Jay Williams was in danger of losing his left leg. He was 21 years old, a promising point guard for the Chicago Bulls, but on the afternoon of June 19 he drove his motorcycle into a light pole on Chicago's North Side, dislocating his leg at the knee and the pelvis. Surgeons at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center were considering amputation the next day when Chicago's general manager, John Paxson, arrived. "Jay was putting on a brave face," recalls Paxson. "You're thinking how tragic this is and how awful he must be feeling, then you put yourself in his family's position. It's the worst call you can get, hearing that one of your kids has been in an accident."
Three months earlier, when he was doing the team's color commentary on radio, Paxson would have felt only sympathy for Williams, who was not wearing a helmet, does not have an Illinois license to drive a motorcycle and was riding his bike in violation of a clause in his contract. (The Bulls intend to ignore the violation and pay Williams the $7.7 million he's owed for the next two seasons, according to a team official.) But on April 14 owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired Paxson to replace the retiring Jerry Krause, and now Paxson also had to gauge the impact the accident would have on the team as it prepared for the draft, six days away. Though doctors succeeded in saving Williams's leg, he still had a fractured pelvis, a left knee whose ligaments must be reconstructed and possibly permanent nerve damage. Williams, who had undergone two pelvic surgeries at week's end, will not play next season. Paxson says it will be "miraculous" if he ever suits up again.
Though Williams struggled at times last season after being drafted No. 2 out of Duke, and lost his starting job in March to second-year man Jamal Crawford, the Bulls saw him as their quarterback for the next decade. Paxson faced two problems in dealing with the fallout from Williams's injury. First, Paxson had spent the previous two months weighing offers from the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Seattle SuperSonics for Crawford and hastily preparing either to use his No. 7 pick on a wing player or to trade the choice for a veteran who might help reverse Chicago's pitiful road record of 3-38 last season. Now needing Crawford to man the point, Paxson had to dream up a new strategy, which touched on problem number 2: his inexperience. "I'm competing against guys who have been at this for years," he says. "They know it, and will always know it, better than I do."
If Paxson was insecure, it didn't show. "John knows much more than I think he's giving himself credit for," says Bulls scout B.J. Armstrong, who had hoped to replace Krause after serving as his assistant for three years. Coach Bill Cartwright describes his new boss as a quick, authoritative leader. "It was boom, boom, boom," Cartwright says of Paxson's predraft maneuvering. "While the calls were coming in, he knew what deals he liked and what deals he didn't like."
As an overachieving 6'2" guard, Paxson helped Michael Jordan win his first three titles with defense and clutch shooting. Reinsdorf, who had employed Paxson since 1985, knew that he could handle the G.M. job, but Krause worried about his lack of experience. The closest Paxson had come to working in management had been during the 1995-96 season, which he spent as a Bulls assistant coach before deciding that the odd hours and travel were too great a price for his wife and their two sons to pay. But he made clear his determination to succeed Krause, who gave him hours of advice.
The most influential counsel, however, came from Paxson's older brother, Jim, who after becoming general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers in June 1999 had a scant three weeks to begin recruiting a new coach and to decide how to use his team's pair of first-round draft picks. "I was surprised by how many [possible trades] John had going," says Jim, who offered advice on a variety of moves. In the days leading up to the draft Jim avoided talking to his brother so he wouldn't hear John's final plan and have to answer questions about it from other teams. (Not that anyone needed to ask John what Jim was doing: The elder Paxson plucked LeBron James with the No. 1 pick.) In time, though, that sort of cooperation is bound to give way to brotherly competition. "As a player I was an All-Star a couple of times, but he won those championship rings," says Jim with a laugh. "Maybe I can beat him to the punch with a championship as a G.M."
Throughout his 11-year playing career John Paxson was known as a complementary player with no fear of taking the big shot. In his new role he followed the same course, relying on the opinions of Armstrong and scouts Gar Forman and Ivica Dukan as well as salary-cap expert Irwin Mandel—all of whom, after years of working under the autocratic Krause, were more than happy to be leaned on. In the end Paxson decided not to make any trades and narrowed his focus to two college guards. When one of them, Marquette's Dwyane Wade, went to the Miami Heat at No. 5, Paxson picked the other, Kirk Hinrich, a 6'3" Kansas senior, who will back up both Crawford and shooting guard Jalen Rose. "It's funny, but I almost didn't have Kirk work out for them," says Hinrich's agent, Jeff Austin. "Before Jay Williams was hurt, it didn't make any sense."
Now it made perfect sense. From his new office chair Paxson looks forward to seeing if Hinrich—a bigger, stronger defender—is better suited than Williams to play alongside Crawford in the backcourt next season. Paxson hates that he had to move forward so quickly with Hinrich and leave Williams behind. The excitement and anticipation of Hinrich's arrival "is not fair to Jay," says Paxson, just as the gloom cast by Williams's misfortune "is not fair to Kirk."
Last week Williams moved his foot in a way that suggests major nerve damage had been averted, according to his agent, Bill Duffy. "Our goal is that Jay will be back on the court in 2004-05 earning the money the Bulls are paying him," Duffy says. Last Friday, Jay's mother, Althea, told Paxson that her son had watched the draft from his hospital room and that the sight of Hinrich in a Bulls cap had motivated him. The next day she watched as Jay stood with the help of a physical therapist, then took the first of many steps to come.