In the summer of 1987 the Reggie everyone wanted was Georgetown's Williams—not UCLA's Miller, not Northeastern's Lewis. Blade thin but battle tough, the Hoyas' 6'7" Reggie Williams looked like the real thing, a classic NBA swingman with both an outside shooting touch and the moxie to mix it up inside.
"He might do as much [in the NBA] as anybody who has been here," said Georgetown coach John Thompson, not normally a gusher. "He's everything you would want in somebody that size." Rick Pitino, then the coach at Providence College, agreed: "He can do it all, believe me."
And so even the Los Angeles Clippers, a team both inept and unlucky, knew enough to grab Williams when he was still available at No. 4 in the June draft—David Robinson, Armon Gilliam and Dennis Hopson having been taken as the top three choices, by San Antonio, Phoenix and New Jersey, respectively. And then the Clippers stoked the public relations furnace.
"We feel like we're getting two players in Reggie, because he can play big guard and small forward," said Clipper general manager Elgin Baylor. (Reggie should have winced.) "We have a super player in Reggie Williams, a guy who can step right in and play," said coach Gene Shue. (Reggie should have broken out in a cold sweat.) "I think Reggie is going to set this city on fire," said owner Donald T. Sterling. "I think he's a Michael Jordan-type player." (Reggie should have enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.)
April 1, 1990
Three years later, a once traded (by the Clippers, last November), once waived (by the Cleveland Cavaliers, in February) Reggie Williams sits in a hotel room, pondering an uncertain future and wondering why so many of the players drafted after him have been so successful.
The accolades have turned to dust, which is exactly what Williams, who recently turned 26, is gathering with the San Antonio Spurs. After the Spurs plucked him from the waiver wire on March 5, Williams fought a bout with a stomach virus. He had played in only two Spurs games as of last weekend and for the season was averaging 7.2 points and 2.0 rebounds per game. And even when he's healthy, he'll probably be at the end of the bench down there in 12th-man land.
A student of NBA trivia—Lakers past and present are a particular interest—Williams is keenly aware of how many players selected after him in the '87 draft have found NBA success. Kevin Johnson of Phoenix, Scottie Pippen of Chicago, Mark Jackson of New York, Horace Grant of Chicago, Kenny Smith, now with Atlanta, Derrick McKey of Seattle and, of course, the two Reggies, Miller (the 11th pick, with Indiana) and Lewis (No. 22, with Boston). Lewis, in fact, is one of three high school teammates who have passed Williams by, Charlotte's Muggsy Bogues and the Spurs' David Wingate being the other two.
"I feel good for them, all of them." says Williams. "Just because I haven't found the right situation yet doesn't mean I sit around and hope everyone else has troubles." Williams is determined not to give in to bitterness and despair, and, evidently, he hasn't done so. Factors out of his control doomed him in Los Angeles, he says, and he feels that he wasn't given a fair chance during his 32-game stint with the Cavaliers. There is some validity to his thinking, but, clearly, the time has come for him to start producing more. "There's no doubt that he's lost the luster of being a high pick," admits his agent, David Falk of ProServ.
Put it this way: Reggie Williams was dealt a bad hand when he came into the NBA...and he has played it badly.
Williams was bred for competition on the talent-rich playgrounds of Baltimore. At Dunbar High School he was a starter for a team that went 59-0 during his last two seasons. Dunbar had so much talent that Reggie Lewis often played a sixth-man role. The other Reggie "was pretty much the man," said Lewis. "Him and Muggs." Dunbar coach Bob Wade called Williams "the guy we looked to."
At Georgetown, Williams was again surrounded by talent most of the time—the Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas won the 1984 NCAA title in Williams's freshman year—but Williams distinguished himself even when he didn't have a strong supporting cast. He earned Big East Player of the Year honors as a senior when he led a Hoya team—remember Perry McDonald, Mark Tillmon, Dwayne Bryant and Ben Gillery?—known as Reggie and the Miracles to the final eight of the NCAA tournament.
"It wasn't just the Clippers who liked him," says Cleveland general manager Wayne Embry. "I don't know anybody who didn't."
Williams signed a three-year, $2.4 million rookie contract—there is an option for a fourth season—which at the time made him what the Clippers called "the highest-paid rookie non-big man in the history of the NBA." By the end of the season they were worried that he was also the highest-paid rookie non-player in the history of the NBA. Williams was often injured and played in only 35 games. He was installed at shooting guard but was slow to catch on to what Shue called "working the baseline," or coming off picks to shoot a jump shot. He was moved to small forward, but his 190-pound body couldn't take the pounding. The Clips even tried him at point guard, where he was a failure. The only consistent part of his offensive game was his atrocious shooting—he finished the season with a .356 percentage. And having come from zone-oriented Georgetown, Williams had man-to-man defensive deficiencies, said the Clippers. On and on it went, a litany of problems that—somehow, some way—always seem to beset players with CLIPPERS on their jerseys.
"The biggest problem," said Williams recently, "is that the Clippers did not want to be patient. Teams like the Lakers and Celtics work a rookie in slowly. But the Clippers wanted it right then and there." Two other first-round picks, Joe Wolf and Kenny Norman, came along with Williams in the '87 draft, and there was no doubt that the Clippers wanted the rookies to make a quick difference, their public pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding. Only a desperate team, for example, would make the addlebrained decision to install a shy, uncertain rookie at point guard when that rookie doesn't have point guard skills to begin with.
There's no doubt, though, that Williams made a poor adjustment to the NBA, by anyone's standards. He had come from two programs with stability and a strong head-coach figure—Wade, then Thompson—and he did not adapt to the looser structure in Clipper Land, where coaches and players go in and out of a revolving door. He did not take well to coming off the bench, either, once he was consigned to it.
He says he came back eager and ready to play in his second year, but, alas, it turned out to be a replay of the first. Williams began the year as the starting shooting guard, but after getting poked in the eye 10 games into the season, lost his job to Quintin Dailey and never got it back. He sulked on the bench and shot poorly when he got on the floor, finishing the season with a .438 shooting percentage. Finally, during the first period of a meaningless late-season game against Utah, Williams was summoned to replace Tom Garrick, then the starter, and Reggie just said no. The scenario was repeated in the third period, and the Clippers eventually suspended him for the final three games of the season.
"I think it was the right thing to do," Williams said. "Maybe I should've done it earlier. I couldn't get any answers as to why I wasn't playing."
Don Casey, who had replaced the fired Shue in January, provides these: "Reggie just didn't pick up the things you need to be a successful shooting guard in the league. He was making progress as a rookie, but he missed so many games that he got a little gun-shy and was back to Phase One in his second year. He simply had to gather himself too much before he shot. Maybe he'll get it done in another system, but it didn't happen here."
And so the Clippers packed him off to Cleveland in the Danny Ferry-Ron Harper deal. The Cavs wanted to work him in as a starter, feeling that Craig Ehlo was more effective off the bench, and Williams got playing time in December. But his shooting woes continued (his percentage with the Cavs was .381), and the backcourt chemistry with Mark Price, the Cavs' quarterback, just wasn't right. His game was analyzed: "Reggie's lacking in fundamentals." said Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens. And Reggie himself was psychoanalyzed: "I think Reggie's spirit had been broken in Los Angeles," said Price. Ultimately, Williams was found wanting, and he spent most of his last six weeks in Cleveland on the bench, discouraged and lonely. After waiving him, Cleveland pointed to his poor shooting, poor ball handling, poor rebounding, poor defensive intensity and poor practice habits. Other than that, they liked everything about him.
"The comment about not playing and practicing hard hurt the worst," said Williams. "Nobody ever said I didn't play hard. I remember after one practice Wayne Embry came up to me and said, 'You're not competing.' I still remember the word—competing. What does that mean? I arrived at practice 25 minutes before it started every day. I was never fined, never missed a bus. But how could I defend myself? What have I proved in this league? Who are people going to listen to?"
Says Embry now, "We thought that bringing Reggie here might inspire him to regain the form he showed in college. It didn't. But I maintain that Reggie was a helluva player in college, and he can be a helluva player in the NBA. His future depends on Reggie."
Well, O.K. Williams seems ready to accept that now. But he feels trapped by the NBA version of the vicious circle: He needs consistent minutes to get his shooting touch back, but he won't get consistent minutes until he shows something. His most profound fear, however, is that his shooting touch will never return because his confidence has been shattered. "Well, my confidence isn't what it should be," he'll say. Or: "Well, my confidence level's a little down right now." An old Georgetown teammate with whom Williams converses once in a while says it directly. "Reggie's biggest problem is his confidence," says Patrick Ewing. "He is definitely an NBA player if he can get it back."
But identifying the problem and solving it are two different things, particularly when the problem is largely mental. A broken jump shot is much less complicated than a broken psyche. One Clipper official, who didn't want to be identified, claims that before one game he saw Williams in what he called "a trancelike state, so affected by the pressure that he couldn't move, like he was having an anxiety attack." When that was related to Williams he just shook his head and said, "Now they're trying to make me out to be crazy? No way." He said that the Clippers tried to persuade him to visit a psychologist, but he would have none of it.
"Look, my psychologist is the basketball court," he said. "When things improve out there, so will my confidence."
But in just three seasons Williams has gone from potential star in L. A. to potential starter in Cleveland to potential washout in San Antonio. It's not only his game that's hurting him, goes the talk around the NBA, it's his personality. The intense, withdrawn nature that seemed to represent quiet strength at Georgetown is now a liability. "He seems to have transferred that off-the-court timidity to the court." says one Reggie-watcher. "That never happened in college."
Williams acknowledges, nay, is even proud that his whole universe off the court revolves around his wife, Kathy, and his young son, Reggie Jr. (Kathy is expecting their second child any day now.) But he has always been that way. "Even when he was a 15-year-old kid I knew I could always find Reggie," says Wade. "Drive over to his house, and there he'd be, in his room. That's just Reggie." Williams may be, in fact, the only player in NBA history who has been encouraged by management to do more hanging out.
"I can't change my personality," says Williams. "I was a player in high school and college being that kind of person, and I can be a player now."
How good a player? "I'm not greedy," he says, smiling a bit. "I don't want 20 or 30 points a game like I thought I could get when I first came into the league. I can average 14 or 15 for some team and be happy. I just want the chance to do it."
Reggie Lewis, for one, thinks it can still happen. But he worries about the pressures on his old high school teammate.
"It has to be tough on him," says Lewis. "It has to be tough going from [the top] all the way down to the bottom."