For such a charismatic showman, it was a humble return. The Jayson Williams Rehab Tour kicked off quietly on Jan. 12 in front of 2,367 fans in Nampa, Idaho, as the gregarious former NBA All-Star and NBC analyst scored two points and had four rebounds in his first pro game in nearly six years. Earlier that day Williams signed with the CBA's Idaho Stampede, a move he hopes will lead to an NBA deal--even as he awaits retrial on a charge of reckless manslaughter in the 2002 death of chauffeur Costas Christofi.
"He's absolutely determined [to return to the NBA]," says Milton Lee, a trainer who has been working with Williams over the past year. "He's in tremendous shape. He's turning 37 [next month], but he's out there tomahawk jamming like he's one of the younger guys." Said Williams in a statement, "NBA teams want assurances that I am ... able to deal with rigors of daily competition. [The CBA] will provide me this opportunity."
Williams, who left his 65-acre estate in New Jersey for an apartment complex outside Boise, chose the Stampede partly because his friend, former Sonics coach George Karl is a part owner. "This is not a publicity stunt but an effort to make the team better," says Stampede president John Brunelle. "We're prepared for some negative response. But we've gotten more positive response from season-ticket holders for trying to improve the team." In the two games--both wins--since his debut Williams has averaged 14 points and eight rebounds.
Williams has been practicing rigorously since being acquitted of manslaughter last April. (The jury was hung on the reckless manslaughter charge; his retrial begins in March, and he faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted. He also faces up to five years after being found guilty of attempting to cover up his involvement in Christofi's death; sentencing will be after the retrial.) He has been taking yoga, Pilates and spinning classes as well as kung fu. Last summer he played four days a week with NBA players, including Clippers forward Elton Brand in New York City. According to Lee a half-dozen NBA teams have already expressed interest in Williams, who retired in 2000 after breaking his leg. At least one coach thinks his comeback could bear fruit. "Jayson is a specialty player, a defender and rebounder," says Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. "Sometimes that works out better than if somebody wants to come back as a scorer. But Jayson is going to have to be successful there. He can't just put in time and expect to get back to the NBA." --Albert Chen