Flash in the Plan
Dude doesn’t come around anymore. Truth be told, he never existed in the first place.
Someone in the Sacramento Kings’ PR office made up that name for Jason Williams, the country boy with the way-downtown game, back in his rookie season. The “SportsCenter” guys started using it with their nightly Williams highlight--White Chocolate posterizes Gary Payton! Boo-yah!--and it took on a life of its own.
No one really called him White Chocolate, of course. How silly would that have sounded: Hey, White Chocolate, how’s it going?
He was J-Will to teammates. Not that there was much confusion about what to call him, because White Chocolate’s mythical life was so brief.
By his second season, when his coach was hoping he’d grow out of launching 27-footers on the break, the story was no longer fun or refreshing. White Chocolate went onto the trash heap of popular culture, another firefly icon who blinked on and blinked off that fast.
Fabio . . . Vanilla Ice . . . White Chocolate. Chewed up, spit out, thanks for coming.
Now it’s Jason Williams who’s giving real life a try and it isn’t often pretty.
It wasn’t all hype. This may be the greatest ballhandler--as opposed to point guard--who ever lived, but he plays extreme basketball as opposed to the NBA game, which is more efficient, less imaginative and a lot less spectacular.
Maybe he can fit in and maybe he’ll always be what he is now, a great artist, out of place.
In the meantime, he often shuns the press. He was embarrassed by his fame, often refusing autograph requests, and he likes the criticism that comes with it even less.
He’s on delicate terms with his front office and Coach Rick Adelman.
He retains his outlaw chic and legion of young admirers. His No. 55 jersey is still a huge seller, the more remarkable for a player in a small market with no big statistics.
Milwaukee Buck Coach George Karl complains daily that NBC spurns Bucks’ games, but the Kings are on as often as “3rd Rock From the Sun.”
Williams has a thorny relationship with the yuppies in the high-priced seats, who get on his tattooed, shaved-head case. He was fined three times this season for exchanges with hecklers--leading to a new underground nickname, “Jase in Your Face.” He says they call him things like “Skinhead,” which they deny. One fan said Williams made ethnic slurs, which he denied.
The organization wants Williams to shut his rabbit ears, the way most everyone else does. General Manager Geoff Petrie pointedly refused to contest the fines the league levied and suggested he might suspend Williams next time.
Then there was Williams’ recent complaint about his role--"I don’t know what some people want from me. I’m just confused.”
It would have been garden variety, except it ran several days after he said it . . . right after the Kings had lost Game 1 of their first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, causing Adelman, long known as a players’ coach, to turn several shades of red.
In a steely voiced reply, Adelman noted, “There’s more to the game than pushing it as fast as you can and hoping something develops that you can attack. You’ve got to think about the game. . . . And there’s got to be some progression made there. But I don’t believe you get to that point until you work at your game. . . .
“And I think that’s what Jason has to do. He just can’t come out and shoot.”
Williams might have reason to be confused in the series against the Lakers. He scored 14 points in 36 minutes in Game 1, then played only 15 minutes in Game 2, scoring two points.
If NBA players had their own Bill of Rights, the first one would be to profess confusion about What My Role Is.
But then, this isn’t an ordinary season in the career of an ordinary player, to say the least.
More Soul Than He Could Control
Says teammate Chris Webber: “Exciting? I’m probably responsible for most of his turnovers ‘cause I’m like, ‘Show me something! Show me something! Dance with the ball! Dance with ‘em! Play with ‘em! Put ‘em on skates! Make ‘em roll around!’
“He’s just so talented, man. It’s a blessing to be able just to watch that talent. He does things that, when I was growing up, I never thought of those things before.”
Make no mistake, whatever its excesses, this is art.
As Magic Johnson advanced the craft by turning the ball over . . . just enough . . . giving him a harder dribble and making it possible for big men to become playmakers, Williams represents something new.
He can palm the ball off the dribble without cupping it, giving him the ability to hesitate, wait for his defender to commit, then go the other way.
Voila! There’s Payton, the Glove, himself, with a deer-in-the-headlights-of-a-semi look in a famous highlight from early in Williams’ career.
“I think that’s where people are maybe confused,” Webber says. “He never carries the ball. I don’t know if he has rough hands or something, but while his hands are on top of the ball, he can definitely manipulate the ball.”
Williams came upon his technique the hard way . . . alone at night in a high school gym in tiny Belle, W. Va., with work gloves on his hands and weights on his wrists, a regimen he learned from then-Marshall Coach Billy Donovan.
Williams was a laconic youngster, son of a state policeman, whose brother would grow up to be a state cop too.
Jason was the little brother who turned inward, especially after his parents’ divorce.
“My son, he’s had problems, as you know,” Williams’ father, Terry, told ESPN The Magazine’s Tom Friend. “And I think some of it, or maybe a lot of it had to do with me and his mother getting a divorce.
“Jason hasn’t spoken to his mother in years. There were some things that Jason was hurt over. I don’t want to go into any details, but basically, my sons were old enough that they could choose who they wanted to live with and they chose to live with me.”
Williams ran with kids from the poor side of town, one of them NFL-star-to-be Randy Moss. Williams was Moss’s quarterback in football. Moss was Williams’ center in basketball. This was a heartwarming angle when Williams made it big in the NBA.
Of course, by then Williams had spent four years at Marshall and Florida, where he followed Donovan, getting in so much trouble he played only 48 games.
He was a virtual unknown coming off a half-season suspension at Florida in 1998 when he declared for the NBA draft.
By draft day, he was all the way up to Sacramento at No. 7, with the Lakers’ Jerry West, among others, frantically trying to trade up for him.
That was the 50-game season following the lockout, but when the curtain went up, an unexpected new star was born, fast.
“I really don’t think anybody knows how that must have felt, to go through that crush and not really knowing it was coming,” Adelman says. “I mean, I had no idea that was going to happen. That was unbelievable that first year and it just snowballed from there.
“I mean, no matter what kind of game Jason has, you know, he does one thing, it’s on ‘SportsCenter.’ ”
The Kings had other great passers in Webber and Vlade Divac. The ball flew around the court . . . behind backs . . . between legs . . . often out of bounds. They were more like a circus act than a basketball team, or gymnasts who were being graded according to degree of difficulty.
Williams squirmed in the spotlight. He did interviews manfully, but he wasn’t colorful off the court, just on it.
His whole life has been like that. He has never been as comfortable, or as happy, off the floor as on.
Real Life, Its Own Self
Then came the expectations . . .
In the ’99 playoffs, the Kings, making their second appearance in 13 years, took a 2-1 lead over the defending Western Conference champion Utah Jazz, before losing in five games.
Unfortunately, to take the next step, some real basketball would be required.
Williams, his adorable neo-Pete Maravich mop top replaced by a grimmer-looking shaved head, didn’t know much about real basketball. He wasn’t inclined to change much and had little experience or coaching to fall back on.
He tried more than six three-pointers a game in his first two seasons, making only about 30%. His assist-turnover ratio was 51st in the league in 1999-2000.
“We caught a lot of people by surprise my rookie year and got a lot of publicity,” he says. “I guess, what you [sportswriters] build us up to be, sometimes we got to try to live up to that and it’s just hard to do that, but we’ve just got to be ourselves. . . .
“I try not to think at all when I’m playing. That’s what I tell everybody, there’s no need to think. I think when you start thinking, what you’re going to do, you’re going to be like a robot out there and that’s not good, especially with us.”
The Kings were winning more but enjoying it less. Now they were no longer Cinderellas, just would-be contenders who had to fight off the Denver Nuggets for the last playoff berth.
Adelman, under the gun, began using Tony Delk, a shooter with little in the way of point-guard skills, to finish games. At least, he wasn’t going to jack one up from just past half-court.
“First two years, what really happened too, is [Williams] was our best point guard,” Adelman says. “He was our best chance to win, having him on the floor for the most minutes. So, you know, I gave him a lot of freedom and hoped we could see the change in a gradual way.
“But I think he’s played the game so long in a certain way and he plays it with one speed, that it’s kind of hard to stop that and change it.”
You could say that.
When he returned this season, Williams, who had averaged 12.8 and 12.3 points in his first two seasons, had added more tattoos. He now had a panther on one shoulder, a dragon on the other, the word “insane” in Chinese characters on one forearm, a snarling dog on the other.
He had W-H-I-T, in old English script, on the fingers of one hand, E-B-O-Y on the other.
If he held both hands together, it was WHITE BOY.
He was also suspended for the first five games, for failing to return calls to league officials, after having tested positive for marijuana.
Delk had left as a free agent last summer and the Kings picked up former Minnesota Timberwolf Bobby Jackson, knowing little about him. When Jackson turned out to be a fine defender and an OK point guard, he got even more time than Delk had and took over fourth-quarter responsibilities.
The Kings had a totally unexpected great season, leading the Lakers in the Pacific Division until the final week of the season, or this series against the Lakers would have started at Sacramento
Williams, who averaged 9.4 points and 5.4 assists this season, is hanging in there. After his go-round with Adelman, he played some of the best basketball of his career in the three victories over the Suns.
He talks, although not for long and without giving away much.
“Aw, ain’t nothing,” he says of his exchange with Adelman. “That’s in the past. I ain’t worried about anything like that.”
Webber, his best friend on the team, has seen it all before. Such as, when he looks in the mirror.
Ask Webber. Everyone learns everything the hard way.
“And I don’t mean it, talking about him, more so myself,” Webber says. “You kind of learn when you experience it, not when you hear it. Because you can’t really experience it from hearing someone else’s story.
“I think every year, he’s experienced something and he’s learned and he’s gotten better. This year, I think, he’s just been great with handling the pressure. When the media was down on him, I think it was his first time experiencing that. . . .
“There’s nobody that I know, as far as an athlete, that had a lot of talent and didn’t have that pressure. . . .
“I just look at it as part of the game and he’ll get over it and when he realizes it and everything clicks, as it needs to, he’s going to be something special.”
Until that click then, good luck, little original. Looks as though you’ll need it.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Missing the Point
Jason Williams’ minutes and several other key statistics have decreased since his grand entrance to the NBA in 1999 as Sacramento King Coach Rick Adelman has looked for more consistent--and restrained--play from since-departed Tony Delk and Bobby Jackson at point guard. Most telling statistic: Williams took fewer three-point shots than those from inside the arc for the first time in his career this season.
Regular Season MIN.* FGA* PCT. 3PTA* PCT. PTS* TO* AST* 1999 36.1 12.3 .374 6.5 .310 12.8 2.9 6.0 1999-2000 34.1 12.0 .373 6.2 .280 12.3 3.7 7.3 2000-01 29.7 9.0 .407 4.0 .315 9.4 2.1 5.4
CAREER vs. 2001 PLAYOFFS
Regular Season MIN.* FGA* PCT. 3PTA* PCT. PTS* TO* AST* Career 33.0 11.0 .384 5.5 .301 11.3 2.9 6.3 2001 Playoffs 25.2 8.3 .480 4.0 .315 9.4 2.1 5.4
* per game.
Lakers lead, 2-0
Lakers 108, Sacramento 105
Lakers 96, Sacramento 90
at Sacramento, 7:30, Channel 9, TNT
at Sacramento, 2:30 p.m., Channel 4
*at Lakers, TBA, Fox Sports Net, TBS
*at Sacramento, TBA, Channel 9, TNT
*at Lakers, TBA, Channel 4
* if necessary; all times Pacific
Comparing Jason Williams’ regular season statistics (RS) to statistics against the Lakers in the playoffs (PL) this season:
RS Statistic PL 29.7 Minutes 25.5 9.4 Points 8.0 .407 FG% .385 5.4 Assists 2.0 2.1 Turnovers 3.0
CHARLOTTE 102, MILWAUKEE 92
Jamal Mashburn scores 36 points, a career playoff high, and the Hornets hold Ray Allen to six points in second half. D11
MILLER WINS ROOKIE AWARD
Orlando forward, who filled in for Grant Hill and was the only rookie to play every game, beats out Nets’ Martin in voting. D11