From Crenshaw High to LSU, John Williams Plays Amid Controversy : It’s Been Quite an Education
So far in the life of Louisiana State freshman John Williams, L.A. schoolboy superstar, there have been rumors of college cash, an NBA dash, a nervous rash, transfer bets, recruiting nets and death threats.
For an 18-year-old with mostly simple dreams, life sure did get complicated.
Then again, you come out of Crenshaw High School advertised as Final Four in a bottle--one of the bluest blue chip basketball players in America--life doesn’t tend to drag. For Williams, 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, his amazing graces made for a mean season of creative--if not illegal--college recruiting. It became a circus so unruly that when Williams finally signed with LSU last April, he felt blessedly relieved. Yessir, clear sailing ahead.
Somehow, it hasn’t worked out that way.
Instead, the John Williams file sprouts new growth almost daily here in Cajun Country.
--Rumors that Williams’ outspoken mother, Mabel Marie Mathews, had been offered up to $150,000 by recruiters to deliver her son were oft heard, never confirmed. But to make a point, LSU Coach Dale Brown said he planned to walk into her South-Central L.A. home, open a briefcase filled with $150,000 in cash, lay a $1 bill on top of that and say, “There, that makes me the highest bidder. The meat truck will be outside in an hour to pick you up, John.”
He was persuaded by school officials to forget it.
--Because Mathews’ name came up in many of the rumors, Brown made a point of saying that Mathews would not be moving to Baton Rouge with her son. But today, she lives in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans--about an hour from Baton Rouge.
--The LSU recruiter who eventually won Williams, Ron Abernathy, once had $2,000 in cash stolen from a briefcase during a recruiting trip. Abernathy explained that he was driving around town paying bills with the cash when he was suddenly called away on the recruiting trip.
--Jerry Tarkanian, coach at Nevada Las Vegas, approved full-bore recruiting of Williams for six months, then ordered his chief recruiter to drop out just two days before the signing date. Says Tarkanian now: “Things started getting ridiculous.”
--LSU’s Brown became so wary of agents wanting to hang around Williams on the road this season that he hired two security guards for the team.
--During the recruiting siege last April, Mathews says she got phone calls from someone telling her, “Make sure your life insurance is paid up,” and warning her that she might find her son “at the bottom of the L.A. river” if he didn’t make the right decision. The right decision, presumably, meant Williams’ choosing the school of the caller’s choice.
--The recruiting burden became so heavy for Williams that he suffered insomnia, headaches and a rash across his chest.
--Although Williams maintains that he was offered nothing illegally during his recruitment, Brown now says that during visits to Williams’ home, he overheard illegal offers from two other schools. Brown will not name the schools, and at that point, there were more than 100 in the running.
The finalists in the Williams pageant--Louisville, Houston, Nevada Las Vegas, and UCLA--also hint that there was foul play afoot. But not by them.
And then there is this:
--In Williams’ first three months at LSU, he was in the near-constant company of a man his teammates called the White Slave, a man who attended LSU practices, games, and, sometimes, classes with Williams, where he took copious notes. Occasionally, the White Slave would sleep on Williams’ dorm room floor, or in Williams’ car.
The announcement that Williams had signed with LSU was made at a press conference that Williams did not attend. For that matter, neither did Williams’ mother, nor did anybody from LSU. The announcement was made by a man named Stan Ross. Months later, Ross was identified as a friend of the family.
Wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, Ross drove up to Crenshaw High in a rental car, read a prepared statement and left, answering no questions.
Where was Williams during his own coming-out party?
That Williams wouldn’t come to his own press conference isn’t so surprising if you believe those who say Williams didn’t want to go to LSU in the first place.
Certainly the LSU announcement came as something of a surprise at the University of Houston. Said Terry (Fat Chance) Kirkpatrick, the Houston recruiter, “John told us he was coming to Houston.”
Fat Chance got his nickname by pursuing athletes he supposedly had no chance of getting--and signing them. That wasn’t the case with Williams, though. He was so sure of Williams, in fact, that he sent for Houston Coach Guy Lewis, telling him to fly to L.A. to personally witness Williams’ signing a Houston letter-of-intent.
Lewis came, but there was no signing.
“He just stood there, holding (the letter) with one hand and a pen with the other, just looking at me,” Williams recalled. “Luckily, my mom saved me. She said, ‘Well, you know, we’re not quite sure. . . . ‘ “
Lewis, nonplussed, walked out.
Williams says he really did want to play at LSU--not Houston--but that isn’t what others close to the situation say. They say Williams was sent to LSU by his mother, who has relatives in the New Orleans area and was born in Louisiana. Since Williams was only 17 at the time, her signature was required.
Crenshaw’s coach, Willie West, told The Times last spring: "(Mathews) is going to do everything she can to influence him where to sign. I think that’s bad. I don’t think she knows the consequences.”
Ken Miller, then a sports and education writer for the Los Angeles Sentinel, said he was in the room when Williams told his mother he did not want to go to LSU.
“John told me after he visited LSU that it was all right, but he wouldn’t want to go to school there,” Miller said. “I said, ‘Where do you want to go, John?’ And he looked at his mother and said, ‘Houston. But she doesn’t want me to.’ ”
The pressure eventually got to both Williams and his mother. Williams, after developing the rash, the headaches and the insomnia, took to spending nights at his grandmother’s house. Mathews says she worried so much about the situation that she had to be treated for a nervous condition.
Little wonder. So many scouts, agents, friends, advisers, fans, reporters, sycophants and seekers of fame and fortune began waiting around Williams’ high school that he was given keys for the back exit to escape the crush.
Trouble was, more of the same waited at home.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he recalls. “I’d come home and there were people waiting on my front lawn, and sitting in their cars. It was bad.”
Said Fat Chance Kirkpatrick: “That was a beautiful, quiet, polite kid, and he got turned into a nervous wreck.”
Then came the threatening phone calls, his mother says.
“This voice would come on, breathing heavy, then hanging up,” she says. “He’d call back and ask me was my life insurance paid up.’ It scared me. I didn’t tell John about it.”
Amid pressure like that, LSU’s Abernathy, a black, as is Williams, became “like a father to John,” Mathews said.
Said Abernathy: “I think they were starving for somebody to trust.”
The moment of truth arrived one night in Mathews’ home when rumors about money offers and other recruiting irregularities were the hottest.
“I was just fed up with it,” Abernathy said. He made a plea for sanity and for something else left behind in the deluge--dignity.
“There comes a time when we have to stop selling ourselves,” he said. “Slavery days are over. We’ve got to stop being niggers.”
Said Mathews: “He spoke about self-respect. That is what I wanted to hear.”
Driving back to their hotel, Abernathy said he turned to Brown and said, “You know, nobody’s going to believe we gave that kid nothing.”
Dale Brown has climbed Mount Everest, traversed the Yukon on a dog-sled and raced the length of the Mississippi River in a speedboat. He has delivered motivational speeches from Birmingham to Burma.
They loved him in Burma, and Brown doesn’t even speak Burmese.
That is because Dale Brown can talk. He could talk a shivering man out of his thermals. His weekly television show in Baton Rouge has no host. Who has time for a host? Brown squeezes more out of a half-hour than an auctioneer.
Maybe it is because Brown has such a marvelous gift for gab that he is widely distrusted by other coaches. Brown wonders if other coaches are jealous. UNLV’s Tarkanian says Brown is “full of (expletive).”
Brown launches himself out of his chair when he hears accusations that he cheats, as he has heard numerous times in regard to John Williams.
“If I’m cheating, how come I’ve never been able to get the best big man in America?” Brown said. “How come sometimes I can’t even get the best big man in Louisiana?”
Indeed, Benoit Benjamin, who some are calling the heir apparent to Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, grew up in Monroe, La., but is playing at Creighton.
“And if I was a thief, you think it would take seven years to build this program?” Brown asks.
Brown took over at LSU from Press Maravich in 1972 but did not have a great season until 1979, when he went 23-6. He was in the Final Four by 1981. This season, LSU had a 19-9 regular-season record and is playing Navy tonight in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Maybe growing up poor in Minot, N.D., taught Brown to make good use of what he’s got. Brown is not above hiring a high school coach who happens to have a player he needs, or another player’s legal guardian.
Take Nikita Wilson, LSU’s starting center. When Wilson came, so did his high school coach, Mike Mallet, now an assistant to the athletic director.
Or take Rudy Macklin, one of the biggest stars in LSU’s history. Macklin came with his high school coach, Abernathy.
Howard Carter, Brown’s best player two years ago, came with his high school coach, Rick Huckaby, who served as an assistant coach at LSU before moving on to Marshall, where he is head coach. Brown also signed Derek Taylor, another of Huckaby’s players who is still on the team.
Then there’s Jose Vargas, the backup center and a native of the Dominican Republic, who came with his legal guardian, Ed Gomez. Gomez is now working for the National Sports Festival, which will be held on the LSU campus this summer.
Brown maintains an intricate network of jobs for players through LSU’s alumni. For a school to inquire about a job, or a player or relative to accept one arranged by a school is within NCAA rules--once the player has signed.
But last spring, Tom Moran, one of Brown’s best friends and biggest boosters, told The Times that Abernathy, the LSU assistant, had inquired about a job for Williams’ mother at Moran’s restaurant, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, before Williams had signed.
Two days later, Brown was on a three-way phone hook-up with Moran and the reporter, now back in Los Angeles.
Brown: “Tom, did you tell this reporter that Ron Abernathy asked about a job for Mrs. Mathews?”
Moran: “No, I certainly didn’t.”
A week ago, Moran was asked if he would give a job to Mathews now.
“Sure would,” he said. “Be glad to help her.”
That, of course, is perfectly within the rules.
What wouldn’t have been within the rules was for LSU to have paid for Mathews’ move to Baton Rouge. Brown and Mathews say she came on her own.
Currently unemployed, Mathews says she has had three jobs since her arrival, one at the state board of education, one at a convenience store and one at a Montgomery Ward store, all acquired through her own enterprise.
But rest assured, Mabel Mathews did not come to Baton Rouge to start a new career at Montgomery Ward.
“I just wanted to see how he progresses on his own,” she said of Williams. “Sometimes, I sneak up (to Baton Rouge), check out the girls, see if there’s any hanky-panky going on. I did my own investigation. It may have been kind of childish, but I just wanted to see for myself. I guess I can’t go around all my life saying, ‘I’ll handle it, John,’ but I’d probably try.”
On two different occasions--once during a three-game slump by Williams--Mathews threatened to take her son home to Los Angeles. Each time, Brown showed her bus schedules.
Neither Mathews nor Brown will talk about those confrontations, but Mathews admitted: “We had a couple of words, a spat, yes. I told him I wanted to talk with him face to face, you versus me and me versus you. I talked with that man two times and we came to an understanding. I think he just tries too hard to please everybody.”
Eventually, Williams himself wondered if it was good having his mother so close, and so involved. “He told me, ‘Mama, I’m grown now. Give me room,’ ” she said.
She moved to Metairie.
At an LSU road game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Alabama fans held up this sign: “John Williams, the Louisiana Purchase.”
College life has not been easy for Williams, but he has held up through the abuse--at home and away. In a freshman year fraught with frustrations, he averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and started 26 of 27 games. To LSU fans, among the heartiest in the country, even that wasn’t always enough.
That may have been because of the Georgia blunder.
With LSU leading the Bulldogs by one point with a second left, Williams took the ball out of bounds and threw it upcourt, thinking the one second would tick off while the ball was safely in flight. Unfortunately for Williams, the clock does not start until somebody touches the ball in bounds. It sailed out of bounds, and Georgia was given possession underneath the basket the Bulldogs were shooting at. They made a layup and won the game.
Williams was upset for two weeks. “Dumb,” he said.
Nor did the game against the University of New Orleans do much for his popularity. Williams got exactly zero points in that one, prompting UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard to remark, “Dale Brown has made him (Williams) almost human . . . He could fall out of bed and get 20 points.”
Hazzard was not the first to criticize Brown’s coaching, but he is probably the most famous. Most of the criticism of Brown was for his playing Williams outside, at a wing, instead of inside, where he seems more at home with his size.
That kind of criticism tends to get what’s left of Brown’s hair up.
“People break under criticism unless you’re a hard-core, tough s.o.b.,” he told the New Orleans Times Picayune. “I’m a street fighter. I say, ‘C’mon you s.o.b’s. I’ll fight y’all. And I’ll whip you all.”
Nonetheless, two weeks later, Williams was starting inside.
But Hazzard had not stopped at coaching tactics. He also told reporters the story of how he had made a late run at Williams, once he had the UCLA job. “My first statement to John was: ‘No money. We’re not going to pay you. I think it’ll be worth money to you to stay in L.A. and play in Pauley Pavilion and be a local hero,’ ”
Brown protested, Williams’ mother threatened legal action, and Hazzard retracted his statement, in no particular order.
Brown, perhaps in conciliation, admitted, “We all know it (money) was (offered).”
Yes, yes, yes, but by whom?
Mabel Mathews confirms that she was made “improper offers"--but not by colleges.
She says they were made by agents trying to persuade her son to go directly to the pros out of high school, a route rarely taken and even less often successfully. Only three players in the NBA have done it--Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby.
It was an idea Williams considered then and still considers today, since a college player can declare himself eligible for the draft anytime. The Lakers expressed a vague interest in drafting Williams, and a few NBA coaches, among them Dick Motta of the Dallas Mavericks, made a point of seeing him play in person.
“I think he almost did it,” said Malcolm Myer, Williams’ best friend at LSU. “But I think he knew he needed a building stage first.”
Says Williams: “In the summer leagues (in Los Angeles), I was playing against Michael Cooper, Mike McGee, (both of the Lakers), and Marques (Johnson, of the Clippers), guys like that, and I was doing OK.”
Still, Williams says those same stars suggested he play at least two or three years of college before turning pro. Williams says he will not consider going pro until at least after his sophomore year.
Last spring, however, rumors were rife that Williams had decided to cash it in, and those stories kept the agents hovering.
“These so-called agents were trying to use John as a steppingstone,” Mathews said. “I call them slicksters, guys trying to make deals.”
One of them, she said, was Fred Slaughter, an L.A. agent who was the starting center for John Wooden’s first national championship team at UCLA in 1964.
“He never wanted to give up,” Mathews said of Slaughter. “He was very rude. He was pushy. I didn’t let him in my house.”
Slaughter calls Mathews “one confused lady.”
He says he was never near her home during the recruiting. “She had supper with Willie West, Joe Weakley (Crenshaw assistant coach) and myself, and asked us to give her some advice about the schools that were recruiting her son,” Slaughter said. “But after that first meeting, none of us ever were allowed to get involved again. I stayed away. How could I be pushy when I never saw her again?”
Mathews says the pressure from without did not end in Los Angeles. She says all manner of hangers-on followed her son to Baton Rouge.
“When he (Williams) came down here, people followed him,” she said. “I call ‘em groupies. The rumor was he got a lot of money and they could live off him. These were people that didn’t want to work, just wanted to lay around, lap around.”
All of which brings us to the White Slave.
The White Slave turned out to be Barry Easton, son of a wealthy Los Angeles physician and friend to the future famous, a one-time assistant coach at Kennedy High School and a dabbler in World Team Tennis as both player and coach.
Easton came to Baton Rouge from Los Angeles in September and left in November, not of his own volition.
He says he followed Williams to Baton Rouge because “John asked me to.” Williams calls Easton a friend.
Brown believes Easton was trying to sabotage his relationship with Williams and persuade Williams to return to Los Angeles, where he would either transfer to UCLA or declare himself in the NBA hardship draft.
"(Easton) spread all kinds of lies,” said Brown, who became so suspicious of Easton that he eventually ran him out of town, a fact corroborated by both parties.
“When he said, ‘Go!’ I went,” Easton said. “Dale Brown is a very powerful man in that town.”
Easton is back in Los Angeles. He says Williams will be back, too--by the end of March.
In the last 11 months, Williams has been coddled, throttled, trailed, hailed, investigated, castigated, crucified and deified.
The would-be choreographers of Williams’ life-steps have been manifold--agents, parents, reporters, men and women he doesn’t even know, friends he thought he had and friends he didn’t know he had, parasites and peddlers, solicitors and speculators. Precious few of them had the contentment of an 18-year-old in mind.
Somehow, through it all, Williams says he is happy.
“I like it here,” he said. And rumors of his return to Los Angeles are untrue, he added. “I’m staying.”
Might as well. Life at LSU may be a lot of things, but at least it isn’t a bore.
Times staff writers Steve Springer, Jerry Crowe and Chris Baker contributed to this story.