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The Waiting Game
Jack McCallum
November 16, 1998
As the NBA lockout dragged on, irrepressible free agent and All-Star Jayson Williams played pickup, did Letterman and pondered ways to win back the fans
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November 16, 1998

The Waiting Game

As the NBA lockout dragged on, irrepressible free agent and All-Star Jayson Williams played pickup, did Letterman and pondered ways to win back the fans

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Williams shakes his head as the men drive off. "So what do I do? Go over and discuss labor issues? Tell them it's not as simple as it seems?" he says. "To them it is simple, and I don't blame them. See, the whole thing is embarrassing. Only word for it."

It's a leap to call this verbal freight train part of the silent majority, but the phrase aptly describes Williams and most NBA players these days, the ones who aren't shown towering above Hunter on the evening news. Williams gets together with teammates in small groups to shoot baskets and the breeze and to maintain muscle tone. They make fleeting reference to the daily lockout news but rarely talk about it beyond that. Instead, they make gentle gibes about Nets coach John Calipari (e.g., Calipari's predilection to praise backup guard Lucious Harris as a way of motivating third-year guard Kittles), conjure up their far-flung teammates ("I'm exercising the Michael Cage exception," Williams tells Snedaker when he passes on a set of push-ups) and grow increasingly bored with one-on-one games at the YM-YWHA in Washington Township, N.J.

Williams is upset that most fans seem to be angry at the players when it was the owners who started the impasse by opening up the collective bargaining agreement. Williams is convinced that America has less tolerance for labor strife in the NBA because 80% of the players are African-American. "People just don't want to see big black guys complaining about money," says Williams. He's pleasantly surprised by the union's solidarity to date and the fact that the leadership seems so prepared for what's happening.

The lockout also is driving him increasingly loco. He's tired of lifting weights, and he jokes that he, Van Horn and Kittles are ready for "the professional bodybuilders tour." He's tired of playing lord of the manor, rattling around his 65-acre central New Jersey estate 50 miles west of New York City. He's tired of playing serf of the manor, too, getting up at 7:30 to feed the menagerie of ducks, geese and goats thrust upon him by his mother, Barbara, an animal lover who, like her son, has a soft spot for injured or lost creatures and who is in constant contact with the Hunterdon County chapter of the ASPCA.

He's getting hurt in the pocketbook too. Williams will miss one check on Sunday, and another payless payday will pass on Nov. 30. Based on Williams's salary of $2.5 million last season, those two checks would have amounted to about $400,000. Each day of the lockout is another day that his agent, Sal DiFazio, is not working on cementing a deal with the Nets, from whom Williams, 30, wants a seven-year, "take me to the end of my career" contract. (Williams refuses to talk dollars, but his value would seem to be in the $12 million to $15 million a year range.) The fact that he doesn't have a contract is complicating his plans to marry his fiancée, model Cynthia Bailey. "I can't get that prenup settled without a new deal," Williams says straightforwardly.

He doesn't talk to the Nets' player-rep ("There is nothing Chris Gatling can tell me that I want to hear"), and he seethes when he catches a player throwing around words such as freedom and dignity before pulling out a cell phone and climbing into a limo. He thinks union leadership is doing an acceptable job but suspects that a certain agent has too much power and is still smarting that he was not voted onto the 15-member executive committee because "they had to get David Falk's people on it." He is not ready to start an insurrection but is starting to wonder if Hunter & Co. had better start listening to the antiplayer drumbeat. "I've got to be frank," says Williams. "If I was a fan, I'm not sure I'd come back."

Most of all Williams worries that there won't be a sufficient show of contrition after a settlement. "We better start planning some apologetic campaigns right now," he says. "I mean players, teams and the league. We've got to get the message through that this thing was messed up from the beginning, and we better not come back as a bunch of rich athletes looking for pity. We've got to tell the knuckleheads in this league that we can't act like that. Lord knows," he adds, "we got enough of them."

Williams was one early in his career. He and Charles Barkley disagree as to who was tour guide and who was follower, but as Philadelphia 76ers teammates they closed too many gin joints and bruised too many knuckles in barroom brawls, a pattern that Williams continued for a couple of years after he was traded to the Nets in 1992. "I never had a drinking problem," says Williams, "but I definitely had a late-night problem."

Those days are over, and through hard work and dedication Williams has become not only an All-Star but also a genuine cross-cultural phenomenon, hip enough to rap with Rock, comfortable enough to josh with Letterman about the gap in Letterman's teeth, unthreatening enough to appear with New Jersey governor Christie Whitman in public service announcements about road rage (although, Williams says, "the governor should have seen me driving home the other day after Keith tuned me up one-on-one").

Williams is, in fact, a 1990s version of Dr. Joyce Brothers, a professional "going-on-talk-shows-guy," as Van Horn puts it. But Williams is more pervasive than that. Over the next few weeks he will be showing up as himself in the Nov. 17 episode of the ABC sitcom Spin City ("Michael J. Fox is so small he could pose for a trophy," Williams says) and as a math teacher on the CBS sitcom Cosby. He has a small role as a ballplayer in New Jersey Turnpike, a basketball movie to be released in January. He looked as smooth talking about the lockout on Nov. 3 with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News as he did the next day cleaning and jerking 165 pounds with one hand during his appearance on Letterman's Late Show. He's been on MTV so often and in so many capacities that a month of Real World: Jayson seems inevitable. He writes a column for Details magazine, and a book of Williams's NBA anecdotes is to be published in '99. Over the last several months he has been on about 70 radio shows, been interviewed by 30 newspapers and magazines, made 100 charity appearances and organized slam-dunk contests in four cities that attracted 12,000 kids as a promotion for Post cereals' Oreo O's. ("It's healthy, honest," he says.)

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