The room is empty and as quiet as a church when he walks in and slides onto a bench near the back. An eager supplicant, he leans his head back as if he were about to be baptized, and he begins to lift, first his voice, then 215 pounds of iron. Pig iron.
In less than an hour there will be 19,000 people in this same building, many of them wearing hats molded in the shape of a pig's head, which means it is time for Corliss Williamson to change. "I walk down to the weight room as Corliss," explains Williamson, a 6'7", 245-pound forward who last season, as a sophomore, led Arkansas to the national title, "and I start to lift. That's where I go through my transformation. The adrenaline starts flowing, I get angry, I get aggressive, I get sweaty. I start talking to myself about what I'm going to do when I get on the floor. And then, suddenly, there I am: the Big Nasty."
He does leg curls, arm curls, toe curls, Shirley Temple curls until his game uniform is nearly drenched in sweat. All of this, of course, flies in the face of basketball's old-time religion, which looked down upon big muscles as the fleshy bindweed of the devil, and whose catechism was full of dogma about quickness and flexibility. But the Big Nasty will have none of that. "That's his game, the power game, and lifting gets him ready to play," says Scotty Thurman, the Razorbacks' other starting forward. "It gets him into the frame of mind where he's going to push people around, intimidate guys. It actually relaxes him a lot."
Refreshed, relaxed and looking like Charles Atlas, the Big Nasty is now ready to bench-press the sissies on the other team. "Then I walk back into the locker room, and the guys are all laughing at me," he says, with a rueful smile, "like, There he goes again. But if I'm out there with a frown on my face, I think there's an intimidation factor."
As the Razorbacks line up in the locker room to go onto the floor, Williamson stands at the door administering a kind of emotional CPR, thumping all of his teammates soundly on the chest as each goes by. "It's just a way of making sure everyone's heart is in the game," he says.
All that weightlifting has made Williamson a startling physical speciman. His massive legs are so suggestive of tree trunks that the place on his calf where an Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother branded him with a hot coat hanger last year looks like the work of kids trying to carve their initials in his bark with a penknife. His bark is even worse than his Big Nasty bite, as he now has yet another brand on his arm and has adorned each of his massive pecs with tattoos—one of them a Tasmanian devil, whose whirling-dervish moves Williamson emulates when he gets the ball deep in the lane.
Williamson has worked tirelessly to develop his hard muscles and soft touch. Now he is the foundation upon which Arkansas's hopes of repeating as champions must be built. After averaging 20.4 points a game last season and being named the SEC's Player of the Year, Williamson dominated everyone he faced in the NCAA tournament, with the notable exception of Juwan Howard of Michigan, who outscored Williamson by 18 points and outrebounded him 13 to 6 in the Midwest Regional final in Dallas. Williamson went nearly 27 minutes without scoring in that game and finished with only 12 points, but the Wolverines were so obviously preoccupied with stopping him that they let other Razorbacks go unchecked and lost 76-68.
A week later Williamson was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four in Charlotte despite a mini shooting slump against Duke that dropped his career tournament field goal percentage from a record .711 to .649, below Bill Walton's career-best mark of .686. "It feels so easy for me, once I get the ball, to get to the basket," Williamson said in Charlotte after using a combination of force and finesse to launch most of his shots just inches from the rim.
It wasn't always like that, though. While growing up in Russellville, Ark., 75 miles from Little Rock, Williamson was usually mistaken for someone older because of his size. "A lot of people had a problem remembering that this kid in the man-sized body looked 17 but was really only 13," says his mother, Bettye. That caused young Corliss no end of trouble at James Park, a rectangular plot of concrete and grass sometimes called James Park University by the matriculants who have passed through its tough-love curriculum. The park is where basketball players are made in Russellville.
"People ask you where you're from," Williamson says, "and if you played there, you say James Park University. When a player from the park dunked in a high school game, you would hear guys up in the stands start singing, 'J-P-U, J-P-U.' "