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Knicks’ Williams Is Far From Home and Trouble
By JONATHAN ABRAMS
Published: December 19, 2010
When the Knicks’ president, Donnie Walsh, informed Shawne Williams that his N.B.A. lifespan had been granted an extension with the Knicks, he offered one strong caveat. “I told him, ‘It’s a different ballgame now,’ ” said Walsh, who kept Williams over the sentimental favorite Patrick Ewing Jr. for the last roster spot before the season. “ ‘If anything negative comes up, you’re out of here.’ ”
Williams, a 6-foot-9 forward, is one of the few substitutes Coach Mike D’Antoni regularly calls upon. After making 10 of his first 12 attempts from 3-point range this season, Williams is again settling into the ups and downs of the N.B.A.
It is a fable to think that atonement arrives through athletics. Williams is in the process of distancing himself from his troubles and resurrecting a derailed career. His past includes several arrests and a desperate plea before a judge for his future — an act that led the former Nets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who had traded for and then released Williams, to utter that he was “luckily not our issue.”
Ted Anderson, Williams’s coach at Hamilton High in Memphis, said of Williams, “He’s got nine lives.”
Williams started the season saddled at the end of the bench before flourishing during the Knicks’ recent eight-game winning streak. His shot stopped dropping, though, and his minutes soon did also. But Williams scored 12 points Saturday as one of the team’s lone bright spots in a loss at Cleveland, and D’Antoni vowed to give him steady minutes again.
Before joining the Knicks, Williams drifted among Indiana, Dallas and the Nets. He had troubles at each stop. Three times in Indiana, friends from Memphis ran afoul of the law while in Williams’s company. In Dallas, the Mavericks eventually asked Williams to stay away from the organization.
Authorities in Memphis indicted Williams, 1 of 24 defendants facing drug charges in January after a seven-month investigation called Operation: Lockdown, on eight counts. The Nets had just waived Williams after he reported out of shape. He pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor drug charges, including the possession and conspiracy to possess a controlled substance, in this case, hydrocodone, a codeine-based syrup. Then over the summer he was charged with driving with a suspended license. A passenger was charged with possession of marijuana and carrying a handgun.
“You’ve got one skill, one God-given ability, and you’re doing everything you can to throw it away,” Judge James Beasley Jr. told Williams in August, according to The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Most of his troubles involved a common thread: Williams would be with hometown friends. With Memphis a day’s drive from Indiana, the hangers-on could and did hang on.
“Really, I had to iron out a lot of wrinkles in my life,” the 24-year-old Williams said recently. “I sat back — even though I wanted a team to call me after the Nets — I knew I wasn’t in great shape” to go to a team.
It was a precipitous fall. In an area rich in amateur basketball, some declared Williams the best prospect from Memphis since Penny Hardaway. Williams’s former coaches speak of a studious athlete willing to learn the game and of a person who engaged in mild mischief.
Williams’s grandfather, Leon Williams, raised him and his brother, Ramone. They lived in South Memphis, in an area blanketed with drug dealers and prostitutes. Ramone, one year older than Shawne, was murdered before Williams entered the N.B.A.
Anderson has known Williams since he was 9. Occasionally, Williams’s grandfather summoned Anderson to discipline Williams. Anderson, like others close to Williams as he grew up, did not recall him having any serious issues.
At one national tournament, basketballs started to disappear and the director threatened to cancel the tournament. Keith Easterwood, one of Williams’s youth coaches, found the balls in the room of Williams and another teammate. Williams said that he could sell the basketballs once he returned to Memphis in order to buy school clothes.
“He always did silly stuff,” Easterwood said. “Perhaps some of it was him and some of it was his environment. But he was always a pretty good kid.”
Arkansas and Kansas recruited Williams. To Anderson’s dismay, Williams decided to play under John Calipari at Memphis.
“I made a lot of University of Memphis fans angry when I suggested he needed to leave town,” Anderson said. He added, “Here in Memphis, it was hard for him to get away from people who he grew up around with who might not have his best interests” in mind.
In an effort to improve his grades and become eligible to play at Memphis, Williams transferred to North Carolina’s Laurinburg Institute for his senior year. The team went 40-0 in 2004-5 and Williams debated forgoing college for the N.B.A. He announced his decision to uphold his Memphis commitment at a nightclub.
After a year at Memphis, Walsh selected him with the 17th overall pick in the 2006 draft. His tangles with the law arose soon after.
Out of the league most of last season, Williams saw his weight balloon. His skills atrophied. In the spring, after contemplating his life, Williams paid his way to the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Williams trained with several players picked in June’s draft. Off the court, he cautioned the rookies on the league’s vices. On the court, he dominated them.
“I changed a lot of things,” Williams said, adding. “Mostly, the biggest thing with me, it was never me. It was just the crowd who I ran with and the people who I had around me. But I wouldn’t say it was a bad choosing of the people, it was just the people I grew up with all my life and I just had to separate myself from that if I wanted better things.”
When asked if the responsibility fell on his shoulders, Williams said: “Most definitely. Nobody made me do some of the stuff I did, hang with the people I hanged with.”
Williams’s confidence to come back never wavered; he had a successful stint with the Charlotte Bobcats in the summer league. It is part of the mind-set that helped spur his path to the N.B.A. and also his troubles.
“Throughout all the adversity I done been through, when it all came when I was sitting at home, not playing, like I said, a light switched on that I know what I want to do with my life,” Williams said. “I want to play ball and have fun doing it.”
In the N.B.A., labels are easy to acquire and hard to dispel. “From the beginning, I’ve been open-minded, and he’s been nothing like what I’ve heard of him,” said Roger Mason Jr., a Knicks teammate.
That is the type of future that Williams is trying to carve out. “That’s how I’m looking at it,” Williams said. “I just want my actions to do the talking for all the off-the-court stuff.”