By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
There are only two players in the gym. Practice ended an hour ago, and the others have long since left. These two, Walt Williams and Adrian Griffin, loiter beyond the three-point line arcing shot after shot toward the net. The sound of balls bouncing against the hardwood resonates off the walls. You can hear Williams, too. There's some urgency in his voice.
"How many you got now?" Williams asks. "What? How many? Damn."
They're playing a little game, just the two of them--shooting three-balls in a best three-outta-five contest. Winner gets bragging rights for 24 hours. Williams is the braggart more often than not. He's got a smooth shot, if a little awkward. He staggers his feet and readies the ball over his head and barely jumps. Between the slow motion and the high socks, he looks like a middle-aged lawyer on lunch break at the Y. Damn if he isn't effective, though.
But his shot isn't falling today. Griffin, a forward whose career three-point percentage is a modest 29.7, smiles. It's over. He's beaten Williams and lets him hear about it as he heads off to shower.
"Aw, man, usually I kill these guys, man," Williams says. He's sweating and smiling and shaking his head. "My first two games, I let him get hot...you know what? I let him win. I don't just play basketball; I inspire these young kids."
He's laughing now. This is fun to him, having his balls busted by Griffin and clowning around. He's enjoying the whole scene because it wasn't long ago when basketball was bleaker, a time when there were jokes, but they were mostly on him.
Before he could get to this point, before he became an integral part of the Mavericks by coming off the bench and providing more than just offense, he had to be humbled. He played for the Houston Rockets from '99 through last season. It wasn't the most ideal situation--the first year there he started; by last season he was mainly a reserve. Yet he wanted to stay in Houston because he'd made his home there and, after playing for four other squads, there was something to be said for familiarity.
In professional sports, the surest path to heartbreak is attachment. Before he knew it, the Rockets were waving goodbye, unreceptive to the idea of re-signing the 10-year vet.
"I enjoyed my time in Houston," Williams says without rancor. "I liked it down there, the city and the people, my teammates. But I felt like, with who they drafted and who they picked up, the new people, I figured that I wasn't going to be there this year. I mean, it bothered me, yeah, it did. I felt like I could still play and that I was playing well for them, doing what they needed me to do, and it wasn't like I was a cap problem. But that's the nature of the game, man. It's no slack off my back. You just gotta pick up and keep moving, you know? And the best thing was, I only had to pick up and move down the street."
First he had to wallow in uncertainty. When the Rockets cast him off, he became more NBA detritus, just another guy floating aimlessly on the free-agent market. His primary talent--a 42.6 career three-point percentage--also became his principal detraction.
What about Walt Williams? someone would ask. Williams? All he can do is shoot, someone else would answer.
He sat around until mid-October, when every free agent who could tie his shoes properly had been picked up. The Mavs called when things looked most grim. They offered him a one-year deal for $1.3 mil. Pocket change to some, perhaps, but still the best deal he could find.
Naturally, it came with the usual gripes. Fans and pundits were quick to wonder aloud why a team with so many shooters, a team that bitched about needing more defense, went and signed a player like Williams, a player whose reputation seemed to run counter to the club's needs.
"People have always done that," Williams says. "They've always categorized me as a shooter. Like I can't do anything but shoot. I think I'm proving them wrong now."
From the beginning of the season, and especially after Nick Van Exel and Raef LaFrentz suffered injuries, Williams has proven to be one of the Mavericks' best bench options. He's done what everyone expected by shooting at a fine clip from three-point range (40.7 percent through Monday). He's also shown there's some hop in those stiff, 32-year-old legs. Against Seattle at home, Williams helped the Mavs win their 13th in a row by running the floor for much of the night and then throwing down an absurd reverse dunk in traffic.
He's done all that while trying to fit in with an established crew. It's hard enough to come into a new situation so late in preseason preparation--late enough that he doesn't even appear in the media guide--but to do so on a club with three serious stars and limited shots is close to impossible. And yet Williams has done that. You'd be hard-pressed to get one of the Mavs to deride his ability or character.