It all started with William The Conqueror, who history tells us was the greatest of all Williams. Now, nine centuries later, the Williamses have conquered the NBA. Just look around: There's Buck Williams, Reggie Williams, Scott Williams. There's a Hot Rod, a Hot Plate and a Hot Head Williams. There's Herb, Walt...13 Williamses in all, and not a single brother or distant cousin in the bunch. You can scarcely visit an NBA arena without seeing at least one Williams, and sometimes you'll encounter two or three. "I don't know why there are so many," says Kenny Williams of the Indiana Pacers. "Maybe my dad had something to do with it."
Williams is the third-most-common surname in the U.S., after Smith and Johnson. The Johnsons dominated NBA rosters in the 1980s. In 1989 Magic, Kevin et al. made David Letterman's top-10 list of rejected NBA promotional slogans (No. 2: "Come See Our Johnsons!"). There was even a Johnson rap:
Thirteen men with the same last name,
Thirteen Johnsons playing the game.
All of them Johnsons shooting hoop,
Too many Johnsons spoiling the soup.
But the Johnsons (of which there are now a mere seven in the NBA) and the Smiths (eight) have given way to the wave of Williamses. A little history: The first NBA Williams was Ward, who joined the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1948. Forty have followed in the NBA and the ABA, including Chuckie (1976-77, Cleveland Cavaliers), Hambone ('67-75, San Diego Rockets, Boston Celtics and the ABA San Diego Conquistadors) and Toothpick (1967-73, Pittsburgh and Minnesota Pipers, Pittsburgh Condors and Memphis Tams, all of the ABA). "Sly Williams was famous in the '70s for missing practices, team flights and games," says Pat Williams, general manager of the Orlando Magic. "He was a bizarre enough kid to make you want to stay away from all Williamses." Equally strange was Brooklyn schoolyard legend James (Fly) Williams, who buzzed out of Austin Peay University in 1976 as one of college basketball's leading scorers, only to be swatted down after a single ABA season. He resurfaced years later in Atlantic City, wrestling a bear named Victor. "I thought I won," said Fly, "but the bear got on The Tonight Show."
The current crop of Williamses comes in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, from the Minnesota Timberwolves' 6'2", 175-pound Micheal to 6'11", 260-pound Herb of the New York Knicks. "I'd love to get all the NBA Williamses together for a Christmas card," says New Jersey Net forward Jayson Williams. "We'd have one rich family, like the Kennedys." Three Williamses hail from California, two from North Carolina, and one each from Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Texas and the District of Columbia. Sorry, there is no Tennessee Williams.
Some think the league is Williams heavy. "There are too many Williamses!" moans Kevin McHale, whose Boston Celtics harbor forward Lorenzo Williams. "I can't sort them all out." Neither can the Williamses. When pressed, none of the 13 could name more than three others, and one, Micheal, said meekly, "Can you believe I really don't know any of them?"
For the uninitiated Williams Watcher, we offer the following field guide:
Williams the Confounder. Cavalier forward-center John Williams has been called Hot Rod since he was a scooter. "I used to scoot back and forth on the floor making engine sounds," he says. Hot Rod is forever getting confused with Hot Plate, the Los Angeles Clipper forward. Requests to autograph photos of the other John arrive in Cleveland about once a week. "The thing is, we look nothing alike," says Hot Rod. "I'm a little bit taller, he's a little bit wider."
But then Hot Rod has long been mistaken for one Williams or another. Back home in Baton Rouge, he played basketball on the same high school team as Waylon (Peanut) Williams, Dervin (Snake) Williams and Klein (Chopper) Williams. And yet Hot Rod seems to revel in no-menclatural chaos. Consider his children: His sons are John Jr. and Johnfrancis; his daughter, Johnna. Karen Williams, Hot Rod's wife, is pregnant with either Johnpaul or Johnte. "John Jr.'s nickname is the Heat," says Karen of their nine-year-old, "but the way he plays ball, he should be called Hot Dog Williams."
Williams the Condominium. John (Hot Plate) Williams is a 295-pound barge of beefcake whose scarlet jersey bulges like a red sail. His stomach has sunk to the mezzanine level; his stock, to closeout.