The following autumn Rutledge went to visit the Williamses at their Lower East Side apartment. "It was a real warm home, a loving home," he says. "I remember Jayson had such great respect for his mother and father and such a feeling for wanting to do good, not for himself but for them. He told me there'd been enough sorrow and hurt in his family, and he didn't want to bring any more on them."
At St. John's, Williams never seemed to have enough time to himself. In addition to his schoolwork—he would receive a bachelor's degree in communication arts in 1990—and basketball, he was busy helping to raise Ejay and Laura's daughter, Monique. Some days his family duties made him late for practice, and he never seemed to get enough rest.
"I wanted to quit and work construction," Williams says. "Coach [Lou Carnesecca] called me and my father in for a meeting, and he said he thought I had the talent to go pro. Dad said I made him proud when he saw me on TV and saw the Williams name up there on the screen and he started to cry, and I knew I couldn't quit. It was the only time in my whole life I ever saw my father cry."
As a junior Williams made second-team All-Big East and led the Redmen in scoring (19.5 average) and rebounding (7.9). Rutledge remembers him as "one of the real forces in the Big East. He didn't back down from anybody—not from [Georgetown's] Alonzo Mourning, not from [Syracuse's] Derrick Coleman, not from anybody." That was the season, 1988-89, when Williams carried his team to the NIT championship and was named the tournament's MVP. But the next season, when he was a senior, Williams broke his right foot and played only 13 games, and his scoring average dropped to 14.6. The injury hurt him in the draft, as he fell from being a likely Top 10 pick to a late first-round selection. By then, though, Williams wasn't sure that he wanted to play pro ball. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't square the sudden status of being an NBA player with the losses he'd suffered.
Shortly after signing his first pro contract with Philadelphia, Williams legally adopted Ejay, now 17, and Monique, now 22 and the mother of a 14-month-old child named Alex. That makes Williams a grandfather, one of only two current NBA players to hold the distinction. (The Bulls' Robert Parish, 43, is the other.) It hasn't been an easy assignment.
In the beginning of his NBA career, Williams says, he was so distracted by family demands that he didn't develop into much of a player. Injuries (a dislocated left ankle, which cost him 67 games during the '92-93 season ) added to his difficulties, and his periodic brushes with the law left little doubt about his reckless, immature nature. Moreover, Williams had a reputation around the league as a weak defender who seemed to have left his offense in college and would let his team down at the free throw line.
According to Nets senior vice president Willis Reed, Williams's game was going nowhere until 1992-93, when Chuck Daly took over as New Jersey's coach and pressed Williams to develop a single skill that would make him invaluable. By specializing in rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding, Williams guaranteed himself an NBA future. "If Chuck had just left him alone, I don't think Jayson would be where he is today," Reed says.
Daly departed the team after two seasons, and his successor, Butch Beard, pushed Williams even harder to hone his skills on the boards. Beard also showed compassion in dealing with Williams's off-court struggles. In his first three seasons with the Nets, however, Williams was hindered by an unusual condition of his trade from the Sixers: If his combined average of minutes and points per season equaled or exceeded 19, the Nets would have to surrender a first-round draft pick to Philadelphia. Thus, despite his effectiveness, the Nets carefully controlled Williams's playing time (in '94-95, for instance, he averaged 13.1 minutes and 4.8 points). Last season, with the wraps off, Beard almost doubled Williams's minutes, and Williams answered by putting up rebounding numbers that underscored his progress. He had 263 boards under Daly in 1993-94, then 425 under Beard in 1994-95 and 803 last season (342 of them offensive). "The amazing thing is that Jayson's really just learning how to play the game," says Beard, now an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks. "I told him he needs to work on his free throw shooting [last season he was a subpar 59.2%] so that a coach can use him down the stretch. He also needs to develop one or two shots that his team can count on."
Besides working on his game, Williams has worked on his demeanor. His days of wild partying seem to be behind him, and he has learned to walk away from a fight. On the other hand, he has lost none of his volubility, as his selection to the league's 1996 All-Interview team suggests.
"Jayson has turned his life around," says Nets president Michael Rowe. "He defines the character we were trying to get for our team. When we needed a hit of personality—when we were too nondescript, a suburban team without urban sizzle—Jayson jumped in and created a persona for us."