Do my fingers, he told her. Tattoo the hell out of them, he told her. Hear me good, he told her. And then in his backwoods voice, he said, "I want it to say w-h-i-t on my right knuckles and e-b-o-y on my left knuckles, and I'll pay you cash, got it right here.'' she asked him if he had a job, and he said, "I got one, awright,'' and she said, "Good, because no one in their right mind will hire you with w-h-i-t on one fist and e-b-o-y on the other,'' and he said, "got a job, don't worry.''
But the fact is, this is the first job this whiteboy has ever had, and he'd better find a way to keep it. He has smoked a joint in his off time on this job, and he has been suspended from this job. He has cursed paying customers on this job, worn a suit only once on this job, and he may be jeopardizing this job. His daddy, the former cop, has moved 2,500 miles to keep a close watch, and his daddy sometimes wishes this boy could be like his brother, the brother who's a cop. "One of my boys is mature, and one of my boys is immature,'' the daddy says. So these two cops-the daddy and the brother-have long talks with this whiteboy, and they ask him, "Why don't you grow your hair, Jason?'' or "Why don't you treat people nicer, Jason?'' but they never ask what's really bothering him, because they already know what that is, and they know he might snap if they pursue it. So they keep the subject mostly on this job of his, or on the next trick pass they wish he wouldn't throw.
The truth is, pro basketball has created a monster, and now pro basketball is going to have to rehabilitate one. There is a 25-year-old boy on the loose, and either he is going to start acting his age, or he is going to alienate a fan base that crosses racial lines more easily than any in the NBA. He is Jason Williams, and he is accused every day of trying to be black, and all he wants to be is himself, whatever that might be. He is shy, and he is macho. He is an innovator, and he is a follower. He is a showman, and he is private. He is white, and he is the basketball antithesis of white. His Sacramento Kings have a team shrink for him to see, if indeed he wants to make an appointment, and as his crossroad of a season begins, he knows what the masses are thinking.
"Yes, i do,'' he says. "They think i'm on weed. Like if i make a mistake that costs us a game,
People might say, 'Ah, well, he was probably out smoking weed the night before.' but i put myself in that situation, and now I'm just going to get myself out of it. The ball's in my court. This is a huge year for me.''
He was suspended for the first five games of this season because he ignored the league's drug after-care program-five games that will either save his soul or wither it further. He says he's learned the good lesson, and he hasn't been late for practice once, and in preseason games he was actually seen making chest passes and turning down threes. "The first exhibition game, I was sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter, and I looked at coach and said, 'This is the first time I've never shot a three in an NBA game,'" Williams says. "And coach said, 'probably won't be the last, either.' "
In other words, the Kings are finally ready to coach him, and he is ready to be coached, too. And so the league's most entertaining player -"white chocolate" to you, me and NBA entertainment-is trying to tone it down for his own good. He's doing it so he can keep this job of his. So he'll never have to go to an unemployment office and hear, "What's that say on your knuckles?''
The word is tattooed in Chinese on the underside of his right forearm-"insane." He thinks it's art, while others think it's a cry for help. But either way, it's his excuse, and he's sticking to it. Except he is not insane. He is simply the son of a cop and the brother of a conformist, and he is not comfortable being them, or being him. And that's
The problem. He grew up in a town of 1,500, Belle, W.Va., and what he learned there is to never trust anybody who says, "Trust me.'' It ended badly there, with secrets neither he nor his daddy will disclose. But the one true thing he could count on was his basketball, and the people he passed it to. Especially the black ones.
He could have been a cop, of course, because that's what his daddy wanted him to be. His perfect brother Shawn used to have three jobs after school-cutting grass, taking tickets at the movie theater and temping at a law firm-and, in his spare time, Shawn used to ride in daddy's squad car. Jason, two years younger, never wanted to take that ride because what would the boys have thought? "Hell, no, i wasn't riding with my dad,'' he says. "See, my friends were probably more on the bad side. So I'm afraid I'll be in the car, and he'll pull over one of my friends, and he'll still give him a ticket because that's his job. And my friend's going to expect me to say something for him, and it ain't going to work. So, I wasn't ridin'."
That was his rule at an early age: take care of the people who take care of your alley-oops. He used to go to the nearby town of Rand, to the black neighborhood, and play ball with high school teammate Randy Moss. They'd hang at each other's homes, and they'd roll to the west side of Charleston for pickup games in their baggy shorts. He had needed to feel attached to something, and the black teammates were the ones showing him the most love. So he adopted their world and their music. "When i was growing up, a lot of my friends were black, and they ain't listenin' to no country music or nothing like that,'' he says. "And like when I was playing AAU, most of my teammates were black, and they always listened to rap, and I liked it.''
It was the closest thing he had to an identity, and he dressed in XXL jeans and wore his hat cockeyed. His daddy the cop watched it all from a distance. "In high school, he used to wear them pants down below his hind end,'' his father, Terry Williams, says. "I hated that. I don't care what them kids say, that ain't comfortable-with them pants hanging halfway down your butt.''
But there was nothing his daddy was going to do, because his daddy knew exactly why his boy was acting out. It had to do with a marriage that had failed. It had to do with a boy choosing between a mother and a father. If there is a time when Jason Williams' life got ransacked, this was it. They trace it all back to there. He was in the ninth grade, and there had been infidelities in his parents' marriage, and there was a divorce and a falling-out. "My son, he's had problems, as you know,'' Terry Williams says. "And I think some of it, or maybe a lot of it, had to do with me and his mother getting a divorce. Jason hasn't spoken to his mother for years. There were some things that Jason was hurt over. I don't want to get into any details. But, basically, my sons were old enough that they could choose who they wanted to live with, and they chose to live with me.''
Shawn continued to speak with his mother, and urged Jason to confide in her as well. But Jason would not go there. "That divorce had an impact on him, more than the family realizes,'' Shawn says. "And I think it still has an impact on him. I've tried to talk to him, but Jason's a difficult person to talk to if he doesn't want to talk. On certain subjects, he shuts down.''
So this is how Jason Williams entered high school-hacked off. They had moved into a double-wide trailer on the grounds of Jason's school, Dupont High, after Terry had taken a second job as a campus security officer, and Jason began skipping school. He'd leave the trailer each day with his daddy, sneak back in and sleep until noon. His teachers, aware of his basketball skill, passed him anyway. Shawn had a 3.8 grade-point average, and Jason says he probably deserved to fail, but he figured if his rep was going to get him through, so be it.
At night, he'd escape. He'd grab his daddy's key to the high school gym and spend hours by his lonesome whipping behind-the-back passes, with each hand, against a square on the wall. Florida coach Billy Donovan, who was recruiting Jason, had advised him to wear bulky work gloves while he practiced, and after months of this, the ball felt like a pea in his bare hands. His black teammates, like Moss, were the recipients of his radar passes. And when they were hanging out, they would tell him, "Come on, dude, shave your head." they were his only constituency. He hated everything else about school, particularly the teacher who had the gall to bring up his mother. Says Terry, "Jason's answer was, 'I don't have a mother.' "
And then high school was over, and his daddy was getting remarried (to a woman Shawn had introduced him to) and Jason and Shawn were going to be co-best men. That meant Jason would have to wear a suit, and that is when people got their first glimpse of the future white chocolate.
Jason Williams showed up at his daddy's wedding with a shaved head.
Five years later, his jersey would be the hottest selling item among nba merchandise. It was an unfathomable leap, maybe something a Michael Jordan could handle, but an ornery country boy from Belle, W.Va., had no chance. One minute, he's wandering from prep school to college to college (Fork Union Military Academy to Marshall to Florida); the next minute, he's your basic icon. It was too fast, and he didn't like that everybody stared, and this was the first sign of trouble.
The best scenario would have been for him to stay eligible at Florida, where Donovan was trying to get inside his erratic head. But marijuana had a grip on him by then. He played one phenomenal game in his only season there-24 points against Kentucky in February of 1998 before a squadron of pro scouts-and that essentially was how he made it to the NBA. Kings GM Geoff Petrie remembers seeing him that night for the first time, remembers a pale kid weaving in and out of the Kentucky press. Sometimes, one nationally televised game is all it takes. Of course, right after Kentucky, the boy reeked of marijuana, and the school made him pee in a cup. "He just loved reefer too much,'' says a Florida staffer. "We had to kick him off the team.''
The Kings selected him seventh overall that year, and he arrived with a panther tattooed high up on his right arm, and a dragon tattooed on the other. He had a dirty blond mop for hair and immediately appeared to be the reincarnation of Pete Maravich. The NBA had lucked into him as much as he'd lucked into them. The league was fresh off a lockout and it needed a new, marketable face, and here came a pasty white one. Here was this wisp of an ambidextrous man curling a basketball behind his back and then bringing it back for a finger roll. Who knew he was such an idea man? The tricks kept dripping out of him every night. He'd invented them on all of those midnights alone in the Dupont gym, on all of those mindless nights when he'd let off family steam, and now he found himself a cult figure on the 2 a.m. SportsCenter.
He'd also fortuitously found the right team. The Kings had just traded for a 6'10'' Baryshnikov named Chris Webber, whose wingspan made him virtually impossible to overthrow. From the moment Webber and the rookie first nodded at each other, it was kismet, or Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon. The Kings were suddenly big on style and negligent on substance, and the young point guard felt completely snug. He had his Randy Moss.
Webber identified with him instantly, having also been accused of marijuana use (though never convicted), and he called his new friend Jwill, and they were soon lounging in each other's living rooms. The rest of the Kings fed off this chemistry, and they got to see a country boy unplugged. Jason must have trusted them, because he'd show them the new card tricks he'd learned, and he'd swish shots off the 24-second clock for money, and he'd tell them they were insane for playing golf. "I only play games where you can throw the ball in a hole,'' he'd say.
The Kings played in the 100s, win or lose, and Jason thrived because he had a coach who gave him rope. Rick Adelman saw the neophyte for what he was-talented, mercurial, sensitive-and basically just rolled the basketball out. He let him take the one-on-four, pull-up 30-footers and critiqued him only in whispers behind closed doors. The kid had a facade only a public could love, and for the first time in memory, black fans were showing up at arenas in a white man's jersey. A black woman in the Kings pr office nicknamed him "white chocolate,'' and that said it all.
"People think I'm trying to be black,'' Jason says. "But I just want to be me. Not too many people wear their hat crooked. But that's the way I like to wear it. And I like to wear baggy jeans and big, baggy sweats. That's just the way I am. People say to me, 'Well, you have a black game.' No, I don't. I just play ball. I'd like to meet the man who said there's a black game and a white game. That's crazy. If you can play ball, you can play ball.''
Either way, he'd become a multicultural phenomenon, and Webber says he'd get grilled about Williams everywhere he went, from barber shops to rap video tapings. "But i never heard one black person say, 'He plays black,'" Webber says. "I heard white people say that, but black people don't say that. Black people say, 'Man, that whiteboy can play.' or, 'I wish he'd show me some moves.' or, 'Where'd he get a handle like that?' Black people are the ones that love him more.''
But there was bound to be fallout, because only a month into that 50-game 1999 lockout season, he'd stolen the hype from every other point guard. Denver's Nick Van Exel would later imply it had to do with Jason's being white. And all point guards wanted to destroy him. "They didn't want to get embarrassed by him,'' teammate Jon Barry says. "And they took it to him, basically. Stephon Marbury looked at me before a game and said, 'He's not doing nothin' tonight.' And Stephon really got in him. I mean, he got in him like I hadn't seen anybody get in him.''
Fans would drive up to Jason's navigator asking for autographs, so he installed tinted windows. It was perceived as arrogance when it was actually reticence. The crowd wanted to know him, but he didn't want to let a soul in, except maybe Webber. So he put a wall up. "i just think he has this persona he feels he has to live up to, of being this tough kid,'' Barry says. "And he's not. He's a nice guy. But he just wouldn't sign autographs. And he had a couple of bad episodes. I guess he was in a furniture store, and a crowd started coming around, and he just started yelling, freaking out, and left. One time, about six of us were in an elevator on the road, and a kid got on and wanted an autograph. Jason flat-out told him no. This kid was like 15, and he had cards everywhere of Jason on a plaque and a big picture, and Jason just said no. It would've taken a second or two. But I think if we weren't in that elevator, he would've signed.''
Thank goodness his daddy had retired after 27 years on the force and moved out to Sacramento, because the boy needed someone to crawl to. "He doesn't like being alone,'' Terry Williams says. The boy was fragile. He'd sleep in bed with his labrador, Sweet Pea (named after playground legend Lloyd Daniels), and he brought in his girlfriend, Denika, from the University of Florida. His daddy knew him better than anyone, and his daddy understood that his son was panicking under the klieg lights. "I never thought he'd get to where he'd got,'' Terry says. "Not in my wildest imagination. I mean, he don't know even how much money he makes this year or next. Ask him. He'll say, 'I don't know.' so, I just found it hard to believe he was here. And I think he felt the same.''
His daddy and brother pleaded with him to conform, but it was futile. Shawn even asked him if he'd wear a suit to a game-instead of the Randy Moss jersey he always wore-and Jason's reaction was to ask Shawn to get a tattoo. "I'll pay for it,'' Jason said. Shawn declined, although Jason later wore a suit to a playoff game against Utah. "First and last time,'' Jason says. "Hated it.''
When the off-season of 1999 arrived, he hid. He spent the summer with his girlfriend on a lake near Morgantown, W.Va., and he rarely worked out. "The heaviest thing he lifted was a fork,'' Terry says. And it led to his erratic '99-00 season, a season that began with him testing positive for marijuana and ended with him on the bench. He never had his legs last season, and he tried a ridiculous 505 three-pointers, and made only 29%. His 1.99:1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 51st in the league.
He had also shaved his head, a story that led Sacramento's 11 o'clock news shows, and no longer was he coming off as loveable. "With that shaved head, he looked like a person straight out of state prison,'' Shawn says. "When he'd have a bad game, I'd say, 'Jason, it's the hair.' "
His sensitive side would appear only when no one was looking. A boy and his father, who said they had driven 12 hours to try to see him play in Houston, fawned all over Jason at a mall, and he got them tickets and promised to send a jersey. He also donated money to a police officer back in Belle who'd been paralyzed by a drunk driver. "I'm not an a-hole like everybody thinks,'' he says. "I think I'm a great person if you get to know me. But like Slim Shady said, 'I am what you think I am.' "
People were thinking negative thoughts for a reason. It had always been his routine after a great assist to make eye contact with a random spectator and shout, "Wuuuuuuu!'' but on the road, some of these fans shouted back, and in Portland he had a profane exchange with one fan. The man sent a letter to the league office, and Jason ended up apologizing. "I shook the guy's hand,'' Jason says. "I said, 'I'm done with all that. I apologize for that. But we can still talk trash if you want.' we laughed on it.''
Still, the season ended with Tony Delk playing the fourth quarters. His daddy sat him down for a postseason talk last may, and his daddy said, "Jason, why can't you make the simple pass?'' and "Jason, if you're gonna shoot a three-pointer, why not shoot it right at the line, not six feet behind it?'' He urged him to get in the weight room, and Jason said, "Well, I'm gonna do what I want to do.''
But that spelled trouble. This summer, as part of his drug after-care program, he was supposed to stay in close contact with league personnel. But he didn't return their repeated phone calls, and he says that's why he was suspended for five games. (League policy is to not comment.) "I said, 'Jase, what happened?' '' Barry says, "And he said, 'I just didn't make a call.' I said, 'Why not?' and he was like, 'Because it's stupid.' and I'm saying, 'What's more stupid-you not calling or ... ?'''
Privately, the team wondered if he had a marijuana problem, although Jason says, "That's crazy,'' and his daddy says, "I've gone places with him for three weeks, and never seen a thing, and if someone has a problem, they can't go that long without.'' And his brother says, "I'm not being the naive family member you always read about. I just think if he had a problem, we'd know-doing what we do for a living."
Still, the Kings needed a contingency plan. They signed a new point guard, Bobby Jackson, and acquired another combo guard, Doug Christie, because they knew Jason's future was indecipherable. He cannot become an unrestricted free agent until the summer of 2002, but more pressing is the status of his confidant, Webber. The power forward will be a free agent after this season, and if Webber leaves, no one knows how the point guard will cope. "He doesn't really open up to anybody except for Chris," Barry says. "Chris is probably the only guy he's talked to about anything life-serious."
So by late summer, it had become clear that Jason could go one of two ways this season-he could shut down emotionally like he did in high school, or he could own up to his problems. His confidants felt he had too much time on his hands and that his boredom was what led him astray. He needed something constructive to do, something outside of basketball and moping, and by summer's end, he'd found it. He'd gotten in the weight room four days a week, and then had the patience to take up his least favorite sport-golf. "I know, I'm a hypocrite," he says.
The Kings then noticed he was less "fidgety," and he agreed when Adelman told him he had to play inside the three-point arc this season. "He can create in the lane any time he wants, and can shoot an 18-footer consistently," says one Kings official. "Now if he'll only do it."
So this was White Chocolate, circa November. In his first game after the suspension, he had 12 assists and just four turnovers and hoisted only one three-pointer, although he draped a towel over his head afterward so he could "hide from all them people watchin' me." He also removed his shirt to reveal pumped up biceps and pectoral muscles, plus three more tattoos. He'd already had a tattoo of an eyeball over his right nipple ("That's why i pass so well-got three eyes," he says), but now he's added a drawing on his arm of a basketball being palmed and another of a wolf trying to tear through his skin. And, of course, the one on his knuckles (inspired, he says, by a photo of a similar tatoo in the magazine). "I saw w-h-i-t-e-b-o-y on his hands, and I thought, 'This is one stupid whiteboy,'" Webber says. "But when I say stupid, I mean crazy, funny. He's my whiteboy."
Actually, as long as he's in the league, he's everybody's whiteboy, and he'd better get used to it. He'd better get used to autographs, and to peeing in a cup and to safe passes, no matter how much it aches. Or it'll be over soon. It'll be back to Belle. Back to where the secrets are. Back to finding a real job. Back to answering, "What the hell's on your fingers?''