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Williams' legacy a ‘sad, tragic scene’

WashPost: Ex-NBA star was boisterous personality, but that was his downfall
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

I once saw Jayson Williams put away 12 tequila shots in less than an hour. One night in Portland while his team was on the road, I saw him challenge an Alaskan to a high-stakes game of pool. If Jayson won, the man would take him bear hunting in the Kodiak hinterlands. If he lost, he would splurge for a New York weekend and an NBA game.

Mr. Alaska ended up in the big city, cheering Williams from the stands.

You were happy to know one of the NBA's most lovable louts back then. He had no airs about him, he let you peek into the millionaire-athlete world when so many others hid behind tinted windows. Because of these things, no one ever thought to tell him, "You had enough to drink?" Or "Be careful with that gun. It's not loaded, right?"

Everyone just went along with the plotline: Poor kid from the Lower East Side overcomes the loss of two sisters from AIDS; leaves behind his young-knucklehead NBA image and eventually becomes an all-star; signs $100 million deal; buys a sprawling, wrought-iron gate estate in the New Jersey countryside, with two stenciled words on the front: Who Knew?

Who knew, indeed.

Jayson Williams sat in the courtroom yesterday, looking somber in his charcoal suit, the one with the white cross on the right lapel. He did not resemble the person I knew when I covered him 10 years ago, the man who lived large, cut up a room with laughter.

"What a sad, tragic scene," Don Casey said yesterday. Casey coached Williams in New Jersey. He lost his son, Sean, to alcohol and a 9mm Glock on Dec. 22, 2000. He started up a foundation a year later, Coaches Against Gun Violence, a national public education campaign that works through schools and coaches. "Call up Willie Stewart at Anacostia," he said. "He'll tell you about what's wrong with guns and athletes."

You call up Stewart, the school's longtime football coach. He tells you that 12 of his players have died by gunshot in the last 20-odd years, including a bright, young man named Delvin Foulkes. Foulkes was his starting tailback until he was killed at a homecoming dance last fall by 15-year-old aiming for someone else.

"It's just sort of depressing," Stewart says. "I mean, kids fooling around with guns is awful in its own way. It's inexcusable for an adult. What did he have, a loaded shotgun? In his home?"

What we all chose to ignore during his heyday was that Williams was profoundly immature. He would go to great lengths to entertain, once telling the Nets beat writers, many of whom were married, that he would pay for prostitutes for all of them, right then, right there. We dismissed his rant as all blather, and we all wondered if he wasn't stuck in time at some dorm party.

No one figured his lifelong role as the class clown, the heavy drinking and his fascination with guns were a recipe for tragedy. In one of the those twists you could not script, his former sad-sack Nets teammates, Chris Morris and Benoit Benjamin, just happened to be at the mansion that night. And they ended up testifying in the trial.

They were always viewed as this comical trio of underachieving losers, and Williams felt a connection with those people that he never felt with other NBA stars. Sad as it is to think of now, how many NBA millionaires allow a limo driver to join a tour of their house?

At one point, his friends and the luxury he heaped upon them were a nice diversion from a career headed nowhere. Languishing on the bench under former Nets coach Chuck Daly, he grew more and more frustrated, believing his talents would never be tapped.

Finally, Paul Silas, an assistant under then-Nets coach Butch Beard, approached Williams and gave him perhaps the most valuable advice of his career: find something you do better than anyone else.

"I'm a good rebounder," Williams replied.

"Then be a great rebounder," said Silas, who himself made a living pulling down rebounds for the Boston Celtics and Seattle SuperSonics in the 1970s.

Williams soon curbed his drinking, his late-night carousing.

After the NBA lockout in 1999, Williams quietly donated $20,000 worth of his salary to Nets concessionaires at Continental Arena who lost income when the league lost 32 games to labor strife.

But there was that other side, that flippant character stuck in neverland, who never quite handled fame well. Unlike the limo driver, Gus Cristofi, the man prosecutors say he pointed a loaded weapon and killed in his home, he essentially got a second chance yesterday.

He likely will serve less than five years in jail, if that.

Whether Jayson Williams can rehabilitate his life and image -- or whether he goes back to that crowd-pleasing dangerous soul who pushed the limits of absurdity and humor too far -- is up to him.