I see myself a little bit in him," Sacramento Kings point guard Jason Williams was I saying of the Utah Jazz's John Stockton in the quiet visitors' locker room at the Delta Center last Saturday. "The way he's willing to do anything he can to help his team, I hope I'm a little bit like that."
From the beginning of this truncated season Kings coach Rick Adelman has brought up Stockton in discussing Williams, hoping that the 37-year-old Stockton would serve as a humbling role model for the rookie from Florida. It was important that Williams remain levelheaded. He had arrived on the NBA scene in February like an electric fan blowing out the stale air of the lockout. He was ingenious, fun, even Chaplinesque: hiding the ball behind his back, inventing slapstick layups for his teammates on the run and refusing to take himself seriously. He was White Chocolate or the Thrilla in Vanilla, a 23-year-old white kid from Belle, W.Va., with a hip-hop game.
In this light it was easy to emphasize Williams's good work and its consequences—for example, that fast-breaking Sacramento was the only team to average triple figures (100.2) in the regular season—and never mind that the Kings were last in the league defensively (100.6 points allowed per game). He was also one of the main reasons Sacramento reached the playoffs, where sharp and experienced Utah would provide a harsh test. Williams was encouraged that in all three of the teams' regular-season meetings the Kings had forced the Jazz into overtime, winning once. An hour before Saturday's opening tip, the Kings seemed as carefree and optimistic as, well, a Williams bounce pass on the run through heavy traffic. "I don't really ever get nervous," Williams said. "I get a few butterflies right when they're introducing our names, but when they throw the ball up, I'm out there playing, and it doesn't matter who it's against."
Not even in this case? The playoff game would be the 148th for Stockton, the NBAs alltime leader in assists and steals. It would be Williams's first. "I guess I'm kind of lucky to get here in my rookie year," Williams said.
It was to be a drawn-out lesson for a player who likes to think on his feet. After just 2:48, Sacramento trailed by 10. Williams responded with successive three-pointers from 23, 24 and 26 feet—the last on a bank shot—but the opening moments of a playoff game aren't well suited for desperation. While Stockton and Williams chased each other like alley cats, the big difference was in their eyes. Stockton's were focused narrowly; he seemed to know exactly where he was headed. Williams's were wide open; he seemed to be exploring at half speed, seeking a pathway that hadn't been cut off by Stockton and the sophisticated Jazz defense. The three regular-season games had been nothing like this one. Utah won 117-87.
Williams finished with 11 points, two assists and two turnovers in 26 minutes. "I can't say it was fun for me," he said. Then he added, with the optimism of youth, "We put our shoes and socks on the same way they do. I don't see why we can't play the way they do."
Time had been the greatest difference between Williams and Stockton. Only one of them had played as if he had precious little of it left.