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This Is CourtsCenter

March 08, 2004
March 08, 2004

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March 8, 2004

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This Is CourtsCenter

By the time you realize that a New Jersey Net, retired but still
paid more than $14 million a year, stands accused of fatally
shooting a chauffeur in one of the eight bedroom suites in his
30,000-square-foot estate with what his own lawyer describes as a
"very expensive skeet gun," and of then shedding his Armani suit
pants to bathe in one of his two pools--the indoor, heart-shaped
one--you no longer find remarkable the identity of the witnesses,
four of whom were, it almost goes without saying ... Harlem
Globetrotters.

This is an article from the March 8, 2004 issue Original Layout

The Jayson Williams manslaughter trial--Cribs meets Cops, on
Court TV--is less reality television than surreality television.
The cable network is carrying the trial, in which Williams has
pleaded not guilty, live from Somerville, N.J., and repeatedly
replaying SportsCenter-style highlights of testimony on days the
courtroom is dark. Which is apt in one sense, since the trial,
better than most sports reporting, has brought to startling life
one athlete's wealth, in an age when athletes' salaries have
become an almost meaningless abstraction.

And so, among the 40 rooms of Williams's mansion--which a sign
outside identifies as the WHO KNEW? ESTATE--is at least one
superfluous chamber that a witness and lawyer struggled even to
name. They called it the "room outside the bedroom" and the
"adjoining room" before finally settling on "study," which has a
nice, baronial ring to it.

On Who Knew's 65 acres, as described by defense attorney Billy
Martin, are luxuries within luxuries, as if the counselor--in his
opening statement--kept unscrewing one Faberge egg to find
another nesting inside. The grounds of the Williams estate
contain a working farm, replete with a menagerie of 450 animals
and a barn that Martin described as "huge. It's big enough that
you'll see photographs of at least three vintage cars in there,
and you can't really see the cars."

"There's a little workout room," Martin went on, before
correcting himself. "Not workout room," he said. "A building."
Beyond that, he said, is "a little three-hole golf course.... In
addition to that, you'll see there's a skeet range. In addition
to the skeet range on the property, there's a lacrosse field.
There's the bus for the lacrosse players." (Williams, of course,
owns a professional lacrosse franchise.) And on and on it went,
so that the transcript resembled Neiman Marcus catalog copy.

An actual tour of the grounds was given by Williams on the night
in question to those four witnesses, who are collectively
called--in virtually every reference in the courtroom--"the
Globetrotters." (One of those 'Trotters, Curly [Boo] Johnson,
likewise gets the full-name treatment, each time causing the
viewer to wonder why a man named Curly requires a subsidiary
nickname.)

As circus trials go, then, this one is equal parts circus and
trial: half Barnum & Bailey, half Sacco & Vanzetti. Indeed, as
Court TV covers it and the syndicated show Celebrity Justice
keeps us abreast of entertainment stars in legal peril, it has
become difficult--and pointless--to distinguish the athletes from
the entertainers. A Court TV anchor, understandably addled,
referred last week to Michael Jordan as Michael Jackson.

But then every aspect of human experience is now mere fodder for
entertainment, a notion that was reinforced last week with the
release of a Harris poll of Americans, the results of which
attracted little notice, save for a tiny headline in USA Today.
It read, MOST SUPPORT TELEVISED EXECUTIONS. They do? If this is
true and the majority of citizens would like to see the E! in
their TV listings stand for executions, it is safe to assume that
the televised trial--like the idea of lethal injections on
Lifetime--is more a prurient spectacle than a public service.

Does decency then compel us to turn off such trials? It's a
necessary question to consider, as the courtroom displaces the
locker room as the primary keyhole into the lives of our most
prominent athletes. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, perhaps the best
basketball player in the world, is expected to stand trial on
sexual-assault charges in Colorado. Ravens running back Jamal
Lewis, perhaps the best football player in the world, was charged
last week in Atlanta with intent to distribute cocaine nearly
four years ago. Both maintain their innocence.

Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, perhaps the best baseball player
in the world, has appeared before a grand jury in California
investigating steroid distribution, and his personal trainer,
Greg Anderson, pleaded not guilty last month to charges of
supplying steroids to professional athletes. (Bonds says that
he's never taken steroids.) And of course Mike Tyson, formerly
the best heavyweight boxer in the world, pleaded guilty in a
Brooklyn court last week to disorderly conduct after a 5:30 a.m.
fistfight with two men in a hotel lobby last June. Tyson's
lawyers told The New York Times that the two men had challenged
the ex-champ, saying, "You got fists. We got guns." What Tyson
did in reply was best described by Tyson himself, who told the
judge, "Mike Tyson's conduct was very disorderly."

Whatever these trials are--compelling hybrids, say, of SI and
CSI--they are manifestly not entertainment, but something like
the opposite. Ask the family of 55-year-old Costas (Gus)
Christofi, who died at Who Knew on Valentine's Day 2002. Or, for
that matter, Williams himself. He sat forlornly in court, a cross
pinned to his lapel, as a witness named Dean Bumbaco testified
that the ex-Net had said, as Christofi lay dying, "My God, my
life is over."

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY
The Jayson Williams trial--Cribs meets Cops--is less reality
television than surreality television.