Jayson Williams, trying to put a manslaughter trial and early retirement behind him, played nine minutes with the Idaho Stampede of the CBA on Wednesday night. It was his first step, he said, in preparing for a possible comeback to the NBA.
If his dreams come to fruition, he might be forced to repay part of an insurance policy that was collected when he left the NBA in 1999.
"Interested NBA teams want assurances that I am completely recovered and that I am able to deal with rigors of daily competition," Williams said in a statement released by the team.
But an insurance policy that the New Jersey Nets cashed in on when Williams retired -- enabling the team to pay off much of his six-year, $86 million contract -- might slow Williams' quest.
NBA teams insure large, guaranteed player contracts in order to protect themselves against injury. Williams signed the contract after the 1997-98 season but only played 95 games after that. He broke his right leg and ruptured his knee during a game in April 1999. He officially retired the following year.
"If I'm the Nets, I'm thinking, 'Whoa, now that we're done paying him, he has his skills back?'" said Jim Padilla, an independent sports insurance broker. "And if I'm the insurance company that paid the Nets so that they could pay Jayson, I'm thinking that the money was paid to the Nets believing that his injury was career-ending, so they're going to want to recoup some of that."
On Monday, Nets general manager Rod Thorn told USA Today that he was unsure of the insurance implications of Williams' comeback. Nets executives did not return a call seeking comment on Thursday.
Executives with the insurance companies believed to be involved with Williams' policy, BWD Group and ASU International, declined comment.
Williams' former agent and attorney Sal DiFazio, who negotiated Williams' contract with the Nets, said that Williams will owe nothing if he makes it back to the NBA. DiFazio said one of the insurance companies involved believed that Williams' injury was not career-ending. After their doctor said he believed Williams was healthy and a doctor chosen by Williams' representation said the former center was badly injured, the case went to arbitration in the fall of last year. DiFazio said Williams prevailed and the insurance company's window to appeal has already expired.
"They had their bite of the apple," said DiFazio, who resigned as an NBA agent in 2000. "And I don't think they get a second bite."
DiFazio added that he didn't think that the insurance company could charge Williams with misrepresenting himself because he wasn't asked to testify at the recent arbitration.
In August 2001, it appeared as though Williams was just waiting for his policy to be completed before he made the comeback. That's when Williams told the Courier-News of Bridgewater, N.J., that his attempt to return was halted because of the money he had remaining on his contract.
"I'm not going to give up $50 [million] or $60 million, whatever it is, to take a chance," Williams told the paper.
Insurance industry insiders said they would be surprised if Williams could make a full recovery and not have to make any payments.
"When a policy is paid based on a career-ending injury, the athlete usually has to agree that he will have to repay what is collected if he does come back," said Keith Lerner of Total Planning, a company that arranges insurance policies for football and basketball players.
An attempt to contact Williams through the CBA was unsuccessful. A call placed to his current attorney, Joseph Hayden, was not returned.
Williams' insurance policy was previously believed to be in question because of legal troubles. In April 2003, he was convicted of obstruction charges in connection with the killing of his limo driver, Gus Christofi, in 2002. DiFazio said that since Williams retired, the morals clause typically included in contracts -- which could enable a team to terminate a contract -- no longer applied.
Williams settled the civil lawsuit with Christofi's family, but he still faces another hurdle since a reckless manslaughter charge resulted in a mistrial. Jury selection is scheduled to begin March 7.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org