A quick start for the Hot Rod

After idling last season, Cleveland's John Williams hits the road in the NBA
November 10, 1986

As John (Hot Rod) Williams, all 6'11" of him, strode toward a watercooler during a Cleveland Cavaliers practice, he heard a voice from behind. "Look at ol' big-long-tall-cool-slim," said guard Dirk Minniefield. "He's already got the coolest walk in the league."

Minniefield's good-natured needling of a shy rookie got some laughs, but rather than Williams's usual gold-filled smile, it elicited a slight grimace. "Now, don't do me like that," he said, looking around to see who was within earshot.

These are cautious, self-conscious days for Williams. He missed last season in the NBA because of charges that he had shaved points in college games at Tulane, charges that could have landed him in prison. Now Williams needs a slick image about as much as he needs to hear a fan yell, "Hey, Hot Rod, what's the line?"

For that matter, the nickname doesn't help much. Few know that the woman who raised Hot Rod hung the monicker on him because of the enginelike noises he made as a toddler. "Hot Rod...that name's kind of too bad, because that's not his character," says Brad Daugherty, his closest friend on the Cavaliers.

But wait a minute. Williams has to go back only a few months to remember when he had a real image problem. With just a few minor annoyances, he is currently living the life he was dreaming about when he was learning basketball on a dirt court in rural Sorrento, La. He is playing basketball with the best players in the world and proving that he belongs.

"John is a complete player with a great feel for the game," says Cavalier coach Lenny Wilkens. "He knows how to fill up a box score." On Saturday, in the Cavs' season opener against Washington, Hot Rod came roaring off the line with his tires smoking, scoring 22 points and pulling down seven rebounds in a 113-106 win. The next night, in a 94-89 loss to Chicago, Williams had 13 points, with eight rebounds and two blocked shots. He also received rousing ovations from the hometown crowd during the players' introductions. "It felt good to hear the people," Williams said, "but the fans in Cleveland have been good to me from the start."

Cleveland drafted the 25-year-old Williams as the 45th player chosen last year. If the Cavs had not taken a chance on him, it's likely that he would have been among the first 10 players picked in this year's draft. His acquisition was a management coup every bit as impressive as the Dallas Cowboys' drafting of Herschel Walker. Williams's modest contract for $675,000 over three years was approved by the NBA after a New Orleans jury acquitted him of two counts of sports bribery and three counts of conspiracy to commit sports bribery on June 16. The acquittal also set off a chain reaction of personnel moves in Cleveland.

When Williams was cleared for play, the Cavs were just coming off a chaotic 23-59 season in which the team completely dissipated whatever momentum it had gained by making the playoffs the year before. In short order the tempestuous pair of coach George Karl and general manager Harry Weltman departed, and in their places came Wilkens and general manager Wayne Embry.

"Our goal is not to make the playoffs," says Embry, who helped mold a successful tradition in Milwaukee. "Our goal is to win the world championship. The first step is to build the stability that will make us a perennial contender."

Translation: Clean house. The acquisition of Williams gave Cleveland the confidence to trade former franchise cornerstone Roy Hinson to Philadelphia for the right to the No. 1 pick, the 7-foot North Carolina senior, Daugherty. Before long, Lonnie Shelton and Edgar Jones were gone. Still unsigned, and not playing, are Phil Hubbard and World B. Free, who is slated for sixth-man shooting duty a la Fred Brown of Wilkens's 1978-79 championship team in Seattle.

At the heart of the youth movement is a frontcourt rotation of Williams, Daugherty, Keith Lee and Melvin Turpin. The most versatile of the big men is the 230-pound Williams, who has the potential to evolve into a very large small forward. He also is tough enough to play long stints in the pivot, and he has one other attribute that has impressed the Cavs. "He's got heart," says Minnifield. "That's the first thing we noticed. He's been through so much that I don't think there's anything that can bother him."

On March 26, 1985, Williams was arrested on sports bribery charges in connection with two games during his senior year at Tulane. Without a lawyer present, Williams told authorities that he had accepted cash payments while he was at Tulane and had received $10,000 in a shoe box from one alumnus while he was being recruited. But he denied having been part of a point-shaving conspiracy.

In the course of legal proceedings, which have so far included the bringing of criminal charges against eight people, Williams's woeful academic record was exposed, and he was portrayed as a greedy drug user by the prosecution. The shock waves of a scandal that has yet to run its course—two of those indicted are still awaiting trial—ultimately led to the suspension of the basketball program at Tulane.

But there were problems with the prosecution's case against Williams. All six of the key witnesses who testified that Williams had taken part in fixing—including three of his former teammates—had either been granted immunity or pleaded guilty to reduced charges. And if Williams had indeed gone in the tank, it was hard to tell by his performance on the basketball court. Against Southern Mississippi, a game in which Williams allegedly helped ensure that Tulane would win by less than 10 points, the defense pointed out that he scored 16 points and was 6 for 6 from the field in the second half. When Memphis State defeated Tulane 60-49—a game that Tulane played as a 7-point underdog—Williams scored 14 points.

On draft day, Weltman, banking on an acquittal, drafted Williams despite an NBA advisory that Williams would be ineligible until he was absolved of guilt. Weltman's move was called "morally indefensible" by one Cleveland columnist, but today Weltman says, "I'm proud to be the person who gave John a chance."

When the judge declared a mistrial in August of '85 because the prosecution withheld evidence, Williams went to the Cavs' training camp. But commissioner David Stern ruled that Williams could not play in the NBA until his case was resolved. To stay in shape, Hot Rod played with the USBL Rhode Island Gulls, where he was voted Rookie of the Year. But when the Gulls' season ended, he glumly sat in the Richfield Coliseum and watched the Cavs lose.

"That was the worst part," says Williams, "knowing that I could have helped them win and having to watch. And knowing I didn't do nothing wrong."

Williams was finally retried in June, and his attorney, Michael Green, destroyed the credibility of the prosecution witnesses. In 2½ hours the jury returned with a verdict of not guilty.

Slowly the joy that Williams radiates when he is on the court is being matched off it. In one breath he will say he learned that "you can't trust nobody, not even your team players," but in the next he will say, "If you be angry, you just make yourself bad."

Says Daugherty, "John just wants to get on with his life. The whole thing down in Tulane smelled. Now it's time for good things."

"It's behind me," says Williams. "I'm playing basketball, so I'm very happy. When me and Brad talk, all we talk about is the future."

PHOTOCARL SKALAKWilliams impressed observers in the preseason with his steady all-around play.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)