Williams has played with five NBA teams since he left Arizona after his junior year in 1991 (box, page 116), and all that moving around has figured into his reputation as an elusive, unsettled character with a lot of potential and a long way to go. Until his career caught fire at the end of last season, he was as widely known for his bouts with depression as for his basketball skills. In 1992-93, his second year in the league, he played in only 21 games, largely because of depression. He even announced to friends that he intended to retire. At 23 he could find no joy or meaning in his life with the Orlando Magic. Rare was the night that he didn't wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. feeling tired and jittery, his mind a jumble. It became a chore for him to get out of bed in the morning and report to practice. He was distant and aloof, and he grew to dislike the city of Orlando. He complained that it was "sterile" and "made for tourists." The Magic treated him well, he said, but he found his work environment "hospital-like."
Williams started having blackouts. One day he fainted at practice and banged his head on the floor. Another time he drifted off and drove his car into a concrete pylon supporting an overpass.
"He'd sit in his room and play his saxophone for hours," says Kevin Porter, Williams's personal assistant. "He'd just go through all these notes over and over and over. I'd say, 'Come on, let's walk around the lake, let's do something.' But he'd say, 'No, leave me alone.' "
Tired of feeling tired, Williams one night swallowed about 15 prescription sleeping pills. "I just wanted to go to sleep," he says. "If I didn't wake up for a week, mat would've been fine with me. I ended up sleeping for about 10 hours, and then I got up in the morning and went to practice. I was groggy, but nobody said anything. I wasn't trying to kill myself, no matter what you may have heard. When I look back, it was nothing more than the overreaction of a young, immature, lonely, misguided mind."
The team sent Williams to a therapist for a few months to work on his depression. He hasn't suffered any bouts since then, and he hasn't taken medication for the condition. As for the fainting spells, he'd been trying to survive the rigors of the NBA on a vegetarian diet of 2,000 calories a day when his body needed three times that many. "Cornflakes for breakfast, maybe vegetarian chili for lunch, a salad for dinner," he says. "I was stupid. I grew up a vegetarian, and I wanted to be superhealthy. Of course I wasn't consulting anyone on this. The lack of protein and iron in my diet finally ran me down."
These days when Williams's mood darkens, he's more apt to sit at his PowerBook and write what he's feeling man to hide in bed and wait for sleep. Deli Delight is a poem he wrote about a waitress he met at a Los Angeles sandwich shop. Fille du Glace is a riff inspired by the beat poetry of the 1950s. It begins, "Girl frigid chosen to be frozen frost bitten kitten no mittens smitten with the notion of a love potion lotion...." Read aloud, the poem recalls the smoky Greenwich Village coffee shops where hipsters gathered for midnight recitals and offered loud choruses of finger snapping when something sounded really cool.
"'I always figured there were two ways to go," Williams says. "You can die from living, or you can die from just dying. So many people try to play it safe. Maybe they're that way because they have a wife and kids and a load of responsibilities. Or maybe it's because they want to try things but don't think they can pull them off. I admit my life has always been a little tilted. 'Oh, that Williams boy, I don't think he's knitting with two needles.' I've heard that. Or they say, 'Oh, that Brian Williams, he's a free spirit.' Well, it seems like they're trying to be polite and avoid having to say I'm slightly off-kilter. When they say 'free spirit,' it's always with a wink and a nod, as in, 'Well, the poor guy, he's one step short of being institutionalized.' "
When the Pistons were trying to sign Williams last summer, they had to recruit him hard because Minnesota, Phoenix, Portland and Toronto, among other teams, were in the hunt for his services. Williams was only a month removed from Chicago's triumph over Utah in the NBA Finals, an experience that he ranks as the most satisfying of his career. For the three road games of the series, Williams shared a two-bedroom hotel suite with Billy Corgan, lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins and an avid Bulls fan. Williams plays not only the sax but also the trumpet and the bass, and he sang a few ditties for Corgan, who did not mince words in evaluating Williams's talent. "You suck, man, stop singing," Williams recalls Corgan saying.
"Wait, Billy. Check this out."
"No, man. I won't. Shut up."