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This Is CourtsCenter
Steve Rushin
March 08, 2004
By the time you realize that a New Jersey Net, retired but still paid more than $14 million a year, stands accused of fatally shooting a chauffeur in one of the eight bedroom suites in his 30,000-square-foot estate with what his own lawyer describes as a "very expensive skeet gun," and of then shedding his Armani suit pants to bathe in one of his two pools—the indoor, heart-shaped one—you no longer find remarkable the identity of the witnesses, four of whom were, it almost goes without saying...Harlem Globetrotters.
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March 08, 2004

This Is Courtscenter

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By the time you realize that a New Jersey Net, retired but still paid more than $14 million a year, stands accused of fatally shooting a chauffeur in one of the eight bedroom suites in his 30,000-square-foot estate with what his own lawyer describes as a "very expensive skeet gun," and of then shedding his Armani suit pants to bathe in one of his two pools—the indoor, heart-shaped one—you no longer find remarkable the identity of the witnesses, four of whom were, it almost goes without saying... Harlem Globetrotters.

The Jayson Williams manslaughter trial—Cribs meets Cops, on Court TV—is less reality television than surreality television. The cable network is carrying the trial, in which Williams has pleaded not guilty, live from Somerville, N.J., and repeatedly replaying SportsCenter-style highlights of testimony on days the courtroom is dark. Which is apt in one sense, since the trial, better than most sports reporting, has brought to startling life one athlete's wealth, in an age when athletes' salaries have become an almost meaningless abstraction.

And so, among the 40 rooms of Williams's mansion—which a sign outside identifies as the WHO KNEW? ESTATE—is at least one superfluous chamber that a witness and lawyer struggled even to name. They called it the "room outside the bedroom" and the "adjoining room" before finally settling on "study," which has a nice, baronial ring to it.

On Who Knew's 65 acres, as described by defense attorney Billy Martin, are luxuries within luxuries, as if the counselor—in his opening statement—kept unscrewing one Faberg� egg to find another nesting inside. The grounds of the Williams estate contain a working farm, replete with a menagerie of 450 animals and a barn that Martin described as "huge. It's big enough that you'll see photographs of at least three vintage cars in there, and you can't really see the cars."

"There's a little workout room," Martin went on, before correcting himself. "Not workout room," he said. "A building." Beyond that, he said, is "a little three-hole golf course.... In addition to that, you'll see there's a skeet range. In addition to the skeet range on the property, there's a lacrosse field. There's the bus for the lacrosse players." ( Williams, of course, owns a professional lacrosse franchise.) And on and on it went, so that the transcript resembled Neiman Marcus catalog copy.

An actual tour of the grounds was given by Williams on the night in question to those four witnesses, who are collectively called—in virtually every reference in the courtroom—"the Globetrotters." (One of those 'Trotters, Curly [Boo] Johnson, likewise gets the full-name treatment, each time causing the viewer to wonder why a man named Curly requires a subsidiary nickname.)

As circus trials go, then, this one is equal parts circus and trial: half Barnum & Bailey, half Sacco & Vanzetti. Indeed, as Court TV covers it and the syndicated show Celebrity Justice keeps us abreast of entertainment stars in legal peril, it has become difficult—and pointless—to distinguish the athletes from the entertainers. A Court TV anchor, understandably addled, referred last week to Michael Jordan as Michael Jacson.

But then every aspect of human experience is now mere fodder for entertainment, a notion that was reinforced last week with the release of a Harris poll of Americans, the results of which attracted little notice, save for a tiny headline in USA Today. It read, MOST SUPPORT TELEVISED EXECUTIONS. They do? If this is true and the majority of citizens would like to see the E! in their TV listings stand for executions, it is safe to assume that the televised trial—like the idea of lethal injections on Lifetime—is more a prurient spectacle than a public service.

Does decency then compel us to turn off such trials? It's a necessary question to consider, as the courtroom displaces the locker room as the primary keyhole into the lives of our most prominent athletes. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, perhaps the best basketball player in the world, is expected to stand trial on sexual-assault charges in Colorado. Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, perhaps the best football player in the world, was charged last week in Atlanta with intent to distribute cocaine nearly four years ago. Both maintain their innocence.

Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, perhaps the best baseball player in the world, has appeared before a grand jury in California investigating steroid distribution, and his personal trainer, Greg Anderson, pleaded not guilty last month to charges of supplying steroids to professional athletes. (Bonds says that he's never taken steroids.) And of course Mike Tyson, formerly the best heavyweight boxer in the world, pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn court last week to disorderly conduct after a 5:30 a.m. fistfight with two men in a hotel lobby last June. Tyson's lawyers told The New York Times that the two men had challenged the ex-champ, saying, "You got fists. We got guns." What Tyson did in reply was best described by Tyson himself, who told the judge, " Mike Tyson's conduct was very disorderly."

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