#4 New Jersey Nets A wise guy is in the middle, and a comedian sits courtside, but no one is taking this team lightly

February 08, 1999

Center Jayson Williams, one of the NBA's funniest players, hoped
to pick up a few comedic pointers from Bill Cosby when he agreed
during the lockout to appear in an episode of Cosby. Williams
never got the chance. "I spent six hours with the man, and we
never once talked about acting," he says. "All he wanted to do
was talk about the Nets."

Williams better get used to the attention. After years of
Cosby-style basketball--soft as Jell-O and goofy as Fat
Albert--New Jersey found itself in a different world last
season, averaging a conference-high 99.6 points and earning its
first playoff berth in four years. Not even a first-round sweep
by the Bulls dampened enthusiasm in the Swamp.

The trick for the Nets now is to take their already entertaining
show to prime time, especially with injuries sidelining
off-guard Kerry Kittles for up to two weeks (knee) and backup
center Rony Seikaly for up to a month (ankle). But in swingman
Kendall Gill, shooting point guard Sam Cassell and high-scoring
forward Chris Gatling, New Jersey has talent diverse enough to
fill in the blanks. Says coach John Calipari, "Our depth is our
biggest strength."

The star of the show will be Williams, New Jersey's hardest
worker, biggest wise guy and the NBA's second-leading rebounder
last season. In fact, Williams, whose contributions to the Nets
are as multifaceted as Cosby's ability to make scrunchy faces,
was deemed so vital to New Jersey's future that Kittles and
forward Keith Van Horn phoned Calipari to insist that Williams
be re-signed. He was, for $100 million over seven years.
"Fortunately [management] realized how important Jayson is to
the players, the team and the whole state of New Jersey," Van
Horn says.

Williams's presence as a bodyguard, for example, should help Van
Horn, runner-up in the 1998 Rookie of the Year voting, further
lift up his game. Van Horn seemed overmatched on defense at
times, perhaps because he was hampered throughout the season by
a right ankle injury that kept him out of the first 17 games. "I
felt a step slow," he says. "There were things I couldn't do."

The Nets don't shoot well from outside, but Williams's work on
the offensive boards gives them plenty of second chances. On
defense New Jersey forced the second-most turnovers in the
league with a gambling, pressing style that was fun to watch but
resulted in a ton of easy baskets for the opposition. The Nets
hope the shot-blocking Jim McIlvaine, acquired from the Sonics
for veterans Don MacLean and Michael Cage, can cut down on the
number of gimmes.

New Jersey isn't yet tough enough defensively to contend for the
conference title, but at least one fan likes its future enough
that he recently bought a small ownership stake in the team and
two courtside season tickets. His name: Bill Cosby.

--Marty Burns

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Gill power With key players sidelined, the swingman will have to give New Jersey a lift.


Starters PVR* 1997-98 Key Stats

SF Kendall Gill 96 13.4 ppg 4.8 rpg 2.5 apg 1.9 spg
PF Keith Van Horn 52 19.7 ppg 6.6 rpg 1.03 spg 42.6 FG%
C Jayson Williams 18 12.9 ppg 13.6 rpg 0.75 bpg 49.8 FG%
SG Kerry Kittles 89 17.2 ppg 4.7 rpg 2.3 apg 41.8 3FG%
PG Sam Cassell 37 19.6 ppg 8.0 apg 3.0 rpg 1.61 spg

Top Reserves Bench Ranking (out of 29 teams): 4

F Chris Gatling 133 11.5 ppg 5.9 rpg 0.91 spg 45.5 FG%
C Rony Seikaly 168 13.3 ppg 7.0 rpg 0.77 bpg 43.2 FG%
G Eric Murdock[+] 166 6.2 ppg 2.7 apg 1.9 rpg 1.26 spg

1997-98 Record: 43-39 (tied for second in Atlantic)
Coach: John Calipari (third season with Nets)

[+]New acquisition
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 68)

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)