The room is empty and as quiet as a church when he walks in and slides onto a bench near the back. An eager supplicant, he leans his head back as if he were about to be baptized, and he begins to lift, first his voice, then 215 pounds of iron. Pig iron.
This is an article from the Nov. 28, 1994 issue
In less than an hour there will be 19,000 people in this same building, many of them wearing hats molded in the shape of a pig's head, which means it is time for Corliss Williamson to change. "I walk down to the weight room as Corliss," explains Williamson, a 6'7", 245-pound forward who last season, as a sophomore, led Arkansas to the national title, "and I start to lift. That's where I go through my transformation. The adrenaline starts flowing, I get angry, I get aggressive, I get sweaty. I start talking to myself about what I'm going to do when I get on the floor. And then, suddenly, there I am: the Big Nasty."
He does leg curls, arm curls, toe curls, Shirley Temple curls until his game uniform is nearly drenched in sweat. All of this, of course, flies in the face of basketball's old-time religion, which looked down upon big muscles as the fleshy bindweed of the devil, and whose catechism was full of dogma about quickness and flexibility. But the Big Nasty will have none of that. "That's his game, the power game, and lifting gets him ready to play," says Scotty Thurman, the Razorbacks' other starting forward. "It gets him into the frame of mind where he's going to push people around, intimidate guys. It actually relaxes him a lot."
Refreshed, relaxed and looking like Charles Atlas, the Big Nasty is now ready to bench-press the sissies on the other team. "Then I walk back into the locker room, and the guys are all laughing at me," he says, with a rueful smile, "like, There he goes again. But if I'm out there with a frown on my face, I think there's an intimidation factor."
As the Razorbacks line up in the locker room to go onto the floor, Williamson stands at the door administering a kind of emotional CPR, thumping all of his teammates soundly on the chest as each goes by. "It's just a way of making sure everyone's heart is in the game," he says.
All that weightlifting has made Williamson a startling physical speciman. His massive legs are so suggestive of tree trunks that the place on his calf where an Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother branded him with a hot coat hanger last year looks like the work of kids trying to carve their initials in his bark with a penknife. His bark is even worse than his Big Nasty bite, as he now has yet another brand on his arm and has adorned each of his massive pecs with tattoos—one of them a Tasmanian devil, whose whirling-dervish moves Williamson emulates when he gets the ball deep in the lane.
Williamson has worked tirelessly to develop his hard muscles and soft touch. Now he is the foundation upon which Arkansas's hopes of repeating as champions must be built. After averaging 20.4 points a game last season and being named the SEC's Player of the Year, Williamson dominated everyone he faced in the NCAA tournament, with the notable exception of Juwan Howard of Michigan, who outscored Williamson by 18 points and outrebounded him 13 to 6 in the Midwest Regional final in Dallas. Williamson went nearly 27 minutes without scoring in that game and finished with only 12 points, but the Wolverines were so obviously preoccupied with stopping him that they let other Razorbacks go unchecked and lost 76-68.
A week later Williamson was named the Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four in Charlotte despite a mini shooting slump against Duke that dropped his career tournament field goal percentage from a record .711 to .649, below Bill Walton's career-best mark of .686. "It feels so easy for me, once I get the ball, to get to the basket," Williamson said in Charlotte after using a combination of force and finesse to launch most of his shots just inches from the rim.
It wasn't always like that, though. While growing up in Russellville, Ark., 75 miles from Little Rock, Williamson was usually mistaken for someone older because of his size. "A lot of people had a problem remembering that this kid in the man-sized body looked 17 but was really only 13," says his mother, Bettye. That caused young Corliss no end of trouble at James Park, a rectangular plot of concrete and grass sometimes called James Park University by the matriculants who have passed through its tough-love curriculum. The park is where basketball players are made in Russellville.
"People ask you where you're from," Williamson says, "and if you played there, you say James Park University. When a player from the park dunked in a high school game, you would hear guys up in the stands start singing, 'J-P-U, J-P-U.' "
For a long time Williamson avoided the park and the games that drew large crowds there. "The guys who were out there playing were smaller than I was, but they would always be picked before I was," he says. "I got pushed and scratched a lot. There were guys getting into fights almost every night. I guess that's where I developed some of the meanness in me."
Even before he got to Russellville High, he had started to develop his intimidating on-court persona. Clarence Finley, the coach of the AAU team Williamson started playing on when he was 12, called him Big Nasty, and the nickname stuck because it seemed to fit so well. Which was more than could be said for Corliss's clothes when he was a teenager.
During his senior year in high school, Williamson's parents hired a tailor to come from Little Rock to fit him for a couple of suits that he could take to college. "Then he went to summer school in Fayetteville and discovered the weight room," says Corliss's father, Jerry. "He came home a different kid. He had worked at it three or four hours every day." Indeed, he had grown so enormous, his new clothes had to be let out. Way out.
"I was always just tall and lanky, then all of a sudden I started filling out," says Corliss. "One day you're this little kid, not as strong as everybody, then the next day you're pushing people around. It's kind of a confidence builder."
He put on about 30 pounds that summer and topped out at 268. "He was so bulked up that I made him get off the weights," Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson says. "They had him looking like a tight end."
That was not very difficult, considering that Williamson came into the world the size of a blocking back. His hands were so big at birth that his grandmother, Flora Mitchell, was convinced he would one day be a concert pianist.
After eight weeks of inactivity at home in Russellville last summer, however, Williamson was beginning to look like an offensive tackle. He had broken his left hand during the second half of the NCAA title game against Duke in April, but he had continued to play until the title was won. In fact, he was so stoic about the pain that it was a month before he had the hand X-rayed. Unable to play with a cast on his hand, he ballooned to 283 pounds—not the first time he has blown up after an injury.
When Williamson was a freshman and suffered a stress fracture to his right foot that caused him to miss 13 of the Razorbacks' first 14 games that season, he spent most of his free time watching TV and thinking about his next meal. "Nasty has a tendency to eat big," Thurman says. "I tried to hold down his eating, but Corliss would wait until I fell asleep and call for a pizza delivery."
Back in Russellville last summer, he ate almost every day at Ellen and Helen's Family Restaurant, owned by his cousins, where he would usually order the Big Nasty Combo Platter—a bacon cheeseburger, fries and a soda—for $3.99. When Williamson turns pro, probably at the end of this season, some NBA team will have to move the decimal point on that amount about seven places to the right to get the entire combo platter of the Big Nasty's scoring, rebounding and passing skills.
Not far from Ellen and Helen's is the cleaning service that Williamson's parents own and operate. When you meet Corliss's folks you begin to understand where this grunting and sweating weight-room devotee got his work ethic.
Bettye left her home in Little Rock and arrived in Russellville in 1971 to attend Arkansas Tech, planning to go to Chicago one day and become a criminologist. Then she got pregnant with Corliss. After his birth, her mother and father kept Corliss with them in North Little Rock. "My mother told me, 'We're going to keep the baby,' " Bettye recalls. "And I said, 'But when I'm ready for him, can I have him back?' Jerry is not Corliss's natural father, but Corliss doesn't like to talk about any of that. Corliss was a year and a half old when I met Jerry, and after we were married, I brought Corliss to Russellville, and from that day, and before, he was our son."
It was a strict household. When Corliss was in the eighth grade, Bettye and Jerry made him sit out a couple of basketball games because he got a C in algebra. "My mom looked me in the eye and asked me if I had given it a hundred percent effort," he says. If he had said yes, he could have played. He said no. When he explained the situation to his teammates, he broke down in tears.
Jerry, who had gone to work for his own father as a janitor when he was nine, was determined that his son would learn the value of hard work. When Corliss was 16, Jerry took him along to clean offices four nights a week to earn spending money. "My parents wanted me to know nothing in life is free," Corliss says.
As his career flourished in high school, Corliss became such a big star in such a small town that to avoid the appearance of putting on airs, his parents began to minimize his athletic feats. "We'd yell and scream when someone else's little Johnny scored," says Jerry, "but when Corliss did, sometimes we'd clap, sometimes we wouldn't."
They even pursued this strategy after games. "We'd always be hard on him when he came home," Jerry says. "He'd say, 'You never say anything about what I do, you only talk about what I don't do.' His first two years of college were the first time we were able to enjoy him and be ourselves."
Corliss was so baffled by his parents' criticism that he briefly considered giving up basketball. "When you're young and your parents are hard on you, you really don't appreciate what they're trying to do for you," he says. "After a game everybody else would be patting me on the back, but as soon as I walked in my own house, all I'd hear is, 'You need to do this, you need to do that.' " He didn't give up, he says, because his father had taught him not to quit what he had begun.
Corliss was voted the MVP of the state championship tournament when he was a senior in high school, despite the fact that Russellville lost in the finals to Parkview High. After the award presentation, he removed the MVP medal and gave it to the best player on the winning team—Dion Cross, who is now a junior guard at Stanford. "He took the medal off and put it around Dion's neck," Bettye says. "He's always been the type of kid who if he didn't feel he had earned something, he didn't want it. I was sitting with Dion's mom, and we all got tears in our eyes."
It was a quiet gesture, but it spoke volumes about Williamson's character. Then again, sometimes gestures are all one gets with Williamson. "Around anybody but me, he won't say much," Thurman says. "Even the other guys on the team."
Williamson wasn't always the strong, silent type, though. When he was growing up, he sang in the choir at the New Prospect Baptist Church in Russellville. The preacher took a particular liking to his voice, so with a regularity that Corliss found chilling, he would be called up to the pulpit to sing My Soul Is Anchored in the Lord. "I guess in church everybody has a good voice," says Williamson, "but I remember always thinking, Why me?" It is a question that every player who has to guard Williamson will likely ask himself this season.