By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"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.
"I can't tell you what he's meant to us," head coach Don Nelson says effusively. "I can't emphasize his importance enough. Just with spacing, being able to put him in the game and spread the floor has been a huge help to our offense. He's a good shooter, and he's made us so much deeper. With the injuries we've had, even without them, he's stepped up and made a contribution. A significant contribution."
Del Harris, the Mavs' assistant coach, says pretty much the same things about Williams that Nellie does. But he focuses on one other note, something a lot of you may not know. The fact that, despite public perception, Williams will scrap down low.
"The big thing for us is, he's been a surprisingly good rebounder," Harris says. "On a per minute basis, he's third on our team. That's a pretty significant stat. He's behind only...well, look at it." He turns to a dry-erase board that has each player's minutes per rebound (the time it takes a player, in minutes, between each rebound). It reads, in descending order: 3.34 [Shawn] Bradley, 3.44 [Dirk] Nowitzki, 4.5 Williams.
Look at that again. Two guys who have been cornerstones for the past few years followed by the piece of driftwood they picked up just days before the season got under way.
"When I realized I was coming to Dallas, I was like, OK, I'm gonna be in the playoffs; that wasn't even a question," Williams says. "But other than that, I didn't know what to expect. When I got here, and I met the guys and saw the chemistry they have, and I saw how unselfish they are...that's the other thing. These guys, you look at the Big Three, right? You could argue that each one of them is in the top 10 players in the NBA. If they wanted to freeze me out and not gimme the ball, they could do that, and no one would really say anything because they play so well together. But they didn't do that. They don't do that. They brought me in, and you can see how unselfish they are. They pass to the open man, no matter if it's Michael [Finley] or Dirk or Shawn or me. Doesn't matter. Open guy gets the ball. In fact, the coaches will sometimes get on us for over-passing. That's what kind of team this is. It's a great situation for me."
He stops and looks around, and all of a sudden that mischievous smirk returns.
"But I tell you what, though," he says, chuckling, "I ain't lettin' these guys win anymore when we play around."