The Waiting Game As the NBA lockout dragged on, irrepressible free agent and All-Star Jayson Williams played pickup, did Letterman and pondered ways to win back the fans

November 16, 1998

Jayson Williams's day has begun with a sick goose, a big sick
goose, a 50-pound goose that stands thigh high to Williams's
6'10" frame.

"There's no goose that big," says Keith Van Horn.

"This one is," says Williams. "Everybody else is walking into the
animal hospital with these little puppies and kittens, and here
comes this black guy holding a giant goose. Man, I wrestled that
thing in the door."

Williams slips 30 more pounds of misery onto the vertical-press
bar as Van Horn and Kerry Kittles await their turns. The three
New Jersey Nets (Williams is actually a would-be Net because he's
a free agent) work out several times a week at Gold's Gym in
Paramus, N.J., with their personal strength coach, Rich Snedaker.
"You know what we're doing right now to our golden goose?" says
Williams, as he pushes 300 pounds skyward. "We're killing it."

It's a metaphor that's been used to describe the NBA lockout
before, though not generally by a high-profile player like
Williams, an All-Star center who hopes to re-up with New Jersey
when what he calls "the millionaires-versus-billionaires pissing
contest" is over. That may be some time. As of Monday no further
collective bargaining talks between the league and the National
Basketball Players Association (NBPA) had been scheduled.
Furthermore, NBPA executive director Billy Hunter was accusing
the owners of trying to turn players against the union after the
league last week lifted the ban on team officials' speaking to
players directly about the NBA's latest proposal; such
communication had been proscribed since the lockout began on
July 1.

Much like a fan, Williams is frustrated and angry at both sides.
Most of all, he's embarrassed. "I don't know how you can help but
be embarrassed when a fan stops you," says Williams, locking his
white Lexus SUV and heading into a Red Lobster for a postworkout
lunch. "They're thinking, Get back to work, you rich f-----s.
That's what I'd be thinking too." As if on cue, two men recognize
Williams as they head out of the parking lot in an old pickup
truck.

"Yo, Jay, when you gonna be back?" one asks.

"I'm guessing January," says Williams.

"Damn, not till then?" the fan says.

"Maybe not," answers Williams. "You all take care."

Williams shakes his head as the men drive off. "So what do I do?
Go over and discuss labor issues? Tell them it's not as simple as
it seems?" he says. "To them it is simple, and I don't blame
them. See, the whole thing is embarrassing. Only word for it."

It's a leap to call this verbal freight train part of the silent
majority, but the phrase aptly describes Williams and most NBA
players these days, the ones who aren't shown towering above
Hunter on the evening news. Williams gets together with teammates
in small groups to shoot baskets and the breeze and to maintain
muscle tone. They make fleeting reference to the daily lockout
news but rarely talk about it beyond that. Instead, they make
gentle gibes about Nets coach John Calipari (e.g., Calipari's
predilection to praise backup guard Lucious Harris as a way of
motivating third-year guard Kittles), conjure up their far-flung
teammates ("I'm exercising the Michael Cage exception," Williams
tells Snedaker when he passes on a set of push-ups) and grow
increasingly bored with one-on-one games at the YM-YWHA in
Washington Township, N.J.

Williams is upset that most fans seem to be angry at the players
when it was the owners who started the impasse by opening up the
collective bargaining agreement. Williams is convinced that
America has less tolerance for labor strife in the NBA because
80% of the players are African-American. "People just don't want
to see big black guys complaining about money," says Williams.
He's pleasantly surprised by the union's solidarity to date and
the fact that the leadership seems so prepared for what's
happening.

The lockout also is driving him increasingly loco. He's tired of
lifting weights, and he jokes that he, Van Horn and Kittles are
ready for "the professional bodybuilders tour." He's tired of
playing lord of the manor, rattling around his 65-acre central
New Jersey estate 50 miles west of New York City. He's tired of
playing serf of the manor, too, getting up at 7:30 to feed the
menagerie of ducks, geese and goats thrust upon him by his
mother, Barbara, an animal lover who, like her son, has a soft
spot for injured or lost creatures and who is in constant contact
with the Hunterdon County chapter of the ASPCA.

He's getting hurt in the pocketbook too. Williams will miss one
check on Sunday, and another payless payday will pass on Nov. 30.
Based on Williams's salary of $2.5 million last season, those two
checks would have amounted to about $400,000. Each day of the
lockout is another day that his agent, Sal DiFazio, is not
working on cementing a deal with the Nets, from whom Williams,
30, wants a seven-year, "take me to the end of my career"
contract. (Williams refuses to talk dollars, but his value would
seem to be in the $12 million to $15 million a year range.) The
fact that he doesn't have a contract is complicating his plans to
marry his fiancee, model Cynthia Bailey. "I can't get that prenup
settled without a new deal," Williams says straightforwardly.

He doesn't talk to the Nets' player-rep ("There is nothing Chris
Gatling can tell me that I want to hear"), and he seethes when he
catches a player throwing around words such as freedom and
dignity before pulling out a cell phone and climbing into a limo.
He thinks union leadership is doing an acceptable job but
suspects that a certain agent has too much power and is still
smarting that he was not voted onto the 15-member executive
committee because "they had to get David Falk's people on it." He
is not ready to start an insurrection but is starting to wonder
if Hunter & Co. had better start listening to the antiplayer
drumbeat. "I've got to be frank," says Williams. "If I was a fan,
I'm not sure I'd come back."

Most of all Williams worries that there won't be a sufficient
show of contrition after a settlement. "We better start planning
some apologetic campaigns right now," he says. "I mean players,
teams and the league. We've got to get the message through that
this thing was messed up from the beginning, and we better not
come back as a bunch of rich athletes looking for pity. We've got
to tell the knuckleheads in this league that we can't act like
that. Lord knows," he adds, "we got enough of them."

Williams was one early in his career. He and Charles Barkley
disagree as to who was tour guide and who was follower, but as
Philadelphia 76ers teammates they closed too many gin joints and
bruised too many knuckles in barroom brawls, a pattern that
Williams continued for a couple of years after he was traded to
the Nets in 1992. "I never had a drinking problem," says
Williams, "but I definitely had a late-night problem."

Those days are over, and through hard work and dedication
Williams has become not only an All-Star but also a genuine
cross-cultural phenomenon, hip enough to rap with Rock,
comfortable enough to josh with Letterman about the gap in
Letterman's teeth, unthreatening enough to appear with New Jersey
governor Christie Whitman in public service announcements about
road rage (although, Williams says, "the governor should have
seen me driving home the other day after Keith tuned me up
one-on-one").

Williams is, in fact, a 1990s version of Dr. Joyce Brothers, a
professional "going-on-talk-shows-guy," as Van Horn puts it. But
Williams is more pervasive than that. Over the next few weeks he
will be showing up as himself in the Nov. 17 episode of the ABC
sitcom Spin City ("Michael J. Fox is so small he could pose for a
trophy," Williams says) and as a math teacher on the CBS sitcom
Cosby. He has a small role as a ballplayer in New Jersey
Turnpike, a basketball movie to be released in January. He looked
as smooth talking about the lockout on Nov. 3 with Dan Rather on
the CBS Evening News as he did the next day cleaning and jerking
165 pounds with one hand during his appearance on Letterman's
Late Show. He's been on MTV so often and in so many capacities
that a month of Real World: Jayson seems inevitable. He writes a
column for Details magazine, and a book of Williams's NBA
anecdotes is to be published in '99. Over the last several months
he has been on about 70 radio shows, been interviewed by 30
newspapers and magazines, made 100 charity appearances and
organized slam-dunk contests in four cities that attracted 12,000
kids as a promotion for Post cereals' Oreo O's. ("It's healthy,
honest," he says.)

An extended lockout, then, presents an interesting question for
the prospective crossover icon: Does America care about Jayson
Williams if Jayson Williams isn't playing basketball? Dr. Joyce,
of course, thrived for years having no discernible purpose other
than being Dr. Joyce, but these are more complex times. "We've
been formulating a marketing plan for Jayson, and there are two
things the advertiser always asks," says Steve Rosner, executive
vice president of Integrated Sports International, the marketing
firm that handles Williams. "Are we going to have an NBA season?
Will Jayson be with the New Jersey Nets? Obviously, not being
able to answer those questions makes it harder for a company to
commit. I'd be naive to not think that people will be less
inclined to feature him if the NBA isn't playing."

Williams professes not to care that Rosner sees him as "a future
Ahmad Rashad-type but with more ability to do entertainment" and
claims that he'll walk away from the spotlight when his playing
days are over. So why exactly is he everywhere? "I'm doing it for
the good of the game," says Williams. "The league and the players
need me to do it. They need someone to stay in the public eye in
a positive way. What I figure is that our old fans, a lot of them
anyway, aren't going to come back for a while--if at all--so we
better have some waiting in the wings."

It's entirely possible that Williams is taking disingenuousness
to a new level, that his explanation is merely the
rationalization of a clever guy looking to improve his Q-rating.
But he sure seems messianic about it. "I believe players have got
to start spreading a positive message, now and after this thing
is settled," he says. "We've got to start thinking of ourselves
as partners in this business. We've got to stop looking like
spoiled brats when we have the greatest job in the world. We've
got to stop stepping over fans on the way to getting into our
$50,000 Benzes that they paid for. We've got to stop leaving the
arena before the fans do. We've got to stop and sign. There just
aren't enough players in the league thinking like this."

By this time Jayson has pulled into the animal hospital, where he
is to meet his father, E.J., and bring home the goose. He pays
the $240 bill and is summoned to a closed-door meeting with the
veterinarian. "Mr. Williams, your goose went into shock after the
procedure," says the vet. "Mr. Williams, your goose did not
respond to resuscitative procedures." Mr. Williams, the vet is
saying, your goose is cooked.

Out in the parking lot Jayson tells his father what happened.
They don't exactly collapse in grief, but they feel a little sad
and perplexed. "Damn, the goose got killed," says Jayson, getting
into his car. "I hope that's not a sign."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Keeping sharp Instead of facing the Cavs, as they'd been scheduled to do on Nov. 4, Williams and Van Horn went one-on-one at the Y. [Jayson Williams and Keith Van Horn practicing] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Dog days Williams has a surfeit of time in which to be master of rottweiler Zeus and lord of his 31,000-square-foot New Jersey manor. [Jayson Williams with his dog in yard of his house]

"We've got to stop stepping over fans on the way to getting into
our $50,000 Benzes that they paid for," Williams says.

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