On the court, Jayson's better days began in 1994-95 and continued through last season, when his otherwise unremarkable NBA career took a turn that placed him among the game's most improved players. In 1995-96, playing only 23.2 minutes a game, Williams averaged 10.0 rebounds. The figure of one board every 2.32 minutes placed Williams second in rebounding frequency only to Dennis Rodman, the Chicago Bulls forward (and overall rebounding leader), who led the league with one board every 2.19 minutes. On the strength of that performance, Williams finished third in the voting for the NBA Sixth Man Award for the 1995-96 season, behind Bulls forward Toni Kukoc and Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis.
The journey to NBA acceptance has not been easy for Williams, mainly because until recently neither personal nor professional achievement mattered much to him. In fact, Williams was so haunted by the deaths of his sisters that at times he seemed set on taking his own early slide. "Nobody knew my troubles because I never told nobody nothin'," Williams, 28, says now. "I was the kind of guy who was always laughing, always the life of the party. It was a way for me to hide myself. I wanted people to be happy when they were around me. I wanted them to think I was happy. But at the same time I was daring Jesus to take my life. I became the kind of person who walks into gunfights. I wasn't scared to die because I couldn't imagine living without my sisters."
Evidence that Williams was waging dark, personal battles dates back to his days at St. John's. As a sophomore in 1988, Williams hit a spectator with a metal folding chair when the man reportedly jeered him after Williams was ejected from a game for lighting. Williams was charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and jailed for several hours before being released on bail. The charges were later dropped.
In 1990 the Phoenix Suns made him the 21st pick in the NBA draft, but Williams felt Arizona was too far from home. He bellyached so much that the Suns traded his draft rights to the Philadelphia 76ers. His two-year stint as a Sixer was memorable mostly for the trouble he caused. In a game against the Charlotte Hornets, Williams came storming off the bench and slugged the Hornets' J.R. Reid with a roundhouse right after Reid and Charles Barkley, then a Sixers forward, got into a shoving match under the basket.
Williams was Barkley's drinking companion. One night when Williams and Barkley were having a late-night drink in a Chicago hotel bar, they were approached by a man who claimed to be carrying a knife. Williams's response was to strike the man in the head with a beer mug. Although police did not bring charges against him, Williams says he and Barkley "are still getting sued in that, and the guy I hit was the one who had the knife in his hand."
At about the same time, Williams got into a brawl with a couple of men who had caused problems at a Manhattan bar he co-owned called Big Daddy's. Williams had bought the bar shortly after turning pro, and "for the two years I had it," he says, "it was nothing but chaos." No night was more chaotic than the one when he bounced the two men from the place for allegedly harassing female patrons. The men challenged him to a fight, and Williams sprayed them with mace and punched one hard enough, he says, to "knock his eye back in his head." The fellow sued Williams for millions but settled for $30,000—"the best $30,000 I ever spent," Williams later boasted. "I beat his fat ass."
To continue the streak, police arrested Williams in 1994 on weapons charges after somebody fired a handgun at an unoccupied vehicle in the parking lot of the Meadowlands Arena (now the Continental Airlines Arena), where the Nets play. Williams admitted to owning the gun—the charges were dismissed after he completed a pretrial program—but he still claims that somebody else shot it. Four months later he was featured in the news yet again when three teenagers accused him and then-teammate Derrick Coleman of assaulting them outside a New York nightclub. No criminal charges were brought against Williams, and assault charges filed against Coleman were dropped. Both were named in civil suits, which are still pending, that seek more than $4 million in damages.
Williams's battles weren't always so public, and they weren't always with others. The biggest seemed to be with himself, and in his typically hyperbolic manner, he admits now to being lucky to have survived it.
"When I played for the 76ers, I used to commute from New York to Philadelphia every day," he says. "It's an 84-mile drive each way, and I used to do it in less than 50 minutes. I had a BMW and a Jaguar, and I'd drive them 150 miles an hour on the interstate. I totaled a couple of cars, and I walked right out of them." After returning to his apartment, Williams says, he would watch TV until morning, then sleep as long as he could in the hope that Linda and Laura would appear to him in dreams. Always before turning in, though, he did as his mother had taught him to do years before. He fell to his knees, and he folded his hands and prayed. Only now the words had nothing to do with worship.
"I dare you," he said. "Come on, God. Do it."