Saturday, February 5, 2011

Better Know A Knickerbocker: A Shawne Williams Story

As I wrote recently, a key factor in the Knicks' win over the Miami Heat last week was the defense played on LeBron James. With Chris Bosh sidelined due to an ankle injury, LBJ started at the four, allowing the Knicks to defend him LBJ the a bevvy of 'bockers measuring 6 foot 7 and up instead of Wilson Chandler (or Quentin Richardson). Going back to his very first game at the Garden, I don't know if I've ever seen him so tentative. He held the ball, not knowing whether to face up or back his defender down. Invariably he seemed to make the wrong decision. Some of his errant shots can likely be chalked up to my booming chants of DEE-FENSE him having a rare off night, but a lot of the credit goes to my booming chants of DEE-FENSE the guys defending him.

Among the handful of rangy defenders that matched up with James, comeback kid Shawne Williams distinguished himself. Previously used as a shooter off the bench, Williams was shockingly poised and stone faced, not leaving his feet for ball fakes or laughing at James' free-throw line witticisms, and strong, not letting James overpower him in the paint or freight train through him on the perimeter. After the game, when asked about Williams' performance, Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni made it clear that he was not surprised.

"If you know Shawne's background, I don't think he's going to be intimidated. That's not going to be a problem," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said with a laugh. "He's coming at you. And I like that about him."

D'Antoni's words proved fortuitous, as just one night later Williams was ejected for getting embroiled in a scuffle with Marvin Williams of the Atlanta Hawks (no relation) in the waning moments of the Knicks' momentum-halting loss last Friday night.

The Hawks' Williams shoved our Williams in the back and he just wasn't going to let that aggression stand, man. Sort of like the time, he got in Ron Artest's face when the Knicks went to Los Angeles earlier this season. Not once in the history of Artest-related violence, has anyone looked as nonplussed to have Ron Ron's hand around his throat.

As D'Antoni said after the win over the South Beach SuperFriends, this dude ain't going to be intimidated by nobody, Queensbridge or no Queensbridge. Although the Williams-Williams brouhaha is more recent, I think that Artest bump-and-choke speaks even more to D'Antoni's point. That was Williams' first start of the season, and his first start since March 26, 2008 when he was a second-year player with the Indiana Pacers. Yet, here he was in Los Angeles, playing the world champions, and making it clear not even halfway through the first quarter that he wasn't taking any shit from anyone. And he certainly wasn't going to let a hard foul against one his teammates pass lightly. When the so-called baddest dude in the game tried to push past him after being whistled for a foul, Williams brushed Artest's arm off his chest and got in his face. And ... wait for it ... cue the hand to the throat.

This sort of behavior can be sold as fearlessness or recklessness. As a Knicks fan, I want to buy the former. But I don't doubt that those who have followed Williams' tumultuous career have good reason to think it's the latter.

Most Knicks fans first heard about Williams before this season got underway during training camp. He was competing with the not-nearly-as-good son, Patrick Ewing Jr., for the last spot on the roster. Williams earned the spot, but remained shackled to the Knicks' bench in the early going. He didn't get any run until the 'bockers 18th game of the season at Detroit, it was the second night of a home-road, back-to-back stretch in which the second game went to double overtime.

The second time that most Knicks fans heard about Williams was likely 10 days before that game in Detroit when he got into a fight with fellow reserve Bill Walker during a practice in San Francisco. According to Alan Hahn at Newsday:
"Bill Walker caught [Shawne Williams] with a hard foul early in a post-practice scrimmage here at The Olympic Club on Thursday, Williams got up and went right after Walker, furious with the overzealous foul. The players had to be separated and Williams had to be restrained by two teammates, including Eddy Curry, as he clearly wanted a piece of Walker, who glared back. It took a few minutes for his emotions to cool and when the game resumed, Walker went right next to Williams to guard him again. But the remainder of the game went without incident.”
Whether by fisticuff or by finesse, D'Antoni started calling Williams' number after that game in Detroit. After getting on the floor just long enough for a cup of coffee in the next game against the Nets, Williams found himself playing key minutes at New Orleans less than a week after his season debut. He went 3 of 4 from three-point range and 5 of 7 overall with four boards, an assist, a steal and a block in the key road victory. Williams was then a flawless 4 for 4 from deep in the Knicks' next game against Toronto. He followed that up with a stellar 3 for 4 in the game after that against Minnesota.

Out of the blue (and orange), Williams had established himself as a key member of D'Antoni's tight rotation (perhaps not coincidentally at Walker's expense) and one of the most accurate long-distance marksmen of the young season. Although Williams' emergence occurred during Amar'e Stoudemire's powerhouse run of 30-point games, when opposing defenses were sagging into the paint any time STAT was on the floor, there was no denying the sweetness of his stroke or his steely, rebar-reinforced confidence. All of a sudden, Knicks fans (notably, my brother) were asking, "Where did this guy came from?"

Memphis, Tennessee. Born and raised.

Williams arrived on campus at the University of Memphis in the autumn of 2005, a year in which the River City had ranked No. 2 in the FBI's violent crime rankings. On the court, the Tigers looked promising under head coach John Calipari. Williams joined a team stocked with talented players, including Rodney Carney, Joey Dorsey, Darius Washington and Chris Douglas-Roberts.

Memphis reached the semi-finals of the preseason NIT in November 2005, earning a trip to Madison Square Garden. Williams exploded for 26 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists in the semi to lead his team past UCLA. In just his third collegiate contest, the freshman was 7 of 7 from the field and 5 for 5 from three-point territory, impressing Bruins coach Ben Howland.

"We knew he's a very good player," Howland said. "At least three of those 3's were from NBA range."

Fellow Memphian, and then Knickerbocker, Anfernee Hardaway was in the crowd when Memphis took on Duke in the finals of the tournament. That Duke squad featured seniors Shelden Williams and J.J. Reddick. Williams netted a team-high 15 points and 8 boards in 23 minutes, but Duke prevailed by three points after he missed a three in the waning moments. Although Coach K's Blue Devils were crowned champions of the preseason NIT, it was Coach Cal's precocious homegrown prodigy who was the breakout star.

Four games into his college career and Williams was already getting national pub. Needless to say, Dicky V would proclaim him a top-flight "Diaper Dandy." He would eventually be named the Conference USA Freshman of the year as well as take home MVP honors at the Conference USA Tournament, where he averaged 18 points and nearly 7 rebounds. Memphis entered the Big Dance with a school-best 30-3 record. They were awarded a No. 1 seed and advanced to the Elite Eight before falling to that same UCLA squad that Williams had bested at the Garden in November.

Not only did Memphis' Tigers climb the NCAA polls during the 2005-2006 season but the city itself ascended to the top spot in those FBI violent crimes rankings. After being a pistol-packing bridesmaid a year earlier, Memphis was No. 1 with a bullet in 2006. Among the statistics being buried in Memphis was someone who had been sitting in the crowd at the Garden for that preseason NIT final against Duke. No, not Penny. Williams' older brother, Ramone, was there that night, and he would be gunned down within a year's time. When Williams found out that he had made the Knicks this year, he couldn't help but think about how the Garden was the last place that his brother saw him play.

Having already toyed with the idea of going straight to the NBA after high school, it was no surprise when Williams entered the 2006 NBA draft after his standout freshman season. Another city kid, Pacers GM Donnie Walsh, made him the No. 17 overall pick in a draft headlined by Italian center Andrea Bargnani, Texas' Lamarcus Aldridge, LSU's Tyrus Thomas, Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, Washington's Brandon Roy and the pair of standout seniors from Duke.

In his first professional game, Williams scored 13 points on 6 for 9 shooting. The rookie was long, strong and supremely talented. Many of Williams' highlights from his early efforts with the Pacers were compiled by someone tagged as Patrys15 on Youtube. When selecting the soundtrack to mixtape, Patrys15 chose Cypress Hill's "Street Wars." Here are some of the lyrics:
"As a kid, I was known, son of a thug
Snub-nosed .38 in the glove, who can relate with us?
Never had an easy life, shit's way out
Clips spray out, fools pay out or play out
Any scenario, been there, done that
Gone where some of y'all niggaz, couldn't come back
Been through the hottest parts of hell
Came back with a hard shell and, hard as nails"
That video was posted shortly after the 2007-2008 season, Williams' sophomore NBA outing. The song choice had no doubt been inspired by the reputation that Williams had been earning off the court. I'm going to assume that fellow members of the 2006 draft class like Bargnani, Roy and Reddick don't have a Cypress-scored highlight reels or a brief biographical videos titled Strictly for the Streets (A Shawne Williams Story) posted by persons with handles like GangstaWalking. Shortly before that '07-'08 campaign got underway, Williams was busted for pot possession in Indianapolis. One passenger in his car at the time of the arrest was also nicked for possession, while the other passenger was found to have a stolen handgun. In February 2008, a murder suspect was arrested shortly after leaving Williams' home in Tennessee.

The few newspaper stories that I can dig up about Williams's troubles intimate that he lived the stereotypical Iversonian lifestyle in which some friends from South Memphis had come along with him to Indy, keeping the recently-minted millionaire neck deep in trouble. An attempt had been made to scrape those BFF barnacles off Williams during his senior year in high school when he had been sent out of Memphis to attend a prep school in North Carolina (where his prep team went 40-0 that year). Likewise, when it came time to choose a college, the coach at his first high school in Memphis, felt that Williams would be better off if he left his hometown in order to escape the folks he'd grown up with. This opinion was quite unpopular in a downtrodden community that wanted to keep Williams local for reasons likely selfish and supportive.

But those hometown ties were never severed and Williams increasingly found himself running afoul of the law and his NBA employers. With his friends continuing to get into trouble in Indianapolis, Williams was traded to Dallas on the eve of the 2008-2009 season. His career continued to implode with the Mavericks. Ultimately, he was exiled from the team with pay during the '08-'09 season because Mark Cuban's American Airlines Arena Plumbers and local law enforcement didn't like what they were hearing.

Likely as no surprise to the front offices in Indianapolis and Dallas, Williams was indicted on drug charges in early January 2010. Dallas promptly traded Williams to the New Jersey Nets, who waived him on the same day that he turned himself in to local law enforcement. Williams had been nabbed as part of a seven-month investigation in Memphis known as "Operation Lockdown." Memphis police spokesperson Karen Rudolph said that the investigation disrupted a "significant" drug trafficking organization. Facing eight counts of drug charges, he pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors, including possession and conspiracy to possess hydrocodone, a codeine-based cough syrup. For those of you not plugged into the drug scene in the south, codeine is the key ingredient in "sizzurp" or "purple drank." Perhaps Lil Wayne's "Me and My Drank" would have been even more apropos for that highlight video.

With his career in tatters and his freedom in doubt, Williams was hauled in front of Judge James Beasley Jr. in Memphis, who like just about everyone in his hometown knew all about his talent and his trespasses.

“You’ve got one skill, one God-given ability, and you’re doing everything you can to throw it away,” Beasley Jr. told Williams, according to The Commercial Appeal.

Despite paying him a salary of $2,416,067 last season, the Nets didn't want anything to do with him. Not only was he repeat offender but he'd also let himself go physically. And while there may be some leeway in the Association for All-Star outlaws, there is none for fat felons. To make matters worse, Williams was charged with driving with a suspended license over the summer. A passenger was caught with marijuana and a handgun.

When there seemed nowhere to go but back to Memphis, Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown, a friend of Williams' college coach, invited him to participate in the Orlando summer league with the Bobcats. He got enough run and showed that not all his talent had atrophied to earn an invite to the Cats' training camp. He also got an invite from the GM who had drafted him in the first place. Perhaps feeling like he owed Walsh after his flameout in Indy or thinking that Charlotte was too close to his cohorts in Memphis, Williams turned up at Knicks camp to fight for the last spot on the roster.

Speaking with Dime shortly after breaking into the Knicks' rotation in early December, Williams reflected on his path back to the NBA. "I had to make a life change. I had to leave everything alone that I was doing and the people I was hanging with. I mean, I knew I wasn’t doing the right thing because I wasn’t in the League. I needed that time to be my myself and just focus on basketball.

"I know people out there have probably written me off, but I have people who haven’t written me off," he said. "I have a good supporting cast. I’m not gonna get into saying too much, I just have to show by my actions — how I walk and how I talk. I just wanna go out there and play ball. Judge me for playing basketball."

For the time being, I'm willing to play along. Judged solely on his on-court contributions to this team, Williams has been a godsend for a Knickerbockers squad that has been short on guards and bigs thanks to irrellevancy of shooting guards Kelena Azubuke and Roger Mason, Jr. and centers Eddy Curry and Timofey Mozgov. With his rare combination of size and range, he's not only tailor-made to address this roster's shortcomings but he's also a perfect fit to spread the floor in D'Antoni's offense.

It's not too often that a team can scoop up a player with lottery-pick talent who has yet to celebrate his 25th birthday. And when you do, you can be sure that the player comes with as many off-court issues as on-court assets. If he can manage to walk the straight and narrow on the wide streets of Manhattan than it would seem that he could make it anywhere. If Williams can keep sinking shots and playing with controlled ferocity (and survive the inevitable trades that shake up the roster) then perhaps his career retrospective on Youtube could eventually be backed by Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York."