Working moms didn't always have the child-care opportunities they have today. Take Betty Williams, some 27 years ago in Rocky Mount, N.C. She remembers putting her baby son, Charles, in the bag she used to pick cotton—"the bolls a-hittin' him in the face"—as she went down the rows picking as much as 300 pounds of cotton on a good day, at $4 for 100 pounds. Back then Betty Williams had to take her babies into the fields. If she didn't give them a ride in the bag, she would lay them on a nearby sheet, carefully watching for snakes. "You know, them snakes smell the milk and go right down their throats," she says.
Nothing that drastic happened to Charles—better known these days as Buck around the NBA—or any of his four brothers and sisters. Charles learned about snakes and a lot of other things during his childhood in Rocky Mount. To this day he throws a dollar around as if he had earned it at the rate of $4 a hundred. Even now, delivered from NBA purgatory—the New Jersey Nets—to the Portland Trail Blazers, who will pay him $1.4 million a year through 1994, Williams amuses his teammates with his penchant for hanging on to a dollar.
"Careful with his money?" says Trail Blazer teammate Clyde Drexler, surprised at the delicate phrasing of the question. You know, the type of guy you can almost see calculating the 15% tip in his head? Drexler looks up in astonishment and laughs. "Fifteen percent? He may be calculating the sales tax...."
Williams's frugality shouldn't be surprising. As a youngster, he dreamed of having a home with indoor plumbing. When he showed up at the University of Maryland in 1978 with a Rocky Mount kid's notion of an exotic automobile, he was nearly hooted out of the ACC. Teammates couldn't get enough of his '72 Chevelle, stripes painted on its hood and a CB antenna sticking out of the trunk. "Albert King danced on my case," Williams says, remembering the reaction of his former teammate.
After he was picked third by the Nets in the 1981 NBA draft, Williams shocked his new teammates, most of whom seemed to be operating an auto expo, by arriving in a 1979 Buick. Though he became the NBA rookie of the year and an immediate All-Star, and though he had an income of $450,000 a season, he refused to move up to All-Star machinery. "If I get a Mercedes now," he said, "what will I get later?"
In 1983, his NBA future assured after back-to-back 1,000-rebound seasons, he finally splurged and bought a Mercedes. In fact, he is still defensive about owning such extravagant transportation, though the Mercedes is now seven years old. "I never found a Ford I could stretch out in," he says. The other thing about the Mercedes, Williams says, is that he "got a great deal."
But Williams is only stingy—"conservative," he allows—in certain ways. Since joining the NBA in 1981, he has become more famous for what he gives on the court than for what he saves in the bank account. He obviously developed a respect for the work ethic as well as for economy while watching his mother toil in those cotton fields. "If all the players in the league worked as hard as Buck," says former Blazer head coach Mike Schuler, who was a New Jersey assistant when Williams came into the league, "this would be an easy game to coach. And he works as hard today as then."
And talk about selflessness. "He might score 18 one night and four the next," says current Blazer coach Rick Adelman, whose team this season has become the surprise of the Pacific Division, largely because of the trade that brought Williams to Portland for center Sam Bowie and a first round draft choice. Williams's first NBA coach, Larry Brown, knew that Buck could help transform Portland from one of the most self-centered teams in the league last season to a more cohesive group this time around. "Buck doesn't have a selfish bone in his body," Brown says.
Portland, a perennial playoff failure (routed in the first round in the last four years), has good reason to see Williams as a savior. Even Schuler, who did all right coaching the Trail Blazers (127-84) until several of his more temperamental players became unhappy with him and with each other, thinks he might have salvaged his job if he had obtained Williams a year ago. "There's no question about that," Schuler says of his dismissal last February.
But Schuler"s problems with the team, especially with Drexler, might have been bigger than even a Williams could have solved. "That old devil word," says team vice-president Bucky Buckwalter of Schuler's troubles, "communication." There's no question that Williams, 29, a 6'8", 225-pound power forward, answered a need for Portland. "We had been perceived as a little soft," Buck-waiter admits. But it was as much work ethic as rebounds that Portland was after when it made the trade for Williams. Portland was looking for a leader. "He was on a team," says Adelman, "that at the end of the year was going nowhere. And he played like it was the first of the year." Couldn't Portland, which had been going nowhere for too long, use someone like that?
The popular opinion is that Williams has lit up Drexler, a game player for sure but not the kind of guy who will kill himself in practice. "I think Clyde's playing the best defense of his life," says Buckwalter. Certainly Portland is not the finesse team of years past. When the Trail Blazers beat the Detroit Pistons earlier in the season, Isiah Thomas was asked the difference between the '88-89 Portland team and the '89-90 version. "Buck Williams," he replied.
Having a guy who averages 13.4 points and 9.6 rebounds a game and who guards the toughest player every night is bound to make a difference to any team. Portland allowed an average of 113.1 points a game last season; this season, 106.8. The Trail Blazers also have been among the NBA's top rebounding teams. Still the difference the Williams trade has made to Portland is nothing compared with the difference it has made to Buck.
When Williams filed for early entry into the NBA in 1981 and joined the Nets, he hooked up with another collegiate spirit, Brown, who was fresh out of UCLA. "I latched on to Larry," Williams says. "He sort of left me in that college atmosphere. He made me feel so secure, there was nothing I wouldn't do for him." Brown called Williams Bucko; the other Nets called him Brown's son. But after two seasons with New Jersey, Brown left, in an ugly year-end scene, to take the job at Kansas. Williams, if not bitter, certainly felt betrayed. "I grew up that year," he says.
The hapless Nets continued to offer Williams plenty of opportunities for growing experiences. During the last three seasons, in which the Nets were 108 games below .500 overall, Williams began to lose hope that the franchise could be turned around. Because he was the team's most marketable player, his name often popped up in trade rumors, which he found particularly devastating. Still he was loyal to the end.
Williams did not stint in effort or spirit last season. Nor did he complain privately. His wife, Mimi, says he would come home from yet another loss and retire to the loft of their Ramsey, N.J., home to work on his remote-controlled model airplanes. "He'd stay up until two, three in the morning, never talking about the game," says Mimi. "I'd sit up with him and sometimes he would ask me for some help—I have small hands—but mostly he'd just work on those planes. Finally I'd just go to bed."
This was odd because Williams is by nature a talker. With the Nets he was always convening some kind of round-table group, discussing apartheid one day and deferred payments versus cash the next ("You take the cash, man," he says). But last season his usual enthusiasm was dampened. He would still sit down at his computer and track the family finances, still practice gospel on the piano, still putter around at woodworking. But Mimi recalls that he seemed happiest building those airplanes at night and then on Sundays after church, flying—and sometimes crashing—them with a group of model-plane enthusiasts who were only vaguely aware of his status in the NBA.
The whole Nets experience came into focus when he did research into his family tree. He jokes that he started the genealogical studies after a writer speculated that Williams's ancestors must have done something awfully wrong to doom him to play for New Jersey. In fact, while tracing his mother's family to 1800, he discovered no one more wicked than a great-great-grandfather who, as recorded in one of his four divorce proceedings, told his wife of the time, "I'm going to turn the devil loose and somebody gonna be missing in this house." Divorce granted!
Williams also discovered that a female ancestor had been listed, along with livestock, among the assets of landowner William Woodland of Virginia. Her worth on the inventory had been set at $150. And on reading Woodland's will, he found that an entire generation of his ancestors were to have been set free. Instead, they were retained as slaves by the landowner's heirs.
"Here I was treated just like that," he says in reference to the system that assigns and binds pro players to their teams. Yes, Williams understood that he was ridiculously well paid for his work. Still he felt that he had been assigned a worth on an inventory sheet and was going through life at the whim of an owner.
So this is what he learned, on the basketball court and in the libraries where he combed through microfilm looking for ancestors: You can't count on anyone's benevolence.
Williams realized he had to protect his future; he had to do it as much to serve as a good example to his children—he now has an eight-month-old son, Julien—as anything else. So he went back to Maryland in 1982 and hard as it was ("I'm making a million a year and I have homework?"), got a degree in business administration in 1988. "I had to think long term," he says.
It occurred to him that as far back as he could see, his family had been a victim of racial inequality, in one way or another. His father, Moses, who quit school in the third grade, worked on a construction gang for 10 cents a day. Moses labored so many hours—later he was a cement finisher—that Buck scarcely remembers his being around. All those hours enabled Moses to build the four-room house, still standing, that sheltered the family for 26 years.
As a youngster, Williams was proud of both his father and his mother, but he was also conscious of and ashamed of the family's poverty. The Williamses had no hot water and no indoor plumbing until Charles was in the 10th grade. "At night I would pray for indoor plumbing." he says. "It was embarrassing to come home from school, even with my friends, and walk past my house. It was a small little shack that we lived in."
When Williams was 12 years old, earning 50 cents an hour stocking candy for a local wholesaler, he surprised his mother with an egg beater; she uses it today. It should come as no surprise then that NBA rookie Williams, before he replaced his 1979 Buick or bought himself a house, put his folks in a new home in Rocky Mount. "The best day of my life," he says. That old house, that shack, had stood too long as a reminder of where he had come from and where—if a fellow didn't work hard, didn't save, didn't take matters into his own hands—he could return.
Betty Williams describes the house that she picked out as "a mansion. Four bedrooms, three bathrooms and all them showers."
Indoor plumbing galore.