That's the criticism Williams disputes most vigorously. "I don't feel like I have to do something fancy just because there are people in the stands," he says. "I would play the same way if we were playing in an empty gym. All I'm doing is playing to win. I just go about it a little differently than some of the other guys in the league." He admits, however, that his way is not always the best way. "I don't know why I do some of the things I do," he says. "I'm just out there letting it go. Lots of times I'll make a play that doesn't turn out right, and I'll think, Why did I do that? Coaches have tried to stress to me that as long as we score, that's all that matters, whether the assist is behind the back or regular. All I can say is I'm trying to get better about it."
In many ways Williams's toughest opponent has been his fame. He is a crowd pleaser who has never been pleased by crowds; at times he has been surly with people outside the Kings' tight-knit family. Television cameras have caught him matching his hecklers obscenity for obscenity, and he's been prickly with the media. "I admit that I've been rude at times," he says. "Most of the time I don't mind when people come up to me, but when I'm eating, it kind of disgusts me. My favorite is when people say, 'I don't mean to bother you but....' That's when I'll say, 'Well, then don't.' That gets them looking at me like I'm a bad guy."
No one would have that impression of Williams if he were always as relaxed as he was after a practice last week, smiling as he described his favorite card tricks, candidly discussing his rocky season. After learning last month that he had 11 technical fouls, he says, he promised his teammates that he wouldn't pick up another one this season, and in the 18 games since then he hasn't. He also contends that there are reasonable explanations for some incidents that have damaged his reputation, like his hostile All-Star weekend session with the media, for which he arrived 20 minutes late. "I know people don't want to hear excuses, but the limo driver got us lost," Williams says. "Then I got kind of ticked off because they were asking me about smoking weed. [ Williams was kicked off the team at Florida after testing positive twice for marijuana.] So I didn't have too much to say after that. When I'm in a crowd of reporters, they try to get at me sometimes. I have to get better at handling that."
Yet there are other areas in which he doesn't seem interested in changing. Members of the Kings' front office and coaching staff have talked to him about improving his interactions with fans, to no avail. "They put their two cents in so they can feel like they're doing their jobs," Williams says of team officials. "I listen to them, but whether I act on it, that's another question."
There are times when Williams simply sounds like a young man from a small town (Belle, W.Va.) who is overwhelmed by his sudden popularity. He is not like other young players who have been thrust into the spotlight. He isn't from a high-profile college program like Vince Carter or Grant Hill, and he doesn't possess the natural charisma of Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett. "Ninety-eight percent of the time I wish that once I took off my uniform, no one knew who I was," he says. "Being well-known is something I never asked for, and I'm not that comfortable with it."
In some ways, Williams arrived at precisely the right time for the NBA and exactly the wrong time for his own good. As the league reeled from the retirement of Michael Jordan and tried to overcome the fans' disenchantment after the lockout, Williams provided some badly needed fun, whipping passes behind his back, between his legs, over his shoulder. The NBA chose the Kings to open tins season in Japan largely because of Williams's appeal. NBC, TNT and TBS suddenly found Sacramento on the map, making sure the Kings appeared the maximum number of times this year.
This excessive promotion has done Williams no favors. Indeed, opponents who think he has gotten too much too soon come out every night determined to punish him for it. "I get everybody's best shot," Williams says. "But that's fine. Bring it on." Left unspoken by many players is the belief that Williams was originally embraced because he is white. "I like his showmanship and the way he is not afraid to make the fancy pass," says Denver Nuggets point guard Nick Van Exel. "But if I was to come into the league and do the same type of things, or if [Allen] Iverson or Stephon Marbury did, we would get looked at in a negative way."
That's an issue Williams can do nothing about. He's better off concerning himself with things he can control, such as his passes, his shot selection and his manners. The bad habits won't disappear quickly, and neither will he, no matter how much he sometimes wishes he could. He dreams of moving out of his rented home and building a house in Sacramento filled with secret doors and fake walls. "I want some stuff so I can slip away and no one will know where I've gone," he says.
But that would be just another trick, and Jason Williams is beginning to realize that tricks just aren't enough.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]