Jayson Williams went from class jerk to head of his class

Get out of New York, out of Manhattan. Blow through Newark and head west into New Jersey. Drive and drive and drive until youOre on a two-lane highway slicing cow-dotted fields. Turn left and right and left and left. And when youOre pretty convinced youOre lost, youOll see it. A wood chip of a sign signaling the driveway. Take it and 10 yards in, you see gates bearing a plaque emblazoned with Jayson WilliamsO mug with his hands in the air. OWho knew?O it asks.

Ten years ago, Jayson Williams was a loudmouth from New York CityOs Lower East Side burning through life at St. JohnOs. Then to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he was Charles BarkleyOs drinking buddy and Jim LynamOs pain in the rear. Now, heOs one of the most-wanted men in the NBA, looking at a contract well into eight figures. As soon as the lockout ends, owners start the bidding.

If youOre wondering how Williams got to this point, so does he. Every morning he fixes himself a bowl of cereal and takes it to the balcony. He sits with his spoon and his milk and looks across the 65 acres he calls home. Sometimes he sees deer, sometimes ducks. But always he asks himself, ODo I deserve this?O When he steps into the shower and a dozen nozzles massage all 6'9'' of him, he wonders. When he walks down the stairs and sees his movie theater, the eight guest rooms and the comfy couches long enough for 30 friends, he thinks the same thing: OIOve got to go work out. YouOve got to be a star to live here.O

YouOve also got to love toys. Right about now, JaysonOs got one of his favorites, a shotgun as long as his armNwell your arm, anywayNin one hand, and a beer in the other. Back between the 1994 weapons charge (since dismissed) and the all-night drinking sessions, this mightOve been a scary sight. Now, it doesnOt even register. OHere, hold this,O he says, handing off the glass. OBeer and guns donOt mix.O HeOs standing in the middle of his backyard, pulling the tarp off a skeet shooting machine. One-handing the rifle like itOs a water pistol, he yells, OPull ... Pull.O Crack ... Crack. A pair of clay pigeons die most violently. The guyOs got serious wrists and forearms. And his aim ainOt bad.

Walking back toward the house, Jayson points out more toysNa shiny Lamborghini in the driveway and a quartet of all-terrain vehicles on the lawn. OGet in,O he yells, as he cranks the noisy engine. OHereOs the gas.O ItOs not the Lamborghini, but still, you canOt say no because Jayson bought the damn ATVs for youNor people like you. He doesnOt need four for himself. The car, he says, isnOt for him either. OI barely drive it,O he says. OYou know what it is, it makes everybody else feel good.O

The swimming pools, the putting greens and the pool table are for other people too. Zeus might be the one plaything thatOs just for Jayson. Crashing through screens when he wants out and paddling around the pool when heOs hot, the 140-pound Rottweiler isnOt making too many friends. JaysonOs brothers, sisters, father and friends generally ignore him. TheyOre playing cards, working the summer camp-sized barbeque and talking to another visitorN Larry HolmesNabout his upcoming bout with George Foreman. (Holmes lives down the road and drops by on weekends.) Unconcerned, Zeus runs off and finds Jayson, whoOs sitting by himself. The Big Guy gives his dog some love, nuzzling his ears and letting him jump up, paws to chest.

Mostly, Jayson just sits and smiles, like a dad whoOs happy to see all his kids in his house. But these kids are his brothers and sisters and his on-again/offagain girlfriend, half brothers, half sisters, his college coach and a friend, a friend of a friend, the friendOs son and maybe a few other random additions. A standard weekend at Who Knew?Npacked, but low-key. People get crazier at company picnics.

Jayson knows what youOre thinking. That getting crazy used to be his thing. That it was only when he got really crazy that anybody noticed himNthe sprint across the court to punch J.R. Reid in 1992, the night in a bar when he hit a man with a beer mug after the man allegedly threatened him with a knife, or the time three teenagers accused him and Derrick Coleman of attacking them in 1994. OMy first two years in the league,O he says, Oif the game ended at 9:50 in Philadelphia, IOd be having my first tequila back in New York by 11:15.O He also averaged 3.5 points and 2.1 rebounds in 10 minutes a game and failed to see the connection. Meanwhile, teammate Rick Mahorn, then an 11-year vet with mediocre stats and skills but a championship ring on his hand (from his Piston days), was averaging 30 minutes of PTNand burning through every workout.

OHeOd come in with a cup of coffee, get his work in, go home, everything on a schedule,O Jayson says. OHere I am coming in five minutes before practice, leaving five minutes before practice ends, tired as hell, driving fast to get home for an extra 10 minutes of sleep before the game that night. Rick Mahorn didnOt even go home because he slept the night before. He was a professional.O

Now, of course, Jayson is the consummate pro, on the court and off. Last season, he led the NBA in offensive rebounds, was named to the All-Star and all-interview teams and helped the undermanned Nets reach the playoffs. And around a city that loves its stars, heOs suddenly one of the biggest. David Letterman and Chris Rock both tried to lock him into contracts to keep him off rival talk shows. When JaysonOs playing ball, Bruce Willis and Billy Baldwin take the Lincoln Tunnel to the Jersey swamplands to catch him live from the front row, then wait outside the locker room to chat him up. David Stern called on him during last seasonOs playoffsNthe same David Stern who once talked to him only to levy finesNto ask if he would do color for TNT. At a Manhattan hotspot called Moomba, Jayson barely settles into his table when Bill Cosby and Leonardo DiCaprio move in to join him. Who knew?

Jayson grew up in the LandOs End Housing Project in lower Manhattan, the only son of an Italian mother and a black father, though each had children from previous marriages. When he was 12, his oldest half sister, Linda, barely survived a brutal mugging. A transfusion meant to save her life instead infected her with HIV. Three years later, at 26, she died from complications of AIDS. Five years after that, AIDS took another half sister, Laura, who was 29. Each left behind a child with no father, so Jayson, though still in high school, watched over them. By father, and basketball was the least of his problems. When he wasnOt busy attending PTA meetings and finding babysitters, he was out drowning his worries in liquor and partying. OWith my sisters dyingNand IOm not making excusesNI was so mad at Jesus that I didnOt want nothing he was giving me,O Jayson says. OIf heOd have given me more, I would have thrown more away.O

After two unremarkable years, the Sixers sent Jayson home. Traded to the Nets for no one anyoneOs heard of since, he arrived in time for two years with Chuck Daly, a Hall of Fame coach with a reputation for letting his players go their own way off the court. ODaly would come to work and say, OI donOt give a damn about what you do off the court, you just be here two hours and give me two hours in the game, O O says Jayson. Not exactly the tough love he had grown up withNand needed now. OMy father had to beat my behind every day,O says Jayson. OIn that neighborhood, if he said, ODonOt go there, I donOt want you playing in that alley, O thatOs what he meant. In New York City, if you donOt listen, you might lose your life.O

After two more unremarkable yearsNnot counting that weapons charge and 67 games missed because of an ankle injuryNJayson seemed destined for end-of-the-bench oblivion. Then Daly left and the Nets hired Butch Beard. OJayson was a pain in the butt,O Beard remembers fondly. OHe thought I was trying to kill him, but I realized what was going on. He was trying to take care of everybody in his family.O Beard listened and let Jayson speakNand he let Jayson cry. Eventually, Jayson even begged: OLet me play 20 minutes a night so I can feel like IOm part of this team,O he told Beard, Oand I will build myself into the Man.O

Jayson started pushing himself through workouts, even after getting banged up in games the night before. He became a team leader in the locker room and a demon on the boards. He also started putting that all-pro mouth to work, doing public service announcements aimed at teens, attending every event the Nets could dream up and launching his own charity golf tournament to raise money for pediatric AIDS. Finally grown-up, Jayson felt the urge to settle down. But when your personality is two sizes too large for your 6'9'' frame, you donOt settle down on some two-acre plot in the suburbs. You need something like 65 acres of New Jersey farmland. Something like Who Knew? Estates.

As a teenager, Jayson spent summers working at construction sites with his dad, E.J., learning to drive a backhoe and to lay bricks. The son still swears heOs a better brick mason than basketball player. So building the house with his own two hands was a simple choiceNas was asking his dad to help him. Jayson wanted room for all his friends but he wanted to give them privacy, too. So he scratched the 16 guest rooms and replaced them with eight suites, each with its own sitting room and bath. Dad and son put in the pools and courtsN indoor and outdoorNand found a dining room table that seats 40 at Thanksgiving. And they built it so beautifully, so extravagantly, it scared him straight. OItOs one of the biggest houses in New Jersey,O he says. OIOve got to do something to deserve it.O

Who Knew? is just a 20-minute drive from E.J. Os home in Edison. If the house doesnOt keep Jayson out of trouble, his dad will. OWhen stuffOs not going right, you know what my friends do?O asks Jayson, who stands a full nine inches taller than his father. OThey leak something to my father. Then my father comes over here at 6:30 in the morning. When he rings that bellNding dongNI gotta walk the 205 feet to the door, because you donOt let him ring twice. You donOt want him to think you were out partying.O

Now, when heOs not presiding over this giant family at Who Knew?, heOs most comfortable in the gym or on the court. He wants a ring, and heOs working for it, lockout or no. Every day Jayson drives to a gym in Paramus to lift weights with a cop from the Bronx. Then he runs 60 minutes on the treadmill and hightails it home to take 500 shots on his indoor court, the one that says Lou Carnesecca on the floor. And with teammates, heOs showing his Mahorn side. When Keith Van Horn declines a community appearance, saying, OI donOt need more exposure,O Jayson calls to say, ONeither do I, man, but itOs not about that.O

Van Horn, a skinny pale kid with kneesocks who has Great White Hope written all over him, has become JaysonOs special charge. The kid who needed a strong authority figure has become one himself. Maybe that explains his stormy relationship with John Calipari, who is more the bossy older brother you never listen to. They clashed often during CalOs first season as coach, and Jayson wasnOt shy about it, especially in a diary he wrote for GQ. Kiss-and-tell led to kiss-and-make-up, though. OIOm the most powerful man in the franchise,O Jayson says. OBut IOm here to win and so is Cal.O This, he thinks, is the family that will get him his ring: OYeah, KeithOs third year, weOll win a championship.O

But only if the Nets put the cash on the table. The man who played for $7 million over the last three years can command a lot more now. An Italian team offered $1 million a month for his services during the lockout (he qualifies as a local because heOs half Italian) and the Pistons are ready to offer $60 million for five years as soon as the lockout ends. HeOs hoping that New Jersey will do what it takes to keep him.

Either way, Jayson Williams will play out one more contract, then retire. And at the end of his career, heOll be the same as alwaysNloud and funny with a bullhorn of a laughNexcept heOll have this huge house on the hill and enough money to take care of everyone he loves forever. Who knew?