Working moms didn't always have the child-care opportunities they have today. Take Betty Williams, some 27 years ago in Rocky Mount, N.C. She remembers putting her baby son, Charles, in the bag she used to pick cotton—"the bolls a-hittin' him in the face"—as she went down the rows picking as much as 300 pounds of cotton on a good day, at $4 for 100 pounds. Back then Betty Williams had to take her babies into the fields. If she didn't give them a ride in the bag, she would lay them on a nearby sheet, carefully watching for snakes. "You know, them snakes smell the milk and go right down their throats," she says.
Nothing that drastic happened to Charles—better known these days as Buck around the NBA—or any of his four brothers and sisters. Charles learned about snakes and a lot of other things during his childhood in Rocky Mount. To this day he throws a dollar around as if he had earned it at the rate of $4 a hundred. Even now, delivered from NBA purgatory—the New Jersey Nets—to the Portland Trail Blazers, who will pay him $1.4 million a year through 1994, Williams amuses his teammates with his penchant for hanging on to a dollar.
"Careful with his money?" says Trail Blazer teammate Clyde Drexler, surprised at the delicate phrasing of the question. You know, the type of guy you can almost see calculating the 15% tip in his head? Drexler looks up in astonishment and laughs. "Fifteen percent? He may be calculating the sales tax...."
Williams's frugality shouldn't be surprising. As a youngster, he dreamed of having a home with indoor plumbing. When he showed up at the University of Maryland in 1978 with a Rocky Mount kid's notion of an exotic automobile, he was nearly hooted out of the ACC. Teammates couldn't get enough of his '72 Chevelle, stripes painted on its hood and a CB antenna sticking out of the trunk. "Albert King danced on my case," Williams says, remembering the reaction of his former teammate.
After he was picked third by the Nets in the 1981 NBA draft, Williams shocked his new teammates, most of whom seemed to be operating an auto expo, by arriving in a 1979 Buick. Though he became the NBA rookie of the year and an immediate All-Star, and though he had an income of $450,000 a season, he refused to move up to All-Star machinery. "If I get a Mercedes now," he said, "what will I get later?"
In 1983, his NBA future assured after back-to-back 1,000-rebound seasons, he finally splurged and bought a Mercedes. In fact, he is still defensive about owning such extravagant transportation, though the Mercedes is now seven years old. "I never found a Ford I could stretch out in," he says. The other thing about the Mercedes, Williams says, is that he "got a great deal."
But Williams is only stingy—"conservative," he allows—in certain ways. Since joining the NBA in 1981, he has become more famous for what he gives on the court than for what he saves in the bank account. He obviously developed a respect for the work ethic as well as for economy while watching his mother toil in those cotton fields. "If all the players in the league worked as hard as Buck," says former Blazer head coach Mike Schuler, who was a New Jersey assistant when Williams came into the league, "this would be an easy game to coach. And he works as hard today as then."
And talk about selflessness. "He might score 18 one night and four the next," says current Blazer coach Rick Adelman, whose team this season has become the surprise of the Pacific Division, largely because of the trade that brought Williams to Portland for center Sam Bowie and a first round draft choice. Williams's first NBA coach, Larry Brown, knew that Buck could help transform Portland from one of the most self-centered teams in the league last season to a more cohesive group this time around. "Buck doesn't have a selfish bone in his body," Brown says.
Portland, a perennial playoff failure (routed in the first round in the last four years), has good reason to see Williams as a savior. Even Schuler, who did all right coaching the Trail Blazers (127-84) until several of his more temperamental players became unhappy with him and with each other, thinks he might have salvaged his job if he had obtained Williams a year ago. "There's no question about that," Schuler says of his dismissal last February.
But Schuler"s problems with the team, especially with Drexler, might have been bigger than even a Williams could have solved. "That old devil word," says team vice-president Bucky Buckwalter of Schuler's troubles, "communication." There's no question that Williams, 29, a 6'8", 225-pound power forward, answered a need for Portland. "We had been perceived as a little soft," Buck-waiter admits. But it was as much work ethic as rebounds that Portland was after when it made the trade for Williams. Portland was looking for a leader. "He was on a team," says Adelman, "that at the end of the year was going nowhere. And he played like it was the first of the year." Couldn't Portland, which had been going nowhere for too long, use someone like that?