The popular opinion is that Williams has lit up Drexler, a game player for sure but not the kind of guy who will kill himself in practice. "I think Clyde's playing the best defense of his life," says Buckwalter. Certainly Portland is not the finesse team of years past. When the Trail Blazers beat the Detroit Pistons earlier in the season, Isiah Thomas was asked the difference between the '88-89 Portland team and the '89-90 version. "Buck Williams," he replied.
Having a guy who averages 13.4 points and 9.6 rebounds a game and who guards the toughest player every night is bound to make a difference to any team. Portland allowed an average of 113.1 points a game last season; this season, 106.8. The Trail Blazers also have been among the NBA's top rebounding teams. Still the difference the Williams trade has made to Portland is nothing compared with the difference it has made to Buck.
When Williams filed for early entry into the NBA in 1981 and joined the Nets, he hooked up with another collegiate spirit, Brown, who was fresh out of UCLA. "I latched on to Larry," Williams says. "He sort of left me in that college atmosphere. He made me feel so secure, there was nothing I wouldn't do for him." Brown called Williams Bucko; the other Nets called him Brown's son. But after two seasons with New Jersey, Brown left, in an ugly year-end scene, to take the job at Kansas. Williams, if not bitter, certainly felt betrayed. "I grew up that year," he says.
The hapless Nets continued to offer Williams plenty of opportunities for growing experiences. During the last three seasons, in which the Nets were 108 games below .500 overall, Williams began to lose hope that the franchise could be turned around. Because he was the team's most marketable player, his name often popped up in trade rumors, which he found particularly devastating. Still he was loyal to the end.
Williams did not stint in effort or spirit last season. Nor did he complain privately. His wife, Mimi, says he would come home from yet another loss and retire to the loft of their Ramsey, N.J., home to work on his remote-controlled model airplanes. "He'd stay up until two, three in the morning, never talking about the game," says Mimi. "I'd sit up with him and sometimes he would ask me for some help—I have small hands—but mostly he'd just work on those planes. Finally I'd just go to bed."
This was odd because Williams is by nature a talker. With the Nets he was always convening some kind of round-table group, discussing apartheid one day and deferred payments versus cash the next ("You take the cash, man," he says). But last season his usual enthusiasm was dampened. He would still sit down at his computer and track the family finances, still practice gospel on the piano, still putter around at woodworking. But Mimi recalls that he seemed happiest building those airplanes at night and then on Sundays after church, flying—and sometimes crashing—them with a group of model-plane enthusiasts who were only vaguely aware of his status in the NBA.
The whole Nets experience came into focus when he did research into his family tree. He jokes that he started the genealogical studies after a writer speculated that Williams's ancestors must have done something awfully wrong to doom him to play for New Jersey. In fact, while tracing his mother's family to 1800, he discovered no one more wicked than a great-great-grandfather who, as recorded in one of his four divorce proceedings, told his wife of the time, "I'm going to turn the devil loose and somebody gonna be missing in this house." Divorce granted!
Williams also discovered that a female ancestor had been listed, along with livestock, among the assets of landowner William Woodland of Virginia. Her worth on the inventory had been set at $150. And on reading Woodland's will, he found that an entire generation of his ancestors were to have been set free. Instead, they were retained as slaves by the landowner's heirs.
"Here I was treated just like that," he says in reference to the system that assigns and binds pro players to their teams. Yes, Williams understood that he was ridiculously well paid for his work. Still he felt that he had been assigned a worth on an inventory sheet and was going through life at the whim of an owner.
So this is what he learned, on the basketball court and in the libraries where he combed through microfilm looking for ancestors: You can't count on anyone's benevolence.