The Road Not Taken Duke guard Jason Williams might have been the first player chosen in the NBA draft, but he decided to stay in school because he figured he still has a lot to learn

November 19, 2001

Althea and David Williams could hear the blandishments aimed at
their only child, the hisses from agents and runners and
self-styled advisers lurking in the tall grass at the fringe of
the hotel ballroom in Minneapolis in which the Duke basketball
team held its NCAA championship after-party. During 18 1/2 years
of parenting, they'd done to their son Jason what few college
defenses have been able to do: steer him, contain him. As the
party continued, however, early on the morning of April 3, Jason
looked ready to split their double team.

Jason, the Blue Devils' point guard, had just concluded the kind
of sophomore season of which declarations for the NBA draft are
made. During an overtime victory in January he'd eclipsed a
10-point Maryland lead almost by himself in the final minute of
regulation. In the NCAA tournament he had chased UCLA from the
NCAA East Regional with 34 points, including a second-half
cadenza of 19 in a row. His jump shot had become so automatic
that one of his teammates, Mike Dunleavy, in defiance of what
players are drilled to do, found himself shifting his weight back
toward his own goal each time Williams launched a three-pointer.
Shane Battier, the Blue Devils' senior leader last season, won
all but one of the major national player of the year awards, but
Williams won the balloting among those who might be presumed to
know best, the coaches.

Nonetheless, back on Feb. 4 Williams had promised to return to
Duke for his junior season. He'd pronounced this "a final
decision." On the eve of the title game he had repeated his vow.
After the Blue Devils' 82-72 defeat of Arizona in the NCAA final,
though, all those statements might be regarded as outdated. Two
of Williams's Duke forerunners, William Avery and Corey Maggette,
had made similar midseason pledges during the 1998-99 season,
only to bolt for the NBA once they'd gotten a whiff of a spring
breeze scented with millions--and neither could claim, as Williams
could, the possibility of being the top pick in the draft or to
have won an NCAA championship.

"We wanted him to enjoy the moment, even though we knew people
horning in on the moment had other agendas," says David. "Not
everyone who's telling you how great you are has your best
interests at heart. The agents were coming and the runners and
exploiters and so-called friends. We wanted to protect him, but
we also knew he had to go through this. So I said to Althea,
'Let's go to bed.'"

In platform shoes and hot pants, crowned by a bountiful Afro,
Althea Bowman was quite a catch when she and David began going
around in 1970. Bluff by nature, she liked to rush in to make
things better, as her Greek first name (meaning: with healing
power) suggests. "Althea has got to touch, got to talk, 24/7,"
David says. "She has always been an entertainer."

David was cool, analytical, every bit the psychology major.
Althea and her girlfriends called him Florida, for he had grown
up in Fort Lauderdale, one of 10 kids. "He was a player," Althea
says, shooting him a look across the living room of their home in
Plainfield, N.J., and across the years. An Ohio player, in fact,
for they hooked up for what would turn out to be the long haul as
undergraduates at Ohio State. "It's like my mom's the lead
horse," Jason says, "and my dad hangs back."

Despite their differing styles, the Williamses have stood
shoulder to parental shoulder in raising Jason. As a systems
development manager for Global Crossing, a fiber-optics
networking company, David makes organization his business. Althea
makes hers education: After 17 years as a guidance counselor she
took the vice-principalship this fall at North Plainfield
High--and we know what it means when the vice principal wants a
word with you. Tough love is love just the same. "I thought I
loved my husband," says Althea, "but when Jason came, it was,
Move over, baby!" Motherhood so engaged her that she used to duck
into the church adjoining Jason's parochial grade school to pray
that she was doing right by her child.

The David in Jason was captain of the chess team at St. Joseph's
High in Metuchen, N.J., and carefully records his athletic goals
in a journal. The Althea in him "listens to you and gives you his
perspective," teammate Carlos Boozer says and, in the words of
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, "loves to play, but really loves to
perform." In other words Jason splits the difference between his
extroverted mom and self-contained dad.

As different as the elder Williamses are, they share at least one
thing. Though only two of Jason's four grandparents finished high
school, David and all nine of his siblings earned college
diplomas, and Althea holds three degrees. "We haven't allowed him
to be complacent," David says of Jason's education. "So if we
need to nudge him...."

"We nudge him," says Althea. "The press presents a picture of
this 20-year-old grown man and forgets to look at the whole
person. Jason is still very naive."

Exhibit A is a clip from the Feb. 3, 2001, issue of Blue Devil
Weekly, in which a reporter asked Jason about his NBA plans. "At
the end of the year, I'll sit down and weigh it all out," he
replied. Wrong answer. Within days of reading that comment,
Althea and David flew to Durham for an audience with Krzyzewski.

All three agreed that Jason was physically ready for the pros. As
Dunleavy says, "Pound for pound, he's the strongest guy I've
played with or against. Look at his wrists. Look at his fingers."
But Krzyzewski believes Williams can improve mentally. Off the
ball, on offense and defense, his mind wanders. He hasn't proved
himself as a leader, a role that last season belonged to Battier.
For all the effectiveness of his short and long games--he'll use
his strength to muscle in layups after headlong drives, or he'll
bottom out three-pointers--he can improve at dishing the ball,
making decisions and shooting from midrange.

To that list of shortcomings, Althea and David add others. Their
son didn't seem to be adapting that well to living on his own.
The first week of the school year, Althea had tried for days to
reach him, only to listen to the phone in his apartment ring and
ring. When Jason finally picked up, he explained that the handset
had been buried under a pile of "stuff."

"That's in a room, what, 12 by 16?" she says. "J says he's got
gnats in his apartment. So I ask him if he took the garbage out.
Uh...no. He says his car won't start. So I ask him if he left
the headlights on. Uh...yeah. David and I laugh. Say, 'Duh.'
But that's why we wanted him to stay. Because at the next level
the challenge isn't basketball. The challenge is lifestyle. You
need to be prepared, honey."

Upon recruiting their son, Krzyzewski had promised Althea and
David that he'd put "all the resources of Duke at Jason's
disposal." So in the meeting after the appearance of the
newspaper article, the elder Williamses called him on it. "We
asked how Jason could get his degree in three years," David says.
"At first Coach K was a little shocked, but we talked
internships, summer school, then brought J in to let him see how
all his goals could be achieved."

If Jason thought otherwise, mom and dad had a lifetime's worth of
I-told-you-so's to support their position. Not least was Althea's
forcible chauffeuring of Jason, then a high school junior, for
six hours through the rain to visit Duke--forcible because Jason
had made up his mind to go to Rutgers, to play with his
summertime buddy Dahntay Jones. Smitten, Jason settled on Duke
right away, and this season he'll suit up with Jones, who two
years ago fled Rutgers as a transfer. So it was that following a
home defeat of Florida State two days after the confab in Coach
K's office, Jason motioned the press over to his locker and
pledged that he would be back for another year.

Given that Williams spent much of the summer after his freshman
year on the road with one of USA Basketball's national teams,
it's astonishing that he'll finish this school year so close to
completing the 34 courses Duke requires to graduate. Last summer
he took four courses, two each in two summer terms. He's taking
five this fall and intends to take another five in the spring.
That would leave him with enough credits to walk at graduation
and only one course to take during the first summer term of 2002
to claim his degree in sociology, which he's determined to do.

In their three-year plan, the Williamses handed Krzyzewski a
revolutionary tool for these times, when big-time colleges must
recruit talent and re-recruit it each spring. "His family's
support had a lot to do with Jason working all this out," says
Chris Kennedy, Duke's associate athletic director for academics.
"Though I don't think we should be offering an accelerated
baccalaureate program for professional basketball players." In
fact, sophomore guard Chris Duhon is also on track to graduate in
three years. The six top 100 high school seniors who have
committed to play for Duke beginning next fall, as well as future
signees, now know that a recruit's wish list--a national title, a
prestigious college degree, early entree to NBA riches--is now
attainable at Duke.

In their summit with Krzyzewski the Williamses added one more
request. "Can we structure his schedule around what's going to
happen to him?" David asked. Thus Williams's transcript contains
a kind of pre-NBA curriculum: a phys-ed offering called
Performance Enhancement, an independent study project devoted to
sports contract law and an anatomy class called the Study of
Lower Extremities, which focuses on the legs and ankles whose
fettle will help determine Williams's success as a pro.

For a sociology course called the Changing American Family,
Williams wrote a paper advancing the theory that players from
single-parent homes are more likely to leave early for the NBA
than those from families with both parents on the scene. He
examined a number of athletes who had faced the decision,
including former Duke star Grant Hill. Last spring, shortly after
completing the paper, theory become practice in the most personal
way.

In the weeks after the party in Minneapolis, Jason had rounds to
make: a victory rally on campus, the Wooden Awards in Los
Angeles, a visit to the White House. He would call home from time
to time, and whenever he'd tell of an encounter with some
love-ya-baby remora, Althea and David wanted to know if the
meddler had tried to sway him from his decision. "Did he holler
at you?" they'd ask.

Plenty did. The holler guys told him his parents weren't letting
him cash a $17 million lottery ticket (i.e., the rookie minimum
of $3 million a year for three years for the NBA's top pick, plus
the $2 million a year for four years that one shoe company was
prepared to offer). While en route to L.A., Jason fell briefly
out of touch with his parents, and, as if to prove their point
that he wasn't mature enough for the pros, he showed up at the
Raleigh-Durham airport without the I.D. required at check-in.
Only after Battier, who would win the Wooden Award, produced a
Duke media guide from his carry-on bag did the gate agent let
Jason board the flight.

Even before Jason returned to Plainfield, to the Duke-blue house
with black shutters, in late April, David knew he and Althea had
more work to do. "I said, 'Althea, here it comes!'"

When Jason divulged his second thoughts, each parent responded
according to type. David calmly reminded him that he'd made a
commitment. Althea shed tears. Both had an effect on Jason,
though one of his friends has no doubt which parent was the more
affecting: "He told me, 'I can't fight my mother's tears. That's
one thing I'm not prepared to do.'"

Nor did he want to have to face Krzyzewski. Today, when Williams
explains why he stayed, he echoes Krzyzewski with ventriloquistic
precision. "Just because you run the race differently doesn't
mean you won't wind up in the same place," Williams says. "You
don't see many guys who win a title and can be the No. 1 pick
decide to stay, but I want to be different. I have a chance to
graduate in three years and win another national title. That
would be different."

David believes he knows the reason for Jason's wobbling in his
resolve at the end: "It's because he likes to please people."

"There he goes again, analyzing," says Althea. "I live with Mr.
Spock."

"I'm an Aries." He shrugs. "She's a Scorpio."

"Fire and water," she says with a smile. "Mental versus
emotional."

"But where we're similar is we both get satisfaction in seeing
things get done," he says. "That's the challenge for Jason. 'I
can do that! Let me show you!' And that he gets from both of
us."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER GREGOIRE COVER COLLEGE BASKETBALL PREVIEW Back-to-School Issue JASON WILLIAMS returns to No. 1 Duke for one more year COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Williams almost single-handedly beheaded Maryland (left) in a furious last-minute rally and took out UCLA with 34 points and four assists. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE Williams originally wanted to go to Rutgers to play with Jones (near right), but now that Jones has transferred, they've been reunited at Duke. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER GREGOIRE Both David and Althea argued that their son should stay in school, but Jason knows who swayed him the most: "I can't fight my mother's tears," he says.

Krzyzewski thinks Williams, for all his strengths, can still
IMPROVE HIS PASSING, decision-making and jump shot.

"You don't see many guys stay who win a title and can be the top
pick," says Jason. "I WANT TO BE DIFFERENT."

"The press presents this picture of a 20-year-old grown man,"
says Althea. "BUT JASON IS STILL VERY NAIVE."

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