Editor's note: This story appears in the December 12, 2016, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here. To learn more about Jayson Williams's story, watch 60 MINUTES SPORTS on Tuesday night (8 p.m. Showtime).
He places his hand firmly on the big man’s lower back, Charles Oakley does, dismissing a series of pump fakes with a smirk and a shake of his head. The two men are 10, maybe 12 feet from the basket; Oakley refuses to let that distance shorten. Forcing his opponent to elevate for a jumper, Oakley delivers an almost imperceptible tap to his shooting elbow, one of the many dark arts of defense that he has mastered.
Yet for all Oakley’s wiles, the ball snaps through the net. Jayson Williams whoops and whistles, his goatee framing a smile. “That’s what I thought!” he yells. “That’s what I thought!”
Theirs was one of the great NBA power forward battles of the 1990s, and on this hot Tuesday afternoon it’s being reprised and revised in South Florida. The court’s surface, though, is blacktop, not hardwood; the crowd is sufficiently small to count on one hand. The venue is Wedgewood House, a Delray Beach McMansion managed by the Epiphany Treatment Center that’s become a “sober home” to a dozen men battling addiction.
Now 48, Williams is here as a recovering alcoholic who has graduated to independent living. He credits Epiphany for his sobriety—he says it will be a year in January—and spends most of his time around the center’s offices and properties. One day, he’ll pick up a young heroin addict at the Fort Lauderdale Airport and transport him to detox. Another day, he’ll call Epiphany alumni and make sure none have lapsed. Prone to speaking in the syntax of rehab, Williams says, “Getting better is not what I do right now. It’s who I am right now.”
Oakley, 52, is here on a singular mission: to support his friend. The two were never teammates, and on the surface they couldn’t be more different. Williams is the garrulous New Yorker eager to entertain everyone in his orbit, Oakley the endearing curmudgeon known for mumbling hard truths wrapped in grandfatherly aphorisms. But they developed mutual respect on the court. “We just clicked,” says Oakley. “You know, we’re both 6'9", so it was eye to eye. Our conversations, we was lookin’ at one another. So it was from the heart.” And when, almost two decades after their last matchup, Oakley heard that Williams was in rough shape—“maybe going through some things,” he says, using an alltime euphemism for someone who had fatally shot an acquaintance and has been in the grip of addiction—he sprang to action.
During Williams’s recovery, Oakley has texted regularly, sometimes simply seeking confirmation that the day is off to a good start, and called a few times each week, often just to listen and laugh as Williams riffs. On his monthly visits to Florida—occasionally unannounced—Oakley doesn’t just show up. First, he makes sure to do something physical with Williams. (On this day it’s basketball and tennis.) Then they spend time hanging out and talking. As a budding professional chef, Oakley also cooks dinner for the residents at the facility house, sharing tips with Williams as he works. The menu on this night: barbecue. A van transports the meat, potatoes and greens; Oakley brings his own apron, knives and spices.
During his nine seasons with the 76ers and the Nets, Williams was the NBA’s resident raconteur, so it’s no surprise that he’s happy to talk about this unlikely NBA buddy movie, relishing the twist that Oakley’s solicitude is at odds with his tough guy image. Oakley... not so much. He grudgingly consents to discuss the relationship—but not now. The smoker in the yard is heating up, and ribs don’t cook themselves.
It was early on Feb. 14, 2002, and Williams was in one of the eight bedroom suites of his Hunterdon County, N.J., mansion—once featured on MTV Cribs—showing off his firearms to visitors, including members of the Harlem Globetrotters. The host, among others, had been drinking immoderately. Williams pulled down a 12–gauge Browning Citori, failed to check the safety mechanism and inspected only one of the two barrels before snapping it shut. It accidentally fired, the buckshot pellets striking the chest of his limo driver that night, 55–year–old Gus Christofi, who died a short time later. Witnesses would later testify that Williams tried to cover up his involvement by putting the gun in Christofi’s hand and asking the guests to lie about what happened.
At the time still hoping to return from a knee injury, Williams, then 33, would never play another NBA game. He had recently been recruited by NBC for studio work; that offer evaporated, too. Williams “went ghost,” as he puts it, spending the next eight years in and out of courtrooms. Awaiting his criminal case, he paid $2.75 million to settle a civil suit with the family of Christofi, himself a recovering alcoholic.
One constant: Williams’s drinking. With “the accident,” as he calls it, inhabiting most of his thoughts, Williams imbibed even more intensely than he had during his playing career. In January 2010 he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in Christofi’s death. Days before accepting his 18–month sentence, which included time for his convictions for covering up the shooting, he drove into a tree in New York City while drunk, resulting in an eight–month term on Riker’s Island. Sober during his 26 months in prison, he resumed drinking upon his release in April 2012. “I have a disease,” he says, “that doesn’t want you to think you have a disease.” As recently as January 2016, Williams was going on benders and racked up still another DUI.
The cliché holds: Go through hard times, and you learn the identity of your real friends. At the height of his career—when he had a six–year, $86 million contract—Williams says that he had 92 “friends” on his payroll. When the money dried up, so did they. Family relations frayed; his wife, Tanya, filed for divorce in 2009, and they share custody of their two daughters, Tryumph and Whizdom. His alma mater, St. John’s, kept him at arm’s length, and so did most of his former teammates.
But Charles Oakley kept checking in. It didn’t matter that he was leading a full life in Cleveland, where he lives most of the year with his wife, Angela Reed—he also has residences in Atlanta and New York—and maintains a variety of interests and ventures, including a professional catering business. He didn’t think he was doing anything remarkable. To him, it was as instinctive as removing a hand from a hot stove. “Someone you like and you respect needs support,” he says flatly, “and you [provide] it. ... I was always like, Man, I got your back whatever you do. You know, I’m behind you.”
Oakley could be terse. Not all his metaphors made sense. But he was sincere, he was direct, and he sought nothing in return. “That’s important to put in your story,” says Michael Rowe, a former Nets president and one of the few associates from Williams’s NBA days who remains in close contact. “Charles doesn’t want Jayson’s money. He doesn’t want Jayson’s help getting him to the front of the line at the club. Doesn’t care about celebrity. Charles doesn’t want anything but to be there.”
When Williams hit bottom early this year, one of his first calls was to Oakley. Williams knew he needed help and had heard about Epiphany. Volunteering to check the place out, Oakley got in his truck and drove 1,200 miles to Delray Beach from Cleveland, toured the facility and interviewed the founders. Oakley says that while he has no firsthand experience with rehab or substance abuse, he had seen plenty of it secondhand. And he prides himself on his b.s. detector. After inspecting Epiphany, Oakley told Williams, “Go there. And go there now.” Williams grows emotional recalling this. “Oak is the perfect nickname for Charles,” says Williams. “Solid as they come.”
For all his struggles, Williams remains a master storyteller, which is evident as he recalls meeting Oakley almost three decades ago. Then it was a St. John’s tradition that a player who had made it to the NBA was expected to advance a loan to the next likely pro on the team. When Williams was a senior, he went to Mark Jackson, then a young Knicks point guard, to ask for $15,000. He made a few visits to the New York locker room. Each time, Jackson demurred. Finally, a few stalls down, a burly teammate of Jackson’s intervened.
“Son,” Oakley told Williams, “don’t you know? If you ask a man for money this many times, you ain’t gonna get it.”
As Williams began to walk away, Oakley growled at him.
“How much you looking for?”
Oakley eventually loaned him the money, with the demand that Williams pay Oakley back $20,000.
They spent the 1990s battling under the basket. When Williams played for the Nets and Oakley for the Knicks, they’d see each other around town. When Oakley was a free agent, Williams urged New Jersey’s management to make an offer. Says Rowe, “I remember Jayson telling me, ‘We need that guy’s toughness, his character.’”
Now, both are estranged from New York. For Williams it’s the site of too many bad memories, too many bad habits and too many bad temptations. “You can’t get caught back up in the life,” Oakley warns him. For Oakley, years of criticizing the Knicks and their owner, James Dolan, have made him persona non grata at Madison Square Garden.
“When it comes to Charles’s relationship with the organization, he is his own worst enemy,” Barry Watkins, a Knicks spokesman, recently told The New York Times. Williams gets emotional talking about this. “Trust me,” he says, “Charles is exactly who you do want to be associated with.”
Oakley overhears this conversation and smiles wryly. He’s more concerned about the barbecue supply. The Epiphany clients are a mix of young men and older adults, city and country, most in recovery not for alcohol but for heroin. All but a few are aware that Oakley is anyone other than “an old friend of Jayson’s” who visits every few weeks and cooks up a storm. Oakley prefers it that way. When the men stand in a circle and say grace before the meal, he holds Williams’s hand.
After the feast Oakley packs his gear and prepares to leave. He’s been at the house for six hours and now he needs “to go to Mike’s to watch the game.” A few of the men think that Mike’s is a sports bar where Oakley can indulge in the beer that’s forbidden at Wedgewood. Only later are they corrected. “Mike’s” is Michael Jordan’s compound 45 minutes or so up I–95 in Jupiter.
One by one, Oakley says goodbye to the men and wishes them well. He gives Williams an extended hug. It’s been a good visit, not least because he’s pleased by Williams’s progress. In authentic Oak–lese he says, “He’s just showin’ me he’s just growin’ with life and it’s another challenge in life, and he’s gonna make sure that he [is getting] the best outta this life. And you get only so many chances in life.”
As Oakley rinses the last of his dishes and packs up the last of his steak knives, he has one last request. “I’m just helping a friend, same as a friend would do for me,” he says, looking straight ahead. “Do me a favor and don’t make me out to be no hero.”