in their teens and 20s with the sickle cell trait. In most cases, the cancer is advanced when the diagnosis is made and has spread to other parts of the body. That’s because with so little research existing, it can be very difficult for doctors to diagnose.
“We know about this cancer because of Ryse. We know these words because of him, and it just makes you wonder how this cancer took down this healthy, athletic guy. When he died so quickly, we realized how terrible it was,” Matthew says. “Putting Ryse’s face with it is important—especially with so many people who knew, loved and cared about him. He is a great beacon to raise awareness.”
In January, Indiana Pacers guard Caris LeVert underwent surgery to treat renal cell carcinoma on his left kidney after doctors found a small mass during a team physical. Had that physical never taken place, he likely would have suffered the same fate as Ryse. Instead of just world-class athletes being tested for the trait, Ryse’s father wants testing for the sickle cell trait done at a younger age.
After Ryse’s death, the South Bay community— especially Redondo Union—has kept his memory alive, including renaming the school’s annual tournament the Ryse-Up Fall Classic. It had been called the Pacific Shores Classic for more than 50 years, so the change was significant. The high school has also retired Ryse’s #0 jersey and displays a plaque dedicated to him on campus.
“I don’t want my son to be forgotten,” O’Brey says. “I want Ryse to be remembered as a loving, funny, respectful, hardworking, strong and humble young man. Those are the words that encompass his being.”