NYC streetball legend Corey “Homicide” Williams is widely recognized for surviving the gritty streets of the Bronx as well as destroying defenders on the city’s most competitive blacktops. But these days, Williams finds himself in another gritty atmosphere. He’s been playing for the Zahko Basketball Club in Iraq. Internationally regarded as one of the most dangerous nations in the planet, Williams’ time in Iraq has been a life-changing experience, full of eye-opening life lessons and where basketball has taken a back seat in many ways. Last month, the Bronx product spoke to SLAM on the phone live from Iraq about the incredible experience thus far and the effects it’s had on him. You can follow him on Twitter & Instagram, as he keeps followers up to date on his experiences in the Middle East. – Ed      

The last three seasons I was playing in Beirut, Lebanon. When I first told people I was going to play in Lebanon, everybody looked at me like I was crazy. “Lebanon? Don’t they bomb there? The country is unstable… terrorists.” I heard every kind of stereotype you can think of. Long story short, I go there and have three successful years. Beirut was amazing – just great. Last season, we went to the playoffs and I led the league in assists.

Lebanon was so dope that my brother, George Williams, came to visit me my first year. He was only supposed to be there for three weeks, but he never left. He’s a personal trainer and celebrity chef in South Beach. He leaves everything and moves to Beirut. Everyone is starting to come to Dubai and setting up shop there as well. It’s like Miami and Vegas combined. There’s a lot of opportunities and money there. There’s a lot of Lebanese in Dubai. So my brother sets up shop there, and with my contacts, my girlfriend’s and the ones he’s made on his own, he has a nice clientele. So he’s moved to Dubai and just recently connected with a German doctor who has her own fertility clinic. They’ve partnered up and she’s referring a lot of her clients to him to personally train. The Williams brothers are setting up shop in the Middle East. That’s just the move we’re on.

My girlfriend, Diane O Sullivan, is a singer in Dubai at a club called White. I had an amazing summer with her in Dubai after my season. I went back to Dubai with her to train with the team there until I was to resign with them and go back to Lebanon. Well, the offer I got wasn’t adequate enough. The team had cut their budget from last season and it was a major pay cut I had to take in order to go back there. That’s when an opportunity came up for me to go play in Iraq, of all places. I jumped on it and took it.

For guys who are not in the NBA, we don’t get guaranteed contracts. You don’t have a lot of stability in a lot of these contracts as far as terms of your contract. It’s not a multi-year deal – most of them aren’t, at least. You’re actually a free agent every single year. Most guys just are. You’re lucky to have a multi-year contract. You tend to go where the money is.

So Iraq comes up, and my girlfriend is bugging. But I spoke to my agent and he’s like, “Listen, it’s in the safest area you can possibly be in.” It’s an area called Kurdistan. They don’t even consider themselves Iraq. They speak Kurdish. They are accepting of different cultures. So I feel safe there.

I didn’t even tell my family I’m in Iraq. I didn’t want my mom to stress. I’ve been in the Middle East so long that they think I’m still in Lebanon. My mom has no idea I’m in Iraq. My family doesn’t know. My sister doesn’t know. Only my brother knows. I talk to my mom every day but she doesn’t know.

I arrived to Iraq on October 24. I get off the plane and there was a team representative that came to pick me up. Team management told my agent not to worry and that I would be just outside of Erbil. That’s in Kurdistan, really close to the airport. He said it was only 25 minutes away. I was like, Cool, there’s a lot of American teachers and restaurants there. So I’ll be fine.

Well, my car ride was three-and-a-half hours long to the city I was playing in. Obviously, I know about ISIS being here in Iraq. They’re the richest terrorist organization ever. They tried to come into Kurdistan but the Kurdish army fought them off. So I know that this area for now is safe and there isn’t any ISIS presence here. My stupid ass decided to watch some videos on YouTube before I came here of ISIS randomly shooting up cars on the road.

I had gone out with my girlfriend one last time in Dubai the night before flying here, so I got off the plane a little hung over. The first thing I wanted to do when I got here was go to sleep. But here I am in this car and how am I supposed to go to sleep not knowing if the car will get blown up?

First of all, what ever happened to 25 minutes? It was three-and-a-half hours! We’re just on a two-lane highway going through to towns. I’m just like, Something’s going to happen! But that’s just the ignorance of a guy not knowing where he’s at or where’s he’s going. I get to the hotel and it’s solid. Not extravagant. You’d say it’s a three-star.

So I meet with the team manager at the hotel. They say welcome and that I’m safe there. I’m like, Cool – just make sure I get part of my salary upfront and that my wifi is super strong. And just let me know when practice is. We’ll go from there.

So we had practice the next day and it’s just 8 minutes down the road. During that ride, I see that half of the place is just war-torn. It’s to a level where you can’t believe people actually live like this. I’ve seen several families live in unfinished buildings. No heat. No water. No electricity. Like, there are actual families living in those conditions. The poor people here are actually poor. You haven’t seen poor until you come to places like these. I see poor everyday. There are four-year olds walking around with no shoes on begging for money. It’s been a humbling and eye-opening experience to witness everyday.

Traveling has been the best education for me in my life. No classroom could teach me that, and I have my degree. But no classroom could teach me these life lessons and experiences I’ve gained from traveling.

I’ve played in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Australia for four straight years, New Zealand, Sweeden and Greece. But when you come to something like this, it’s a real awakening.

You just have to know how to adjust to your situation and surroundings. Everyone that knows me, knows that Corey loves the nightlife. He handles his situation on the court but he gets it in afterwards. Here, there’s no alcohol. There’s no partying here. Which means my focus is going to be on basketball 100%. I’m 37 years old and still playing.

The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is the level of play. You can’t get frustrated with certain plays because their basketball IQ is just not that high. As a playmaker, all I try to do is make the decisions on the court 99% of the time. There’s two imports per team. Import means the American player. His name is Thomas Terrell. He’s from Mississippi. All I want them to do is catch and shoot or attempt to catch and go in for a quick lay up. Other than that, come set me a screen.

We have some of the wildest fans. It’s packed and they’re ready to get it in. I feel like I’m at Dyckman on a Friday night three years ago. They’re really supportive.

I actually haven’t felt at all like I’ve been in danger. This is probably the safest area in Iraq you can be in. We travel to Baghdad, but there isn’t the issue. ISIS is mainly in Mosul. We don’t play there. They had a team there last year, but they don’t have the team this year at all. So I’m not going anywhere, per say, where ISIS is. There’s just this whole stigma of Iraq.

As a true New Yorker – a mover and shaker knows how to stay low. You know, we can sense trouble. That’s just the sixth sense that we have.

One misconception that Americans back home probably have is that they would think ISIS runs the whole country pretty much. It’s not like that at all. If you really think about it, anywhere in the world have good and bad areas.

I’m living out my dream, regardless of where I’m playing at. I’m a product of the ghetto growing up in the South Bronx. So I know how hard it can be at times. And sometimes just a simple gesture by someone can make you feel better. So I try to reach out and get cool with some of the kids here. It just makes me appreciate how far I’ve come and how far I’m growing as a person.

I pretty much unofficially adopted this little kid. So one day I’m in the gym practicing and these little kids are always coming into the gym when we’re practicing. One of the kids has a skin disorder. I don’t know the proper name, but it’s almost like reptile skin throughout his body. His family is part of the Yazidi religious group. I would leave the gym and it would be cold as shit. I have my coat on and he would leave the gym with a t-shirt. He doesn’t speak English but I always see him, and he’s like, “Corey, Corey!” — always clapping. He’s so tiny despite being 15 years old. He will never grow. They say he’s going to die soon.

I’d see him around and always played around with him. I just love kids. And everyone knows I love working out with kids in the summer time back at home. I’m always in my neighborhood in New York talking to kids. As someone who made it out of the hood, I feel like it’s up to me to talk to them – just to give them that encouragement.

So this kid’s name is Zidan. So one day I said to him, Where is your coat? And pointed at my jacket. He just looked at me, said “no,” and walked away. So I said, Fuck this; This isn’t right. The next day I went shopping for this kid like he was my son. I bought him sneakers, socks, underwear, a good sweat suit, three soccer jerseys, a fleece hoodie, and a big winter coat. The joy in his face was just heartwarming. It was just a great feeling for him.

He’s definitely one of the kids that don’t live in a home. He would live in what they would call a home, which is one room with probably no water, no electricity and just mats on the floor. Thinner than a prison bed. I remember growing up in hood and the superintended would just put the heat on in the early night and then early in the morning. So there would be no heat throughout the night. I would be in the bed with clothes on, a sweater and a comforter. So can you imagine on the floor sleeping on a mat in a building, and it’s just the skeleton of the building? Just unbelievable. And this kid just smiles everyday and comes to practice. I thought this kid was Benjamin Button – I didn’t know any better. If I can make his time here better and make him feel good about himself, I’m definitely going to do that.

Sometimes I walk to practice just to really take in how fortunate I am. When these places went to war, some of these tanks hit some of these buildings and you see them crumble. Those people lived there. I feel like I’m in that show Homeland on Showtime. It’s just crazy.

The food here is really good, though. It’s well seasoned. So you’ll have chicken stew with potatoes, and then rice and peas on the side. They’ll give you soup and a salad. It’s a big spread. And you get a soda, water and some tea. And it’s all for like five dollars. That’s me going to a restaurant. I have a driver that takes me around. But I stay low, I’m no idiot.

Walking around, a lot of the locals just stare. Could you imagine like an alien walking through New York City? Everybody is just stopping, looking and wanting to take pictures. That’s how they look at me. Like, “What the fuck is this black guy doing here?” They don’t mean any harm, so it’s all good.

My first year playing in Lebanon, I played against my current head coach. I destroyed his team and we won. He remembered me from there. Then he saw me play last year in Dubai in that tournament that I got MVP at. He wanted me. Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw. Sometimes one door closes and the other opens immediately. My team from last year didn’t offer a good of enough salary for me to go and then this opportunity came up. It was almost November. If I had passed on this job, I would have probably been sitting on the fences hoping for something to happen. We don’t do that.

My girlfriend did not want me to come to Iraq at all. I met her in Beirut. She didn’t like me. I didn’t like her. But now we love each other. She’s beautiful, talented, and has a great heart. It’s been over two years. I told her I’d be okay. This was not in the cards, but it’s on the table right now. I’m going to do what I gotta’ do.