It all started with William The Conqueror, who history tells us was the greatest of all Williams. Now, nine centuries later, the Williamses have conquered the NBA. Just look around: There's Buck Williams, Reggie Williams, Scott Williams. There's a Hot Rod, a Hot Plate and a Hot Head Williams. There's Herb, Walt...13 Williamses in all, and not a single brother or distant cousin in the bunch. You can scarcely visit an NBA arena without seeing at least one Williams, and sometimes you'll encounter two or three. "I don't know why there are so many," says Kenny Williams of the Indiana Pacers. "Maybe my dad had something to do with it."
Williams is the third-most-common surname in the U.S., after Smith and Johnson. The Johnsons dominated NBA rosters in the 1980s. In 1989 Magic, Kevin et al. made David Letterman's top-10 list of rejected NBA promotional slogans (No. 2: "Come See Our Johnsons!"). There was even a Johnson rap:
Thirteen men with the same last name,
Thirteen Johnsons playing the game.
All of them Johnsons shooting hoop,
Too many Johnsons spoiling the soup.
But the Johnsons (of which there are now a mere seven in the NBA) and the Smiths (eight) have given way to the wave of Williamses. A little history: The first NBA Williams was Ward, who joined the Fort Wayne Pistons in 1948. Forty have followed in the NBA and the ABA, including Chuckie (1976-77, Cleveland Cavaliers), Hambone ('67-75, San Diego Rockets, Boston Celtics and the ABA San Diego Conquistadors) and Toothpick (1967-73, Pittsburgh and Minnesota Pipers, Pittsburgh Condors and Memphis Tams, all of the ABA). "Sly Williams was famous in the '70s for missing practices, team flights and games," says Pat Williams, general manager of the Orlando Magic. "He was a bizarre enough kid to make you want to stay away from all Williamses." Equally strange was Brooklyn schoolyard legend James (Fly) Williams, who buzzed out of Austin Peay University in 1976 as one of college basketball's leading scorers, only to be swatted down after a single ABA season. He resurfaced years later in Atlantic City, wrestling a bear named Victor. "I thought I won," said Fly, "but the bear got on The Tonight Show."
The current crop of Williamses comes in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes, from the Minnesota Timberwolves' 6'2", 175-pound Micheal to 6'11", 260-pound Herb of the New York Knicks. "I'd love to get all the NBA Williamses together for a Christmas card," says New Jersey Net forward Jayson Williams. "We'd have one rich family, like the Kennedys." Three Williamses hail from California, two from North Carolina, and one each from Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Texas and the District of Columbia. Sorry, there is no Tennessee Williams.
Some think the league is Williams heavy. "There are too many Williamses!" moans Kevin McHale, whose Boston Celtics harbor forward Lorenzo Williams. "I can't sort them all out." Neither can the Williamses. When pressed, none of the 13 could name more than three others, and one, Micheal, said meekly, "Can you believe I really don't know any of them?"
For the uninitiated Williams Watcher, we offer the following field guide:
Williams the Confounder. Cavalier forward-center John Williams has been called Hot Rod since he was a scooter. "I used to scoot back and forth on the floor making engine sounds," he says. Hot Rod is forever getting confused with Hot Plate, the Los Angeles Clipper forward. Requests to autograph photos of the other John arrive in Cleveland about once a week. "The thing is, we look nothing alike," says Hot Rod. "I'm a little bit taller, he's a little bit wider."
But then Hot Rod has long been mistaken for one Williams or another. Back home in Baton Rouge, he played basketball on the same high school team as Waylon (Peanut) Williams, Dervin (Snake) Williams and Klein (Chopper) Williams. And yet Hot Rod seems to revel in no-menclatural chaos. Consider his children: His sons are John Jr. and Johnfrancis; his daughter, Johnna. Karen Williams, Hot Rod's wife, is pregnant with either Johnpaul or Johnte. "John Jr.'s nickname is the Heat," says Karen of their nine-year-old, "but the way he plays ball, he should be called Hot Dog Williams."
Williams the Condominium. John (Hot Plate) Williams is a 295-pound barge of beefcake whose scarlet jersey bulges like a red sail. His stomach has sunk to the mezzanine level; his stock, to closeout.
A feeder turned eater, Hot Plate played just 51 games over the last three seasons before the Washington Bullets gave up on him, dispatching him to the Clippers in an October trade. He had exceeded the Bullets' expectations only in weight, and he missed the entire 1991-92 season because he was carrying too many extra pounds. Hot Plate has created a mythical team he calls the Williamsburg Williamses, a team composed entirely of his namesakes. He rattles off a mock play-by-play: "Williams dribbles down the floor and flips it to Williams, who pulls up and fires. The shot is short and grabbed by Williams, who alley-oops to Williams for the basket...."
How can you tell which Williams is which?
"It doesn't matter, as long as we win."
Williams the Conniver. Jayson Williams is called Hot Head because he's always running into piques. As a sophomore at St. John's, he was suspended from the 1988 Big East tournament after punching an opponent and chucking a metal folding chair at a fan. As a Philadelphia 76er sophomore in 1992, he cracked a beer mug over a heckler's head after a late-night drink with Charles Barkley. The cops called it self-defense.
The 76ers tossed this Hot Potato to the New Jersey Nets last October. He has not only kept out of trouble but out of uniform as well. Jayson missed 26 games with a sprained ankle, played one minute in his comeback game against the Los Angeles Lakers, then reinjured himself lifting weights on Jan. 27. He will be out until April with a dislocated left ankle and fractured left fibula.
He hobbles around the Net locker room in a dark shirt and dark glasses, his face practically smothered in a high turtleneck collar. "It's one thing being Jayson Williams, another getting mixed up with Jason Williams," he says, meaning the star of the porn classic Flesh Gordon. "When I hear about Jason Williams in the gossip columns I think, Damn, I must be in trouble again."
Williams the Conifer. At 6'9" and 200 pounds, Lorenzo Williams looks like a well-pruned fir tree. The journeyman swingman leads the league in acronyms, especially DNP—Did Not Play. He has marked time in the CBA, the USBL, the GBL and the IBA (that's the Israeli Basketball Association). In the NBA this season, he has been passed from Charlotte to Orlando to Boston. "I've never been on a pro team with another Williams," he says. "That would be something special, something I'd always remember." When reminded that Brian Williams was his teammate in Orlando, Lorenzo says, "Oh, yeah. I guess I forgot about him."
Williams the Contortionist. Walt Williams, the Sacramento Kings' acrobatic rookie forward, has an Uncle William. "He goes by William Williams, but his real name is Walt," Walt says. "Everybody calls him Snowball."
Uncle Snowball used to call his nephew June Bug. "That's short for Junior," says Walt. When Junior was a junior at Maryland, under coach Gary Williams, he broke his leg and missed half the season. He attended Maryland partly because he was recruited there by Brian Williams, and partly because he admired former Terrapin standout Buck Williams.
Did he like Buck's muscular style of play? "No, it was more his porkchop sideburns," says Walt. "I tried to grow them, but mine looked more like spareribs."
Williams the Conclusive. The most memorable moment of Scott Williams's career with the Chicago Bulls came in the 1991 playoffs. "I drew a charge on Magic Johnson," says the third-year center. "As a boy, I'd idolized Magic, so I wondered if I'd impressed him with my craftiness. I wondered if I'd earned his respect." He wondered if Magic would recognize him off the court.
The two players' paths crossed in California a month after the '91 NBA Finals. Magic recognized Scott instantly. "My man!" Magic said respectfully. "What's happening, Jayson?"
Williams the Condescender. Corey Williams, the Bulls' speedy reserve point guard, feels a certain kinship with his fellow Williamses. "I'm part of an elite group of guys, a clan," he exults. "It gives my parents something to brag about. They can say, 'Hey, my son's a Williams.' "
Couldn't they anyway?
"Yeah, but now they really can."
Corey was inspired to play basketball by his uncle, Dirty Red Williams. "You're carrying my name now," Dirty Red said. "So make me look good."
And what was Dirty Red's real name?
"Jerry Lewis Williams."
Williams the Connubial. In 1986 Herb Williams heaved a basketball the length of the court and swished it 81 feet through the net. That same year he married Deborah Williams, a clinical psychologist he had met in Houston on a road trip. "I think Deborah loved me," says Herb, who, at 34, is the oldest of the NBA's Williamses. "But I suspect the real reason she married me was that she didn't have to change her last name."
Williams the Contributor. The evil in Micheal Williams's heart, to vary William Shakespeare's phrase, would not clog the foot of a flea. The Timberwolf point guard hands out compliments as readily as he hands out assists on the break. "I learned to love the game watching Gus Williams of the old Seattle Super-Sonics," he says. "He was so smooth, so quick. Just to know our last names were the same made me proud."
Micheal used to be Michael. He changed the spelling in kindergarten. "Micheal is easier when you're doing cursive writing," he says. "If you start with the h, you can loop it around and come up with the e instead of trying to come back with the a."
Williams the Concise. The difference between Denver Nugget swingman Reggie Williams and time is that time passes. "He's a gunner, a quick-draw guy," says Charley Rosen, who coached Kevin, Dennis and Dave Williams in the CBA. "He's the fastest Williams in the West."
Reggie's mother and wife want him to use Reginald, his given name. It's more distinguished, they say. Reggie disagrees. "Reginald the First, Reginald the Second, Reginald the Third...." he mutters. "I've heard of people like that, kings and dukes and jacks and stuff. But Reginald's too long, so I shortened it to Reggie. It's simpler."
Particularly after sinking a 20-foot jumper. "You don't want to hear that 'Reginald' scored two points," he says. "It'd take up too much time."
Williams the Confabulator. When Kenny Williams was a senior at Fork Union Military School, his football team played William & Mary. "We won something like 29-0," recalls the Indianapolis Pacer forward. "I didn't mind beating Mary, but I felt bad about William."
This is another guy whose boyhood hero was Buck Williams; what's more, he shares an agent with Brian Williams, he played briefly with Micheal Williams, and he almost went to the same college—North Carolina—as Scott Williams. "Actually, I only signed a letter of intent [at UNC]," he says. "I was a couple of credits short and never played there." He went to Barton County (Kans.) Community College in the fall of 1988, then sat out the next season at another junior college before declaring hardship for the NBA in 1990. "If I'd stayed in college all four years," he notes, "I'd have graduated in the same class as Walt Williams."
Coasting along on a slick line of gab, Kenny says the best thing about being a Williams is not having to keep up with the Joneses. "We've surpassed them," he boasts. "I wouldn't want my last name to be anything else. Except maybe Jordan."
For all his spectacular slams and robust rebounds, Kenny is an intensely private Williams. The Pacers once fined him for refusing to divulge his home phone number. "I would change it seven or eight times a month," he says. This may have been brought on by teenage trauma. Kenny still flinches at the memory of a phone call he received in high school.
"Hi," a voice intoned from the other end of the line. "This is Kenny Williams."
"Stop joking," said Kenny.
"Tell the truth or I'll hang up."
"Seriously, man, I'm Kenny Williams. Who are you?"
"Turned out my sister Patricia was dating another Kenny Williams," says our Kenny.
Williams the Contemplator. Buck Williams, the Portland Trail Blazers' selfless power forward, is a self-styled genealogist. The 12-year NBA veteran has traced his mother's roots back to 1795. But he had to stop digging on his father's side when he got to his granddad, Moses Williams, a North Carolina sharecropper. Moses was raised by his older sister, Sarah. "No one has any idea what happened to their parents," says Buck. "There's something tricky in there. It's a mystery I want to solve."
As for the Curious Case of the NBA Williamses, Buck would rather contemplate than investigate. "I sit around and relish the fact that when I retire, my name will live on," he says. "I don't think I'll ever see the day when there isn't one Williams in the game of pro basketball."
Williams the Conflicted. The Life of Brian Williams plays more like dark tragedy than comedy. Fainting spells plagued Orlando's second-year power forward for much of the summer. He blacked out on a gym floor, in a swimming pool and while driving a car. In October he attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. In late November he was diagnosed with clinical depression. After being placed on injured reserve on Nov. 25, Brian finally returned to action on Feb. 14—Valentine's Day—against the Knicks in Orlando. The sellout crowd greeted his return with a standing ovation.
"Two years ago," says Brian, "my brother Miles changed his last name to DuBour. I guess Miles got sick of running into all the Williamses out there. Everywhere he turned, there was a Williams."
Brian, whose father was a member of The Platters, is a bit weary of the name himself. "In grade school, names that started with W were always the last ones called," he says. "I was always last, last, last." The insult was later compounded at the University of Arizona, where he was one of seven Brian Williamses on campus. "You can't imagine how hard it was to get the right transcript," he says. A scowl clouds his face. "Williams is too normal. Williams is too bland. I want a name that's unique, a name that no one else has. I might just start going by my middle name, Carson."
And what would you call yourself?
"Why not Johnny Carson?"