If it can be said that newcomer Isiah Thomas has added dash to the Detroit Pistons and that Jay Vincent has made a splash in his debut with the Dallas Mavericks, rookie Charles Linwood (Buck) Williams has certainly imbued the New Jersey Nets with a touch of crash. As in crashing the boards. "From the very first basketball game that I played in," says Williams, a 6'8", 215-pounder from the University of Maryland, "I was a rebounder."
He was when he led the ACC in boards for two seasons, and he still is. After forsaking his senior year to become the third pick in last June's draft and signing a six-year, $2.5 million contract with New Jersey, Williams has established himself as one of the NBA's best rebounders. His 12.4 per game average is third highest in the league behind centers Moses Malone of Houston (13.5) and Jack Sikma of Seattle (13). Already Williams stands 12th on the list of alltime Nets rebounders. In addition, he has averaged 15.3 points a game.
That he will be one of two rookies—Thomas will be the other—in the All-Star Game on the Nets' home floor next Sunday doesn't surprise Williams. "I want to be the best power forward in the game," Williams says. "All-Star, All-Pro, MVP, the best. I have the tools, I'm receptive to hard work, and in time I know I can do it."
That attitude, combined with his physical attributes, explains why Williams, who wasn't renowned for his scoring in college, had NBA people drooling. Says Jerry Colangelo, the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, "I like Mark Aguirre [drafted first by Dallas] and Isiah Thomas [picked next], but I think there was a good argument for Buck being the number-one pick in the draft. In college the pace of the game is slower, so his impact was limited. You can look at some guys in college and know they're not going to get much better; others you're sure will be great pros. There was no question about Buck." Nets Coach Larry Brown, who coached him in the 1980 Olympic Trials, agrees. "He's obviously a great player," says Brown, "but he's also a great person."
Up until half an hour before the midnight deadline for declaring that he would enter the draft last April 25, Williams agonized over his decision to leave College Park. "I kept thinking I would be doing something wrong if I came out," he says. "I was sure that the people in Maryland would hate me. I felt indebted to them. Then all I could think about were all the people who went hardship and didn't succeed. People like Magic Johnson and Adrian Dantley never entered my mind.
"My agent, Donald Dell, and I had figured out that I'd go no worse than fifth and that my marketability wouldn't get much higher. If I stayed in school, there was the probability that Ralph Sampson and Sam Bowie would come out with me in the spring of '82, which would push me down farther on the list of big men.
"Then there was the question of how Maryland would do this year. We'd have lost Albert King [a Net teammate, who was the 10th pick—New Jersey's second—in the draft] and been really young, and I didn't want to base my career on a guessing game. The thing most athletes—most students—are in school for is to get a good job. My nine-to-five was going to be basketball, so when it presented itself I took it."
Indeed, Maryland has struggled to a 10-6 record this season. Terp Coach Lefty Driesell was reportedly furious with Brown when Buck left, and can only imagine how much better the Terps would be with him this year.
Making the most of the opportunities presented him is also how Williams explains his talent for rebounding. "It's a very simple process," he says. "I just know where the ball is going. A lot of times I can head-fake my man one way and go the other way for the ball."
Physical contact isn't always required when going to the boards, but when it is, it helps if your teacher is Maurice Lucas, a Net teammate before being traded to the Knicks in the off-season. "Maurice showed me little tricks here and there, when to be physical and when not to be," Williams says. "But as soon as he left I grew up a lot. If he had stayed around, I'd still be asking him how to get around a pick instead of just doing it."
In a recent Nets-Knicks game, Williams reacted to a Lucas headlock by letting go with a roundhouse right, and regretted the punch almost as soon as he had thrown it. "I just lost all control," Williams says. "It was a rookie thing to do, but I was really bothered. Here was my mentor elbowing me. I had to let him know that I wasn't going to let him push me around. Sometimes you can get pushed right out of the league."
Another pusher, Phoenix Suns Forward Truck Robinson, testifies that that won't happen to Williams. "Not only is he a great leaper." Robinson says, "but he doesn't stand next to you when the ball is coming off the glass and say, 'Let's see who can jump the highest.' Buck screens out and gets good position."
Last Friday night in Phoenix, Williams was in position when it counted. With New Jersey ahead by two points and only 1:23 left in the game, Williams soared for an offensive rebound and was fouled on his follow-up shot. His two free throws were the last points the Nets scored in a 99-97 win.
For a time this season it looked as if the Nets would qualify as a collective hardship case. Guard Otis Birdsong has missed 16 games because of injuries, and a bunch of roster changes—principally the acquisitions of Ray Williams, Len Elmore (another Maryland alumnus), Sam Lacey and James Bailey—forced Brown to go with his kids and take his lumps. "We play a good team like Boston and their young guys don't get off the bench," Brown says. "Things kept changing with us so we had to develop the kids. It may hurt now, but in the long run we'll benefit." In the short run, the Nets were 18-23 by last weekend, one game behind the Knicks.
King, who signed a $1 million, four-year contract just before the season began, got a slow start because of a tender knee. But he's come on lately; he had 20 points in last Saturday's 113-109 victory over San Diego, which raised his scoring average to 10.3 points per game.
With an all-Maryland front line (including Elmore at center), the Nets have been on a tear recently, winning eight of their last 13 games through Sunday, including a pair of victories over powerful division-rival Philadelphia. Williams has played a major role in the resurgence. He says, "Sometimes I want to just take over on either offense or defense and I find myself saying, 'Hey, you can't do that, you're just a rookie.' But you can't really worry sometimes about how the veterans feel."
Williams has been taking control ever since his days at home in Rocky Mount, N.C. The youngest of Moses and Betty Williams' five children, Buck found out how to make do at an early age. "My parents only had sixth-grade educations," Williams says, "so if I had a problem in math, for example, I had to make out the best I could.
"I think it was better that way. Some people can have all the knowledge in the world and never use all their capabilities. My father built the house that we lived in for 20 years. My parents have used everything they have."
After spending the summers following his junior and senior years in high school playing in Philadelphia's Sonny Hill league—which he led in rebounding, of course—and pacing his Rocky Mount High team to the state championship in his senior year, Williams seemed ready to follow townsman Phil Ford to the University of North Carolina. But Williams felt there were too many players at his position there and that the Tar Heels' recruiters had slighted him because of rumors he would have trouble meeting the NCAA requirement that he "predict" as a 2.0 student. When it became obvious that he could attain the 2.0 standard. North Carolina stepped up its pursuit, but by then Williams had committed to Maryland.
Under the prodding of Driesell, Williams began to set goals for himself, one of which happened to be "being good enough to turn pro after my junior year."
Williams thought that New Jersey was the right team for him because he knew he'd get playing time right away. "My biggest regret about going hardship was that other players will see me and think they can do it, too," he says. "Sometimes a team will pick a guy and never use him. There are a lot of great players you never hear about because they're on the wrong team. The situation and timing were right for me. I knew I'd be in the top five picks and would be valuable to at least four of those teams. Everybody needs rebounders. Dallas, Detroit, New Jersey. Throughout life things have fallen into place for me."
When told of another player who eloped on the spur of the moment, Williams looked aghast. "That sort of thinking frightens me," Williams says. "I never make a spontaneous decision. Everything has to be thought one step at a time. It's like building a model car. If you just hurry through it you might miss some part and then it wouldn't really be what you wanted." Some of the parts Williams is planning to put in place are buying a townhouse this summer and a home by the conclusion of his first contract. There's a marriage in about two years, eventually complete with 2.3 kids. Actually three. Two girls and a boy.
The one thing that seems to have been out of Williams' control is his name. Buck Williams had to be a power forward. But Charles Linwood? Well...." My mother named me Linwood after the son of a friend of hers," he says. Even Buck, a derivative of Hucklebuck, a childhood nickname, bothered him. Says Williams, "I hated it until I started thinking, 'That sounds like the name of a basketball player.'"