Big Game, Small World excerpt
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 9, "Crossover Dreamers," in which Wolff visits Peoria, Ill., and is introduced to the ballhandling wizardry of current University of Illinois star Frank Williams.
Frankie -- Frank Williams -- had been a teammate of Sergio McClain's on the last three of Peoria Manual's four straight state title teams. Then, as a 6'4" senior guard and the tallest player on the team, Frank had led Manual in every statistical category, winning the title of Mr. Basketball in Illinois. Now he and Sergio were teammates again, though Frank would be sitting out his freshman year with the Illini to get his grades up.
The Manual High Rams had ended every quarter the same way, with Frank breaking ankles. Sergio's dad would call for a clearout and signal a play. "No number," Wayne McClain later told me. "We just called out 'Frank.' And you know what? Sometimes when he put the ball on the floor the defender would literally back up. Like he'd been hit with a punch."
Each summer Sergio and Frank played together in the Peoria Macker. Scott McNeal had told me in Celebration that Peoria was his favorite stop on the tour, and from his description I could understand why. Fans ringed the court and filled an adjacent parking deck, which served as a kind of bleachers. The local CBS affiliate telecast the games live, with tart-tongued commentary worthy of the town where Richard Pryor got his start. "Our first year playing Top Men's, Frank was just playing with the guy guarding him," Sergio said. "Three times Frank crossed him. The first time was to get him going. The second, that's when the guy started slipping. By the third it was over. He bit, and Frank sent it between the guy's legs -- twice. I mean, sent the ball through, took it back, then sent it through again. The guy got mad and tackled him after that. Said, 'Don't be embarassin' me like that!'"
Gus Macker himself had been there. "I saw it," Scott had told me. "People were running out onto the court screaming, 'I saw it!' It was even better than the year before, when Howard Nathan dribbled with his knees."
We left the locker room for the Illini's subterranean practice gym. Out on the floor by himself stood Frank Williams. He had a face that could have fit anyone from 15 to 50. His hands were huge and his physique almost fatless. But his arms were his most astonishing feature. Each was a long rattail.
Frank began loping up the court with a ball, crossing it over, folding first his feet, then his shoulders, finally his head into each dribble. Verdell believed that the secret to Frank's crossover was its unpredictability (though when he cocked one leg up ever so slightly, you could be sure he was about to do something). Given the length of those arms, Frank could telegraph his every twitch, and still no defender would be able to stop him.
He paused and sidled over to us. "I try to dance with the ball, like the ball is my girlfriend," he said. "You get the form down. Then you watch other guys and try to add a little something to it, so you can say, 'It's mine.' Feels good once you lay it on somebody. Like getting a dunk and an and-one."
The catwalk, Frank's latest invention, is three kinds of difficult. It's a behind-the-back, through-the-legs crossover, which he demonstrated while walking a perfect line, like a runway model. As he dribbled, he would take a step with the foot on the same side of his body as the ball. The length of his arms and the size of his hands would allow him to wrap the ball around his midsection, then bounce it under that very leg, up into the same hand. Frank strung two, three, four of these preposterously slinky dance steps together, then opened his body up, the way a ballerina might strike a pose of the fourth position. When the Harlem Globetrotters staged a dribbling exhibition or Marques Haynes launched into an all-court cadenza, their acts had a herky-jerky quality. But Frank's catwalk was so smooth, and he wrapped it up so gracefully, that I was convinced everything he had just done could have been performed on a balance beam.
"Now, for his next move, Frank draws you in with a rollback dribble," he said. "Then he goes behind his back with the same hand. Calls it the chicken fajita wrap. I mean, Frank makes up new moves every day."
Frank showed us the chicken fajita wrap. "I use it on guys who play real tight D -- who cut you off one way," he said. "You get 'em going that way, then wrap the ball behind your back real fast. Gotta do it fast. Do it slow and it won't loosen you up."
As Frank repeated the chicken fajita wrap, Verdell dissolved into rapture. "Frank! You don't even realize what you got! Iverson and them, they start with their body the same place as the ball. You -- you start with your body going away from the ball!"
As Frank left the Illini's practice gym for class, he disappeared through the door to a stairwell, then reappeared above us, literally on the catwalk overhanging the gym. Clayton spotted him from the floor. "Frankie, this is for you!" he yelled. He sent a strained shot just over the front of the rim.
Frank watched approvingly from overhead. "I'll take it!" he called out, then headed for the exit.
From the book Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure by Alexander Wolff. Copyright © 2002 by Alexander Wolff. Published by Warner Books. Reprinted by permission.
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