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Center Jayson Williams, One of the NBA's funniest players, hoped to pick up a few comedic pointers from Bill Cosby when he agreed during the lockout to appear in an episode of Cosby. Williams never got the chance. "I spent six hours with the man, and we never once talked about acting," he says. "All he wanted to do was talk about the Nets."
Williams better get used to the attention. After years of Cosby-style basketball—soft as Jell-O and goofy as Fat Albert—New Jersey found itself in a different world last season, averaging a conference-high 99.6 points and earning its first playoff berth in four years. Not even a first-round sweep by the Bulls dampened enthusiasm in the Swamp.
The trick for the Nets now is to take their already entertaining show to prime time, especially with injuries sidelining off-guard Kerry Kittles for up to two weeks (knee) and backup center Rony Seikaly for up to a month (ankle). But in swingman Kendall Gill, shooting point guard Sam Cassell and high-scoring forward Chris Gatling, New Jersey has talent diverse enough to fill in the blanks. Says coach John Calipari, "Our depth is our biggest strength."
The star of the show will be Williams, New Jersey's hardest worker, biggest wise guy and the NBA's second-leading re-bounder last season. In fact, Williams, whose contributions to the Nets are as multifaceted as Cosby's ability to make scrunchy faces, was deemed so vital to New Jersey's future that Kittles and forward Keith Van Horn phoned Calipari to insist that Williams be re-signed. He was, for $100 million over seven years. "Fortunately [management] realized how important Jayson is to the players, the team and the whole state of New Jersey," Van Horn says.
Williams's presence as a bodyguard, for example, should help Van Horn, runner-up in the 1998 Rookie of the Year voting, further lift up his game. Van Horn seemed overmatched on defense at times, perhaps because he was hampered throughout the season by a right ankle injury that kept him out of the first 17 games. "I felt a step slow," he says. "There were things I couldn't do."
The Nets don't shoot well from outside, but Williams's work on the offensive boards gives them plenty of second chances. On defense New Jersey forced the second-most turnovers in the league with a gambling, pressing style that was fun to watch but resulted in a ton of easy baskets for the opposition. The Nets hope the shot-blocking Jim McIlvaine, acquired from the Sonics for veterans Don MacLean and Michael Cage, can cut down on the number of gimmes.
New Jersey isn't yet tough enough defensively to contend for the conference title, but at least one fan likes its future enough that he recently bought a small ownership stake in the team and two courtside season tickets. His name: Bill Cosby.
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