The list is long. But now that Williams has a forum, he might as well respond to one rumor, about his sexual orientation. Would Williams like to be the first active big-time male professional athlete to come out of the closet?
Williams rubs a hand over his head. His face lights up with a grin. "People can think whatever they want about that," he says. "The person who stands up and proselytizes that's he's not gay, now he's the one you have to wonder about. As for myself, I don't give a s—-. Think I'm gay, or think I'm straight, it doesn't matter. Why is there such a need to know, anyway?"
It's a fair question, and he, better than anyone, knows the answer. Over the last 10 months Williams, a seven-year NBA veteran, has emerged as one of the game's top big men, and he finds himself on the cusp of what is beginning to look like stardom. Last season he affirmed his value during a short stint with the Chicago Bulls that was crucial to their winning their fifth championship in seven years. And this season, after having signed a seven-year, $45 million free-agent contract with Detroit last August, he ranks among the league's top five centers in scoring, with 16.9 points a game, and rebounding, with a 9.7 average.
As a personality, however, Williams is a mystery. In fact, now that everybody has Dennis Rodman figured out, Williams is the league's reigning mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. People who closely follow the Pistons have asked, Why does he roll deodorant under his arms before practice—and not always shower afterward? Even casual observers have noticed his habit of running off the court a few minutes before tip-off and disappearing under the seats. He's visiting the John, but it's more fun to imagine that he's down there casting voodoo spells.
Adding to the confusion about Williams is his habit of speaking his mind. In one breath he can be as thoughtful and articulate as anyone else in sports; in the next, so politically incorrect as to redefine the term. Asked about the NBA's decision to use female referees, Williams told The Detroit News, "I am for equal rights, I am for the National Organization for Women, I am for equal pay, and I have read Camille Paglia and Anaï's Nin. But this is utter bull." Later he posed this hypothetical: "What happens when I run into one of them and break her head open?" The uproar over those remarks had barely died when he called rookie phenom Keith Van Horn of the New Jersey Nets the "great white hope."
A misogynist, a racially insensitive jerk or just another athlete with a loose lip? Take your pick, Williams doesn't care. As his teammate Grant Hill has said, the big man appears destined for selection to "the all-quote team for all the crazy things he says." That's too bad, because Williams is more than just another big mouth.
He is a licensed pilot who owns a four-seat plane, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for adventure. He has run with the bulls in Pamplona, ridden camels in the desert near Cairo, gambled in Monaco casinos, danced half-naked in the streets of Havana and fired rounds from a bazooka into a hillside on the outskirts of Beirut. He guzzled vodka through the night at a whorehouse in the south of France and angered the joint's madam when he refused to retire to a back room with one of her girls. He has partied in the discos of Mexico City and tramped around Morocco with a fashion model, his love interest at the time. Several years ago he cycled some 800 miles from Salt Lake City to Phoenix, stopping only for food, sleep and dips in motel swimming pools.
To further distance himself from the average NBA player, Williams has read a real book or two, preferring Kant and Kierkegaard to King and Grisham. "I taught classes in economics and philosophy at Stanford, and I've given Brian books we used in class," says Patrick Byrne, a friend of Williams's. "I've been astonished by his perceptive and acute intellect. What impresses me is how he understands it all and has it at his fingertips."
Williams broke down in tears after reading a biography of jazz legend Miles Davis. "If I had the passion for basketball that Miles Davis had for music," Williams said then, to explain why he was crying, "I would be one of the greatest players ever." On another occasion he was watching a movie about apartheid when suddenly he rose to his feet and ran from the room. Later friends found him outside sobbing, his face buried in his hands.
"He's got such a big heart," says Doug Collins, who was fired as Pistons coach on Feb. 2 partly because of the team's disappointing performance this season. "He wants to do well and do the right things. At Christmas, Brian did something that no other player I've ever coached has done: He gave me a present. It's this beautiful Lalique crystal in the shape of a horse. He said it reminded him of the Pistons' logo, and when he saw it, he thought I should have it. Now that tells you he's got something not everyone has. It's sensitivity."