Jayson Williams’ All-Star memories
Updated: February 15, 2015, 5:20 PM ET
By Ohm Youngmisuk | ESPNNewYork.com
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Seventeen years ago at Madison Square Garden, Jayson Williams played in his only All-Star Game.
NEW YORK — When the All-Star Game returns to Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, Jayson Williams will watch like many will around the country — from home on his flat-screen television.
Seventeen years ago, though, Williams had the best seat in the house when the 1998 All-Star Game was last played at The World’s Most Famous Arena.
Williams played for the East in what was his first — and only — All-Star appearance. And oh, the stories Williams can tell to this day about that game.
He remembers how he and the entire Garden gasped when a brash 19-year-old named Kobe Bryant had the audacity to wave off teammate Karl Malone so that he could dare challenge His Airness Michael Jordan.
“I remember everybody going, ‘Nobody tells Karl Malone to get off the block!'” Williams said. “He has his hands up, you give him the ball. I was like, ‘Whoa! This dude is the most arrogant person I have ever met in my life.'”
Williams also remembers how everybody thought that game was the passing of the torch from Jordan to youngsters like Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. That draws a patented joke from Williams, who could deliver punch lines almost as well as he could rebound.
“I don’t think MJ would pass anything to Kobe,” Williams said. “Might pass him a stick of dynamite!”
What Williams also remembers thinking was how his career appeared to be on the verge of blowing up. That All-Star Game was supposed to be the first of many. From 1995 to 1999, Williams hauled in 12.2 rebounds a game, and he signed a six-year, $86 million contract with the Nets in 1999. He was an elite rebounder on an up-and-coming team.
Unfortunately for Williams, his career abruptly ended not long after signing that deal when he shattered his leg in a collision with teammate Stephon Marbury on April 1, 1999.
Without basketball, Williams’ life unraveled, eventually resulting in charges in the 2002 shotgun death of a limo driver in his mansion and a two-year stay in prison.
“Because with no structure comes destruction for me,” Williams said. “That is why I get up every day now and I am at a soup kitchen or a school or at a jail talking and telling kids what not to do and what should they do, because if I don’t have a structure, same thing can end up happening and I can get reckless. And when you get reckless, bad things happen.”
“As soon as I broke my leg … [an analyst job with NBC] didn’t take up enough of my time,” he added. “And then what happens is you get people who might have a couple of drinks here and there and then you get people who don’t have your best interests for you. And then I got reckless handling shotguns, and I did a cowardly thing by trying to cover it up. I went to jail. I apologized from the bottom of my heart thousands of times.”
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Williams was released in 2012 after serving a combined 26 months in jail.
Since his release from jail in 2012 — time served from a drunken driving charge in New York and the charges stemming from the death of Costas “Gus” Christofi — Williams has been trying to rebuild his life. He has remained busy working with his charity foundation and talking to youth and visiting detention centers and prisons around the New York and New Jersey area, making what he estimates to be an average of 12 appearances a week.
And almost everywhere he goes, he is either introduced or referred to as All-Star basketball player Jayson Williams thanks to that game at the Garden 17 years ago.
Once he was named an All-Star alongside the likes of Grant Hill, Shawn Kemp, Dikembe Mutombo, Penny Hardaway and Reggie Miller, the former New Jersey Net rebounding machine was the toast of New York City in February 1998.
Williams, who grew up on the Lower East Side and overcame family tragedy — losing two sisters to AIDS — while starring at Christ the King High School, at St. John’s and then in New Jersey, was being pulled in every direction during All-Star week.
He says he made at least 30 appearances and didn’t sleep a wink.
“Everything from bar mitzvahs to night clubs to going to hospitals to see some kids, it was crazy!” Williams recalled. “The city was on fire. It was like New York at Christmastime. Ever notice New York around Christmastime around Rockefeller Center and Macy’s? Everyone was so nice.”
So when Sunday finally came, Williams was like a kid ready to unwrap his presents, racing to the Garden and beating all his teammates there.
When he walked into the Eastern Conference All-Star locker room, only East coach Larry Bird was there to greet him.
Before Williams tells you about his memorable exchange with Bird, he has to give you the background story of his first encounter with Bird in classic Williams’ storytelling fashion.
During Williams’ rookie season in Philadelphia in 1990-91, the power forward got a chance to play against the former Celtics legend. Williams remembers Bird abusing each Sixers forward one-by-one.
“Charles Barkley had a long night,” Williams recounts of his Sixers teammate. “We had just played Michael Jordan the night before.
“As soon as the game started, Larry Bird looks at him and hits a 3 and goes, ‘Hey, buddy, if you are going to play me, you better sleep nights.’ Boom! Charles puts his hand up to come out of the game.”
Williams asked to go in, but he had to wait his turn. Veteran journeyman Armen Gilliam was the next Sixer up.
“The first thing Larry Bird says to Armen is, ‘Oh, you found another team, huh? You can’t find a cure for that color blindness,'” Williams says. “Because Armen Gilliam was colorblind. People think that is why he didn’t pass the ball out of the post, because he was selfish. No, he couldn’t see the jerseys that was on the other team. That’s a true story. So [Bird] was destroying Armen Gilliam.”
Gilliam was soon subbed out for Rick Mahorn.
“So he goes in, and Larry is talking smack to him too,” Williams said. “After he destroys Rick Mahorn, he is trotting backward and he looks over at me and at the coach and says, ‘Hey, Coach, put in the f—ing rookie! And I say, ‘Yeah, Coach, put me in!'”
That is one of the few times I have ever been scared to do anything. I am scared to go to prison and scared of Larry Bird.
– Jayson Williams
An exasperated Jim Lynam finally points to the eager rookie to go in.
“I go right up to Bird, he pump fakes, and I jump, my feet are over his head,” an excited Williams recollects. “I come back down, and he says, ‘Take that, rookie.’ A 3-pointer. I was like, ‘oh s—.’
“We go down next play. I say I am not going to jump [on a ball fake]. Boom! [Bird] raises up, another 3-pointer. He says, ‘Hey, I am shaking you from too far out, huh? You’re a post player? Come take some of this.’
“He did a jump hook on me then did a reverse on me, and then he dunked on me and he had like 14 points,” Williams continues. “So I ran up to him and said, ‘You want to fight, you son of a bitch? You want to fight?’ He just looked at the ref and said, ‘Get this rookie away from me.'”
And according to Williams, that was just the first half. Williams said he had tasted enough of Bird.
“In the second half, he’s tearing up Charles Barkley, Armen Gilliam and Rick Mahorn,” Williams said. “So when he comes down toward the bench, he starts looking at me and the coach starts looking at me. And I start looking to the stands for my friends. I did not want to go back in.
“That is one of the few times I have ever been scared to do anything. I am scared to go to prison and scared of Larry Bird.”
Which brings us back to 1998 and the East locker room where only Williams and Bird are hours before the All-Star Game tips off.
“I say, ‘Hey, Coach, how are you doing?'” Williams recounts. “And he takes a long pause and goes, ‘Your minutes [plan for the game] are on the refrigerator.'”
After a long pause, Williams says the words Bird said that he will never forget.
“‘You f—ing rookie,'” Williams said Bird told him.
“I said, ‘Holy s—!’ He remembered!” Williams bellows while laughing. “It was like a Clint Eastwood movie the way he said it.”
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Williams recorded four points and 10 rebounds in the East’s All-Star Game win in New York City.
Williams had only really planned to enjoy his first All-Star experience and soak up the Garden atmosphere. But Indiana Pacers and All-Star assistant coach Dick Harter changed that by telling Williams what he needed to do to help the East win.
“He pulled me to the side and said, ‘Look, the difference between winning this game and losing this is about $20,000,” Williams said of what Harter said to him. “‘I promised my wife a vacation in Mexico. I want to win. If you get 10 rebounds today, we will win.'”
“The only pressure I had on me was I was still a little shook by the ‘rookie’ statement from Bird and I had to get 10 rebounds,” Williams added. “There aren’t many misses in an All-Star Game.”
Fortunately for Williams, Bryant, Eddie Jones, Vin Baker and Nick Van Exel missed nine or more shots each for the West. Williams reached his goal in 19 minutes, grabbing 10 rebounds to go with four points in a 135-114 East win.
“I looked over to the bench, and [Harter] gave me the wink,” Williams said of when he knew he had grabbed his 10th rebound.
But what turned out to be more difficult than grabbing 10 rebounds in an All-Star Game is getting a shot attempt, especially for a big man with a limited offensive repertoire like Williams.
“[East teammate] Rik Smits said to me, ‘Man, you are working this game like it is a real game,'” Williams recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, man, they want me to get 10 rebounds.’ He said if you get 10 rebounds, I will get you a pass. So Rik Smits got a rebound, throws the ball all the way down the floor and set me up for a tomahawk dunk.
“It took a 7-foot-4 Dutchman center to get me the ball in the All-Star Game,” cracks Williams. “I was going to tear that rim down. We are friends to this day just because of that pass.”
To this day, Williams is known for many things, most notably his tragic and fatal mistake and how so much fell apart in his life not long after that All-Star Game. But many people he encounters today refer to him as “All-Star” — something he earned 17 years ago and will remember fondly Sunday night.
“When I walk in my neighborhood, certain people call me ‘J-Dub,’ but most of the people just call me ‘All-Star,'” Williams said. “In the neighborhood I play pickup in on Thursday nights, when they pick the teams, they say, ‘You got the All-Star.’
“So many times, I bounced that basketball at 134 Park,” Williams adds of where he grew up playing, “believing I was going to be an NBA All-Star.”