An Unconventional Love of Jason Williams

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The year was 2005. Green Day was on Holiday, your LiveStrong bracelet is starting to tear, and you have the latest Razor phone. A big 3 of Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, and Steve Nash are bound for a title. 

Their quest began with a first round matchup with the 8 seeded Memphis Grizzlies, headlined by Pau Gasol. What turned out to be an easy sweep for the Suns was a crossroads moment for the Beale Street Bears.

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That summer, the Grizzlies participated in the all-time, biggest trade in NBA history. This five team, 13 player deal landed Jason “White Chocolate” Williams in South Beach. I was enthralled by the historic nature of the deal, but I was heartbroken to see an incredible floor general exiled from the Volunteer State.

Growing up an hour from Memphis, I was no stranger to Williams’ game. Jason was that old-school, prototypical point man. He was pass first. He could spread the floor with his sweet shooting stroke. He had the poise and wisdom to know when to push the pace and when to slow things down.

What made Jason Williams great and what made me fall in love with him as a kid was his swagger. The Grizzlies boasted only one truly elite offensive player, which made Williams that much more valuable. He lived up to his nickname with his flashy, no look passes and his “I don’t care that I’m 6’1 and 180 lbs, I’m coming at you hard anyways” attitude. He was the motor for the Grizzlies for years, and yet, the Memphis front office would look to move our hero.

Everybody loves a bad boy. 

Well, not everyone apparently. 

Williams fits the bill of a bad boy. Coming from DuPont, West Virginia, Williams began his college career at Marshall and then finished at Florida. Why the change? 

Williams is a coach’s player. He verbally agreed to attend Providence College but backed out because of a coaching change. He left Marshall to follow his coach, Billy Donovan, when Donovan left Marshall to coach at Florida. 

Although he is loyal this coaches, he wasn’t quite so loyal to staying on the straight and narrow. He was suspended for a chunk of his final season at Florida for a third infraction with marijuana. Even the most golden of boys can’t always evade the glow of sweet Mary Jane. Williams danced with her sporadically for years following this suspension.

He was suspended, yet Williams managed to be drafted by the Sacramento Kings with the 7th overall pick in the 1998 NBA draft. Williams seemed to rub many the wrong way everywhere he went. 

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You know what else happened most everywhere he went? He’d start or play starter minutes. He’d average over 10 ppg and 5 apg for the majority of his career. Moreover, he averaged at least one steal a game for most of his career. The guy was nothing but consistent. The Kings moved on, but they would never label him a bust.

Back to that incredible, historically large trade that brought Williams to Miami. He helped complete a roster that included Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Udonis Haslem, Gary Payton... a deep roster that boasted multiple Hall of Fame caliber players. 

Who was the man running the point? No, it wasn’t Gary Payton. Jason Williams started over a hall of famer. Williams was the perfect compliment to a star-studded starting five. 

He distributed. He stretched the floor. He was fearless. He was unselfish. He was himself. That was the real reason he won that job over Payton.

Williams and the Heat took down everyone on their path to the lone championship for Williams in 2006. This was, in many ways, the pinnacle for Williams, who looked like the answer for the foreseeable future. 

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However, things were never the same. After the 07-08 season, he signed with the Orlando Magic and retired in early September due to persistent injuries. He returned to the NBA and into the arms of Stan Van Gundy (see again his loyalty to coaches). Williams did an admirable job as a backup but couldn’t recapture the magic he had with the Heat. In 2011, more injury troubles and a body that was betraying him had him back in Memphis after being granted a release from Orlando. He retired later that year.

Like many of you, I grew up with a ball and a hoop in my driveway. If I wasn’t lowering the goal to work on my trick dunks, I was fantasizing of one day making it big and winning my first NBA title. Most kids dreamed of being the next Michael Jordan. Some wanted to be the next Kobe. 

Me? I wanted to be Jason Williams. Criticize younger me all you want, that just gives younger me that Williams-esque chip on my shoulder. It makes younger me more like him: ready to put you on the wrong side of SportCenter’s top 10. 

Jason Williams-type players are a dying breed in today’s NBA. He had the handles, the range, the swagger, the vision, and the selflessness everyone craves in a floor general. 

I salute you, Jason Williams. Thank you for the assist.

Kevin Pugh