For A Time, He Could Outshine Them All
Dec. 02, 1996
He was only the second-best basketball player ever to wear No. 23. But anybody who saw the pro game take flight in New York in the mid-1970s will remember John Williamson as the first real talent from those days to crash and burn.
His career ended 16 years ago, but the past tense became appropriate only Saturday, when years of abuse and the kidney problems that claimed his mother, two sisters and a brother finally claimed him. Williamson was 44.
As befits someone who carried the nickname ``Super,'' the obituary in sports sections referred to him as a ``flashy guard'' who helped the Nets win two championships in the old ABA. But that doesn't tell enough of the story.
He was a curious mix of gifts. Williamson only lasted eight seasons, yet he impressed people enough to get his number put up in the rafters. No shooter ever had so little conscience. Few men who could be that cold on a court could be as tender away from it.
Williamson was flashy, all right. He had to be, given the times. When he arrived in New York in 1973, notice was hard to come by. Even though the game was taking off, there were still only so many pro basketball fans, even in the media capital of the world. The Nets already were competing with a Knicks team that was coming off a second NBA championship in four seasons and featured its own pair of flashy guards _ Earl ``The Pearl'' Monroe and Walt ``Clyde'' Frazier. And to make matters tougher, Williamson was competing for attention on his own team with Julius ``Dr. J'' Erving and Larry ``Mr. K.'' Kenon.
But he came prepared. Williamson grew up in a tough neighborhood in nearby New Haven, Conn., during tough times. He was used to fighting for things.
``He never backed down from anything and he always wanted to take the big shot,'' retired Nets trainer Fritz Massman recalled. ``He thrived on that.''
It wasn't the only thing Williamson thrived on. It was no secret that he liked to celebrate and knew how to _ maybe too well.
Williamson was a kid with a good heart, but he required round-the-clock supervision. He was a three-time All-State selection at Cross High, where he played for a benevolent dictator named Bob Saulsbury. Then he went west to play for Lou Henson at New Mexico State. Williamson and freedom were rarely a good mix. He left the program after three years, a half-step ahead of the NCAA.
A bad reputation preceded him in the draft. The Atlanta Hawks didn't take a flyer until the eighth round, so Williamson went to the Nets' camp as a free agent instead. He became the perfect compliment for the high-octane, high-flying circus the ABA was selling. Erving would soar and dunk. Kenon would soar and dunk. Then rookie would take over the show.
Williamson looked like a pure scorer when he set up outside, but at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, he had a little Barkleyesque mischief in him, too. Williamson might start a run of 10 straight points with a few short jumpers, then move the defender down to the baseline and pound in a few layups. Suddenly, the Nets had a title and he had rookie of the year honors.
Williamson didn't mind showing people up, but that was never the point. He used to stage an exhibition every summer at an inner-city gym in New Haven to raise money for a scholarship program. Sometimes Dr. J and Kenon and Monroe and Frazier would show. And even though he was busy looking after the arrangements, when it was time to play offense, Williamson could outshine them all.
A friend in New Haven remembered this story: A few years back, a few of the Nets were involved in making the movie, ``The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.'' One particular scene called for a player to make a jump shot from the corner. The scene required 15 takes. Williamson made every shot but one.
Unfortunately, real life didn't go as smoothly. The Nets became part of the NBA. Erving was traded. Then Williamson was traded to Indianapolis and then reacquired. When he returned, a few of the guys at the end of the bench were making more money than he was. He got bad advice. He lost interest. He pouted, then ate his way out of a starting job. Then he ate his way out of the league. The run was over with the same suddenness with which it began.
Williamson wound up back in New Haven, back in a two-flat in the same tough neighborhood where he'd began. He'd spent most of what he made and got a job working with the city counseling kids about abuse. The last six years, he was hooked to a dialysis machine. He didn't complain.
``He was one hell of a player, a good player,'' Massman, the Nets trainer said. ``He was tough.''
He was. But he could have been more.