Brian Williams gets home after practice, and his personal chef
is cooking lunch. Williams takes a seat at a kitchen counter and
checks out the headlines in the morning paper. As usual, none of
the news is good: Another snowstorm is on its way from Canada,
and the Detroit Pistons still have a crummy record.
The chef, Darryl Davis, is panfrying catfish, and smoke rises in
piles from the stove. Today, along with the fish, Davis is
serving Williams and a guest Cajun shrimp, a bean dish and a
green salad crowded with croutons as big as alphabet blocks.
"Brian has to have everything fresh," Davis says. "Fresh
carrots, fresh peas. See that grapefruit juice he's drinking?"
Williams holds up a glass. "Fresh," Davis says.
Williams picks at the soul patch under his lip and throws a look
at the guy he's invited to lunch. It's a long time before
Williams speaks. "When are we serving the dirt?" he asks. "Is
that what you're thinking?"
February 16, 1998
The man doesn't respond, because he has food in his mouth. But
if he could say something, it would be: "So you mean that's not
"The dirt thing is bull----," Williams says, seeming to read his
visitor's mind. "It's complete and utter bull----. No, man, I've
never eaten dirt--not for nutrients and not because it tastes
good and not for any reason. Well, let me correct that. I have
eaten dirt before, but it was only by accident. I fell off my
Davis gives Williams a second helping of fish, and he goes at it
without saying anything. Williams, 6'11" and 260 pounds, seems
to be trying to prove something. "People must think I'm some
kind of oddball," he says at last, "because only an oddball
would eat dirt for nutrients, right?"
But once again his guest is quiet. This Davis fellow can really
There were other stories before the one about Williams's eating
dirt, and there have been plenty of other stories since.
Williams, 28, the starting center for a Pistons team that was
22-25 at the All-Star break, has his own peculiar mythology, and
for years it's been dragging behind him like tin cans on string.
"I guess you heard I like to jump from airplanes, too, huh?" he
asks, giving his head a shake. "The truth is, I skydived once,
just once, down in Florida. I took a course for four hours, and
then I had two instructors, one on each side of me. I skydive
once, and next thing you know, it's all I do. What else did you
The list is long. But now that Williams has a forum, he might as
well respond to one rumor, about his sexual orientation. Would
Williams like to be the first active big-time male professional
athlete to come out of the closet?
Williams rubs a hand over his head. His face lights up with a
grin. "People can think whatever they want about that," he says.
"The person who stands up and proselytizes that's he's not gay,
now he's the one you have to wonder about. As for myself, I
don't give a s---. Think I'm gay, or think I'm straight, it
doesn't matter. Why is there such a need to know, anyway?"
It's a fair question, and he, better than anyone, knows the
answer. Over the last 10 months Williams, a seven-year NBA
veteran, has emerged as one of the game's top big men, and he
finds himself on the cusp of what is beginning to look like
stardom. Last season he affirmed his value during a short stint
with the Chicago Bulls that was crucial to their winning their
fifth championship in seven years. And this season, after having
signed a seven-year, $45 million free-agent contract with
Detroit last August, he ranks among the league's top five
centers in scoring, with 16.9 points a game, and rebounding,
with a 9.7 average.
As a personality, however, Williams is a mystery. In fact, now
that everybody has Dennis Rodman figured out, Williams is the
league's reigning mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.
People who closely follow the Pistons have asked, Why does he
roll deodorant under his arms before practice--and not always
shower afterward? Even casual observers have noticed his habit
of running off the court a few minutes before tip-off and
disappearing under the seats. He's visiting the john, but it's
more fun to imagine that he's down there casting voodoo spells.
Adding to the confusion about Williams is his habit of speaking
his mind. In one breath he can be as thoughtful and articulate
as anyone else in sports; in the next, so politically incorrect
as to redefine the term. Asked about the NBA's decision to use
female referees, Williams told The Detroit News, "I am for equal
rights, I am for the National Organization for Women, I am for
equal pay, and I have read Camille Paglia and Anais Nin. But
this is utter bull." Later he posed this hypothetical: "What
happens when I run into one of them and break her head open?"
The uproar over those remarks had barely died when he called
rookie phenom Keith Van Horn of the New Jersey Nets the "great
A misogynist, a racially insensitive jerk or just another
athlete with a loose lip? Take your pick, Williams doesn't care.
As his teammate Grant Hill has said, the big man appears
destined for selection to "the all-quote team for all the crazy
things he says." That's too bad, because Williams is more than
just another big mouth.
He is a licensed pilot who owns a four-seat plane, and in the
off-season he travels the world looking for adventure. He has
run with the bulls in Pamplona, ridden camels in the desert near
Cairo, gambled in Monaco casinos, danced half-naked in the
streets of Havana and fired rounds from a bazooka into a
hillside on the outskirts of Beirut. He guzzled vodka through
the night at a whorehouse in the south of France and angered the
joint's madam when he refused to retire to a back room with one
of her girls. He has partied in the discos of Mexico City and
tramped around Morocco with a fashion model, his love interest
at the time. Several years ago he cycled some 800 miles from
Salt Lake City to Phoenix, stopping only for food, sleep and
dips in motel swimming pools.
To further distance himself from the average NBA player,
Williams has read a real book or two, preferring Kant and
Kierkegaard to King and Grisham. "I taught classes in economics
and philosophy at Stanford, and I've given Brian books we used
in class," says Patrick Byrne, a friend of Williams's. "I've
been astonished by his perceptive and acute intellect. What
impresses me is how he understands it all and has it at his
Williams broke down in tears after reading a biography of jazz
legend Miles Davis. "If I had the passion for basketball that
Miles Davis had for music," Williams said then, to explain why
he was crying, "I would be one of the greatest players ever." On
another occasion he was watching a movie about apartheid when
suddenly he rose to his feet and ran from the room. Later
friends found him outside sobbing, his face buried in his hands.
"He's got such a big heart," says Doug Collins, who was fired as
Pistons coach on Feb. 2 partly because of the team's
disappointing performance this season. "He wants to do well and
do the right things. At Christmas, Brian did something that no
other player I've ever coached has done: He gave me a present.
It's this beautiful Lalique crystal in the shape of a horse. He
said it reminded him of the Pistons' logo, and when he saw it,
he thought I should have it. Now that tells you he's got
something not everyone has. It's sensitivity."
Williams has played with five NBA teams since he left Arizona
after his junior year in 1991 (box, page 116), and all that
moving around has figured into his reputation as an elusive,
unsettled character with a lot of potential and a long way to
go. Until his career caught fire at the end of last season, he
was as widely known for his bouts with depression as for his
basketball skills. In 1992-93, his second year in the league, he
played in only 21 games, largely because of depression. He even
announced to friends that he intended to retire. At 23 he could
find no joy or meaning in his life with the Orlando Magic. Rare
was the night that he didn't wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. feeling
tired and jittery, his mind a jumble. It became a chore for him
to get out of bed in the morning and report to practice. He was
distant and aloof, and he grew to dislike the city of Orlando.
He complained that it was "sterile" and "made for tourists." The
Magic treated him well, he said, but he found his work
Williams started having blackouts. One day he fainted at
practice and banged his head on the floor. Another time he
drifted off and drove his car into a concrete pylon supporting
"He'd sit in his room and play his saxophone for hours," says
Kevin Porter, Williams's personal assistant. "He'd just go
through all these notes over and over and over. I'd say, 'Come
on, let's walk around the lake, let's do something.' But he'd
say, 'No, leave me alone.'"
Tired of feeling tired, Williams one night swallowed about 15
prescription sleeping pills. "I just wanted to go to sleep," he
says. "If I didn't wake up for a week, that would've been fine
with me. I ended up sleeping for about 10 hours, and then I got
up in the morning and went to practice. I was groggy, but nobody
said anything. I wasn't trying to kill myself, no matter what
you may have heard. When I look back, it was nothing more than
the overreaction of a young, immature, lonely, misguided mind."
The team sent Williams to a therapist for a few months to work
on his depression. He hasn't suffered any bouts since then, and
he hasn't taken medication for the condition. As for the
fainting spells, he'd been trying to survive the rigors of the
NBA on a vegetarian diet of 2,000 calories a day when his body
needed three times that many. "Cornflakes for breakfast, maybe
vegetarian chili for lunch, a salad for dinner," he says. "I was
stupid. I grew up a vegetarian, and I wanted to be superhealthy.
Of course I wasn't consulting anyone on this. The lack of
protein and iron in my diet finally ran me down."
These days when Williams's mood darkens, he's more apt to sit at
his PowerBook and write what he's feeling than to hide in bed
and wait for sleep. Deli Delight is a poem he wrote about a
waitress he met at a Los Angeles sandwich shop. Fille du Glace
is a riff inspired by the beat poetry of the 1950s. It begins,
"Girl frigid chosen to be frozen frost bitten kitten no mittens
smitten with the notion of a love potion lotion...." Read aloud,
the poem recalls the smoky Greenwich Village coffee shops where
hipsters gathered for midnight recitals and offered loud
choruses of finger snapping when something sounded really cool.
"I always figured there were two ways to go," Williams says.
"You can die from living, or you can die from just dying. So
many people try to play it safe. Maybe they're that way because
they have a wife and kids and a load of responsibilities. Or
maybe it's because they want to try things but don't think they
can pull them off. I admit my life has always been a little
tilted. 'Oh, that Williams boy, I don't think he's knitting with
two needles.' I've heard that. Or they say, 'Oh, that Brian
Williams, he's a free spirit.' Well, it seems like they're
trying to be polite and avoid having to say I'm slightly
off-kilter. When they say 'free spirit,' it's always with a wink
and a nod, as in, 'Well, the poor guy, he's one step short of
When the Pistons were trying to sign Williams last summer, they
had to recruit him hard because Minnesota, Phoenix, Portland and
Toronto, among other teams, were in the hunt for his services.
Williams was only a month removed from Chicago's triumph over
Utah in the NBA Finals, an experience that he ranks as the most
satisfying of his career. For the three road games of the
series, Williams shared a two-bedroom hotel suite with Billy
Corgan, lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins and an avid Bulls fan.
Williams plays not only the sax but also the trumpet and the
bass, and he sang a few ditties for Corgan, who did not mince
words in evaluating Williams's talent. "You suck, man, stop
singing," Williams recalls Corgan saying.
"Wait, Billy. Check this out."
"No, man. I won't. Shut up."
Brian's father is Gene Williams, a former member of the
Platters, and Gene's father, Calhoun Williams, played piano with
Duke Ellington. Brian, who grew up in Fresno, Calif., was only a
year old when his parents divorced, but there was never any
denying his genetic predisposition to make music. As a boy he
listened to jazz in the mornings before school while his mother,
Patricia Phillips, led him in yoga and meditation exercises.
Brian and his stepfather, Ron Barker, had a rocky relationship,
but Brian has always felt indebted to Barker for exposing him to
artists such as Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley.
At 16 Brian moved to Las Vegas to live with his father, who was
still performing. "We'd travel to places like Reno and Tahoe
when the Platters were on tour," Brian says, "and we'd hang out
backstage and meet people like Lou Rawls. The Platters were
playing hotels and clubs and casinos. When I got to college and
then the pros, the glitz and the glamour never seemed foreign to
me because I'd seen so much of it growing up."
Perhaps as a result, Williams likes to entertain. When parties
at his house begin to drag, he's been known to break the
monotony by banging on bongo drums or thumping the strings of
his bass. If that doesn't get his guests going, he'll take out
his sax and do his best imitation of the late Dexter Gordon
playing 'Round Midnight.
Other nights Williams "just goes wherever the music is," as he
says, and this inevitably has taken him to offbeat joints. When
he was a student in Tucson, he often went out with his friend
Ahmad ElHusseini, a student from Lebanon. It was ElHusseini's
custom to kiss his friends upon greeting them, and soon word
spread around campus that Williams, well-known at Arizona as a
Romeo, was seen kissing a Middle Eastern man at a gay club. "But
Brian a homosexual?" says ElHusseini, now 35 and a Beirut
businessman. "This is ridiculous. If anything, I would like to
see him like women less."
"Believe me, there are periods when the guy gets laid waiting
for a bus," says Byrne. "It's almost like, 'Oops, I just got
laid. The girl brought up room service, and, I don't know, it
Despite his periodic visits to the after-hours scene, Williams
seems to possess a mechanism that regulates the impulse to
behave too badly. He might talk a lot, but he has no tattoos or
tales of encounters with Madonna, and those times last year when
he did party with Rodman, Williams was always the first to call
it a night.
Williams recalls a conversation he had with Bulls coach Phil
Jackson not long after Williams joined the team: "He pulled me
aside and said, 'Listen, no matter what you do, don't try and
keep up with Dennis, because he'll bury you.'"
Williams's time with the Bulls was so brief that it now has the
sweet but slightly faded texture of a dream. He was signed by
the team on April 2, after reserve center Bill Wennington was
sidelined for the rest of the season with a nagging foot injury.
Williams, a free agent coming off his best season (he had
averaged 15.8 points and 7.6 rebounds with the Los Angeles
Clippers), was available because he'd sat out 1996-97 after no
team met his contract demands. The Clippers and other NBA clubs
may have backed off because Williams had problems with his right
knee. He had a bone spur removed from the knee in September '96,
and while recuperating, he studied for his pilot's license and
toured the globe. By the time the Bulls came calling, he was
healthy and energized, having watched games during his time off
with a new pair of eyes. "I was seeing things analytically," he
says. "I'd taken the fan aspect out of it, and I was analyzing
the art form of basketball. I was picking apart each play and
seeing the game as I never had."
He played in only nine regular-season games and 19 postseason
games with the Bulls. They were well into the playoffs before
he'd worked off the rust and played himself back into shape, but
after the Utah series, Scottie Pippen said Chicago probably
wouldn't have won the title without Williams. After all, it was
to him that the Bulls turned to help contain All-Stars Dikembe
Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Karl Malone. Williams earned a
meager $27,500 for his regular-season time in Chicago and
$130,000 for the playoffs, but even he admits that his stay
there was something of an exhibition, in which he demonstrated
his value to potential employers.
"He gave the Bulls the speed and quickness they were looking
for," says Mutombo. "One of Brian's biggest strengths is face-up
moves. He turns and faces you, and if you don't watch out, he
blows right by you."
In Detroit this season Williams got off to such a slow start
that fans booed him whenever one of his shots rimmed out or he
was beaten on defense. Although he often plays with great
emotion, pumping a fist in the air after completing a big play,
he occasionally has lapses in concentration that make it seem as
if he's in the throes of an out-of-body experience. Sometimes it
takes an elbow in the mouth to wake him up, and then he becomes
"a beast, like the Incredible Hulk coming out of his shirt," as
Collins once described him.
Williams has a reputation for being a lousy practice player. He
says, "I told Doug, 'You want it in the games or in practice?
You can't have both--not because I'm holding back, but because I
don't have it to give. So take your f------ pick." As for a
report that he misses practices because of various ailments,
Williams angrily replies, "I've only missed four days of
practice all season."
"Who cares how Brian practices, as long as he comes to play the
game?" says his backup, Rick Mahorn. "You can't analyze a
person's abilities simply by what he shows in practice."
As for Williams's lapses in intensity during games, Hill says,
"In the course of a game, Brian can be either a Volkswagen or a
Porsche. As long as he's a Porsche when it counts, that's all
In December, during a tight and very physical game in
Philadelphia, Williams and 76ers forward Derrick Coleman kept
calling each other "bitch." In the visitors' locker room after
the Pistons' 96-92 victory, Coleman confronted Williams and
shoved him. Williams refused to fight, and Pistons forward Grant
Long, whom Coleman had gone into the locker room to visit,
stepped between the two men and pulled Coleman away. After
Collins learned about the incident, he spoke in private with
Williams and told him he'd done the right thing for the team. If
he had fought, he probably would have been fined and suspended,
Collins said, and the Pistons could not afford to lose him.
Williams still wasn't convinced. "I heard my teammates
whispering when I got on the bus," he said. "Maybe I should've
stood up to the guy."
"Look, Brian," Collins said. "You did stand up to him. First you
kicked his ass on the floor when it counted, then you refused to
go down to his level."
A week later Collins yanked Williams from a game with Toronto
for playing lackadaisically on defense. The Pistons won anyway,
and afterward, when Collins lectured the team about "stepping up
and doing the little things to win," Williams took it as a
personal insult. Frustrated, he met reporters in the locker room
and criticized Collins for his tendency to micromanage, to have
"something to say on every play."
Williams's comments received big play in the Detroit media the
next morning, so before practice Collins pulled him aside and
talked to him at length. He reminded Williams that he had stood
up for him after the Coleman incident and said it was important
that Williams do the same for him now. "There are a lot of guys
who, even if they knew they were wrong, could never stand in
front of their teammates and admit that they're wrong," Collins
says now. "We formed a huddle and put our hands together. Brian
said, 'Guys, I said some things last night, and I'm sorry for
them. It'll never happen again.'"
Not long after that, Collins slipped a gift into Williams's
locker. It was a $50 book about air shows, and it contained this
inscription, written in a hopeful moment, before the Pistons'
poor play and internal dissension led to Collins's dismissal:
Thought you might enjoy this book. Thanks for coming to Detroit
and for working so hard to help us become a champion. I hope
that some day soon we can sip some champagne together. Wishing
you peace, health and joy...Doug."
Williams keeps the book on a coffee table in the living room of
his house in suburban Detroit, where on this winter day, after
another of Davis's sumptuous meals, he is waiting for a masseuse
to arrive and pound the kinks from his sore muscles. Hip-hop
plays on the stereo, and fish cut parabolas in the giant
built-in aquarium. It isn't so bad a life, even if snow is
beginning to fall and the Pistons are far behind the first-place
Indiana Pacers in the Central Division.
Ever hear the story about his bedroom? They say it's made to
resemble a cave, complete with black plastic foam rocks jutting
out of the walls. "It's right there through that door, if you
want to look," Williams says, pointing. He walks into the room
and turns on the ceiling light, revealing an unmade bed, a
dresser, a floor lamp and a clutter of candles on tall iron
But where are the ceramic bones piled in the corner? And the
salted animal pelts that supposedly hang from the ceiling?
"Does this look like a cave to you?" Williams asks, seeming
intent on hearing an honest answer. "Or does this look like a
"Well, it's as dark as a cave," comes the reply.
"O.K., then, there you go," Williams says, and he laughs a laugh
big enough to rattle all of Detroit. "Brian Williams sleeps in a
Fits and Starts
In addition to being much-traveled, Brian Williams (near right)
has had his basketball career routinely interrupted, usually for
health-related reasons. Here's his resume, with 1997-98
statistics through the All-Star break.
SEASON TEAM STATS
1987-88 Maryland 29 G, 12.5 pts., 6.0 rebs.
COMMENT ACC freshman of the year; doesn't like coach Bob Wade,
transfers to Arizona
[COMMENT] Sits out season as transfer
1989-90 Arizona 32 G, 10.6 pts., 5.7 rebs.
[COMMENT] Begins feeling soreness in right knee, one of several
injuries that will nag him over the years; scores 28 points in
NCAA tournament first-round win over South Florida
1990-91 Arizona 35 G, 14.0 pts., 7.8 rebs.
[COMMENT] 10 double doubles, including 32 points and 14 rebounds
SEASON TEAM STATS
1991-92 Magic 48 G, 9.1 pts., 5.7 rebs.
COMMENT 10th pick in draft; holds out, misses first eight
games; misses 26 other games partly because of injuries
1992-93 Magic 21 G; 4.6 pts., 2.7 rebs.
[COMMENT] Sidelined by clinical depression
1993-94 Nuggets 80 G, 8.0 pts., 5.6 rebs.
[COMMENT] Acquired in off-season trade; has healthiest season,
and Denver reaches conference semifinals
1994-95 Nuggets 63 G, 7.9 pts., 4.7 rebs.
[COMMENT] Contract holdout in preseason; misses 16 games because
of sore knee and is suspended for one game after leaving bench
to aid teammate in altercation
1995-96 Clippers 65 G, 15.8 pts., 7.6 rebs.
[COMMENT] Acquired in off-season trade; eighth in NBA in field
goal pct. (.543); misses 11 games with tendinitis, one with
strained knee, five with strained arch
1996-97 Bulls 9 G, 7.0 pts., 3.7 rebs.
[COMMENT] After surgery on right knee, remains unsigned free
agent until Chicago picks him up on April 2; strong play in
postseason helps Bulls win NBA title
1997-98 Pistons 43 G, 16.9 pts., 9.7 rebs.
[COMMENT] Signs with Detroit as free agent in off-season; has
missed four games with tendinitis in right knee
"If I had the passion for hoops that Miles Davis had for music,"
Williams said, "I'd be one of the greatest ever."
Sometimes he has lapses in concentration, and it takes an elbow
in the mouth to wake him up. Then he becomes a beast.