Ostensibly Owing to the popularity of its Freestyle commercial (SI, March 12), Nike said last week that the airing of another ad featuring Kings guard Jason Williams has been put on hold. The provocative spot was to depict Williams's complexion transmogrifying from black to white as the commercial progresses. "The premise is that there's no black basketball and no white basketball," says Nike spokesman Scott Reames. "Jason's point is, 'I play basketball; it doesn't matter what color my skin is.' "
It does, however, seem to matter to Williams what color someone else's skin is. During a Feb. 28 Kings-Warriors game, Santa Clara, Calif., lawyer Michael Ching, 39, an Asian-American, heckled Williams with such comments as, "Get used to sitting on the bench." According to Ching and others in the stands, Williams responded with a slur-filled screed that, by comparison, makes John Rocker, Allen Iverson and Charlie Ward look like beacons of enlightenment After calling Ching a "slant-eyed motherf——-," Williams mimicked the rat-a-tat of gunfire and announced, "I'll shoot all you Asian motherf———. Do you remember the Vietnam War? I'll kill all like that. Just like Pearl Harbor." (The rudimentary history lesson will follow the diversity training.) Williams concluded by asking Ching, "Are you a fag?"
After an investigation, the NBA fined Williams $15,000, and he issued a mealy-mouthed apology ("I did not intend any disrespect to the Asian community or any other community...."). The league then deftly spun the incident into near oblivion before one of its most marketable players could become a cause c�l�bre.
Still, an uncomfortable question lingers: But for race, what accounts for Williams's celebrity? Would the NBA and Nike continue to promote him—not to mention gloss over his appalling transgression—were he not white? This season alone he has been suspended for violating the league's drug policy and sagely remarked that as a child he should have spent more time practicing his jump shot and less time reading. Williams is undeniably flashy, but name another point guard with a big-time endorsement deal and star status who averaged less than 10 points a game, ranked 27th in assist-to-turnover ratio and is so erratic he's often benched during key stretches of games.
In part because of the thorny issues it evokes, Williams says he hates his nickname, White Chocolate. "Forget all of y'all who are tripping about this racial stuff," he said of his crossover image. The real concern is why people aren't tripping more about this racial stuff. Regardless, the sobriquet is fitting. Like white chocolate, Williams was tantalizing at first. But the more we taste, the less appealing he becomes.