"My family's been a disaster my whole life," Williams says. "I always had drama. I thought that was how it was supposed to be.... Sometimes now I sit back and say to myself, Holy s—-. No wonder my first four years in the NBA were so screwed up."
It was 1959 when a friend of Barbara Mazzeo's introduced her to a smooth talker named Elijah Joshua Williams. Barbara had two daughters from a previous marriage, and E.J. and his previous wife had five children together. Barbara was white and E.J. was black, but race was only the most obvious of their differences. Barbara was an Italian Catholic from New York City, E.J. a Protestant from rural South Carolina who had come north to Brooklyn looking for work as a brick mason.
The Williamses lived in a blighted area of New York's Lower East Side, where, as Jayson remembers it, even children learned "how to take care of things quick, fast and in a hurry." As a kid he had a speech impediment and got picked on for pronouncing his last name "Ilyums," but more often he got hassled for being biracial. Even some of his family members called him "half-breed" and "zebra."
"Having black and white parents showed me both sides of the world and made me wiser," Williams says. "My mother could have a Chinese over staying the night, and for breakfast we'd have egg rolls and grits with marinara sauce on the grits. She used to cook pasta with pig knuckles, if you can believe it. I was never confused about my identity. I always thought that, socially, I was advantaged because I was both book-smart and street-smart. I could handle myself at a damn opera or at an X-rated movie, either one, and I was comfortable."
In the summertime E.J. took Jayson with him to work almost every day of the week. As a result Jayson says he learned how to operate bulldozers, backhoes and other heavy machinery before he had even earned a driver's license. His father seemed to know everything about construction, but sports were another matter altogether. E.J. knew baseball, but it was Barbara who introduced Jayson to basketball. And soon Jayson was dribbling the ball in his room, outside in the hallway and up and down the stairs of their high-rise apartment building.
Barbara sent her son to Catholic schools where "my classmates were a bunch of guys named Sal and Vinny," Jayson says. But his best pals were his two half sisters, Linda and Laura Diaz, who would regularly pick him up from school.
"Linda was a model," Barbara says. "She was six feet tall and very thin with a perfect shape." One night in June 1980 Barbara dreamed that Linda was attacked by a stranger. Linda was 23 then and the mother of a one-year-old named Ejay, and she lived with her son in the building across the street. The day after the dream Linda stopped by to visit her mother, and Barbara debated whether to tell her about the horrors she had seen in the night. Finally Linda said, "Mom, I've got to go home and get my makeup."
"Linda, don't go," Barbara told her.
"But, Mom, I've got to. I need my makeup. I have to get ready." One of Linda's friends was graduating from college, and she had promised to attend the ceremony.
"I had a dream," Barbara said. "Please don't go, Linda."