Barbara Williams was always praying. She prayed as soon as she
got up in the morning, and she prayed before she went to bed at
night. They knew her at Catholic churches all over New York
City: St. Mary's, St. Theresa's, St. Joseph's, St. Anthony's.
Maybe because she was so close to God, Barbara was sometimes
visited in her sleep by dreams that foretold the future. The
dreams came in vivid bursts of color, and their accuracy so
bothered her husband, E.J. Williams, that he implored her never
to tell him about them. "Please," he said, not wanting to hear.
Once when her son Jayson was a teenager, Barbara dreamed that he
was in a car accident. That night a knock came to her apartment
door, and when she answered it, a police officer was standing
outside. "Jayson was in a car crash," she said.
"How'd you know?" the man asked. "I told them at the station not
to call you."
"I had a dream," Barbara said.
More than once she told Jayson, now a 6'10", 230-pound
center-forward for the New Jersey Nets, "God only promised us
bread and water." And it wasn't hard to see what she was getting
at. Jayson seemed to have everything, including an NBA contract
that paid him a fortune. But at the same time he had nothing.
"Dear Jesus," Barbara told Jayson to pray, "you take the heavy
end and give me the light end."
But Jayson wondered why God would bother to help him carry
either end. God was picking on him, he believed. God, who had
taken his sisters.
He was only 15 years old in June 1983 when his oldest sister,
Linda, age 26, died of AIDS, one of the first female casualties
of the disease on record in New York City. Three years before,
says the family, she had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion
after being mugged for $2. Her assailant stabbed her more than a
dozen times and beat her over the head with a hammer, ravaging a
face that Jayson had considered as beautiful as any on earth.
After the attack Linda was given morphine to help ease her
suffering, and she found her way to other drugs. Occasionally
she shot up in the company of her sister Laura, who was 20
months younger and who shared with Linda the fleeting bliss that
spilled from the points of hypodermic needles. Linda later
learned that she had AIDS, and when Laura was discovered to be
HIV-positive, the family had to face the possibility that dirty
needles had been the likely source.
By the summer of 1988 Laura, too, had died of AIDS, and Jayson,
then a rising star at St. John's University, wondered why God
seemed singularly disposed to take from him everyone he loved.
"Follow God," Barbara counseled him. "Are you going to church?
Jayson, you need to go to church. You need to thank God every
day and ask him for a better day tomorrow."
On the court, Jayson's better days began in 1994-95 and
continued through last season, when his otherwise unremarkable
NBA career took a turn that placed him among the game's most
improved players. In 1995-96, playing only 23.2 minutes a game,
Williams averaged 10.0 rebounds. The figure of one board every
2.32 minutes placed Williams second in rebounding frequency only
to Dennis Rodman, the Chicago Bulls forward (and overall
rebounding leader), who led the league with one board every 2.19
minutes. On the strength of that performance, Williams finished
third in the voting for the NBA Sixth Man Award for the 1995-96
season, behind Bulls forward Toni Kukoc and Portland Trail
Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis.
The journey to NBA acceptance has not been easy for Williams,
mainly because until recently neither personal nor professional
achievement mattered much to him. In fact, Williams was so
haunted by the deaths of his sisters that at times he seemed set
on taking his own early slide. "Nobody knew my troubles because
I never told nobody nothin'," Williams, 28, says now. "I was the
kind of guy who was always laughing, always the life of the
party. It was a way for me to hide myself. I wanted people to be
happy when they were around me. I wanted them to think I was
happy. But at the same time I was daring Jesus to take my life.
I became the kind of person who walks into gunfights. I wasn't
scared to die because I couldn't imagine living without my
Evidence that Williams was waging dark, personal battles dates
back to his days at St. John's. As a sophomore in 1988, Williams
hit a spectator with a metal folding chair when the man
reportedly jeered him after Williams was ejected from a game for
fighting. Williams was charged with assault with a dangerous
weapon and jailed for several hours before being released on
bail. The charges were later dropped.
In 1990 the Phoenix Suns made him the 21st pick in the NBA
draft, but Williams felt Arizona was too far from home. He
bellyached so much that the Suns traded his draft rights to the
Philadelphia 76ers. His two-year stint as a Sixer was memorable
mostly for the trouble he caused. In a game against the
Charlotte Hornets, Williams came storming off the bench and
slugged the Hornets' J.R. Reid with a roundhouse right after
Reid and Charles Barkley, then a Sixers forward, got into a
shoving match under the basket.
Williams was Barkley's drinking companion. One night when
Williams and Barkley were having a late-night drink in a Chicago
hotel bar, they were approached by a man who claimed to be
carrying a knife. Williams's response was to strike the man in
the head with a beer mug. Although police did not bring charges
against him, Williams says he and Barkley "are still getting
sued in that, and the guy I hit was the one who had the knife in
At about the same time, Williams got into a brawl with a couple
of men who had caused problems at a Manhattan bar he co-owned
called Big Daddy's. Williams had bought the bar shortly after
turning pro, and "for the two years I had it," he says, "it was
nothing but chaos." No night was more chaotic than the one when
he bounced the two men from the place for allegedly harassing
female patrons. The men challenged him to a fight, and Williams
sprayed them with mace and punched one hard enough, he says, to
"knock his eye back in his head." The fellow sued Williams for
millions but settled for $30,000--"the best $30,000 I ever
spent," Williams later boasted. "I beat his fat ass."
To continue the streak, police arrested Williams in 1994 on
weapons charges after somebody fired a handgun at an unoccupied
vehicle in the parking lot of the Meadowlands Arena (now the
Continental Airlines Arena), where the Nets play. Williams
admitted to owning the gun--the charges were dismissed after he
completed a pretrial program--but he still claims that somebody
else shot it. Four months later he was featured in the news yet
again when three teenagers accused him and then-teammate Derrick
Coleman of assaulting them outside a New York nightclub. No
criminal charges were brought against Williams, and assault
charges filed against Coleman were dropped. Both were named in
civil suits, which are still pending, that seek more than $4
million in damages.
Williams's battles weren't always so public, and they weren't
always with others. The biggest seemed to be with himself, and
in his typically hyperbolic manner, he admits now to being lucky
to have survived it.
"When I played for the 76ers, I used to commute from New York to
Philadelphia every day," he says. "It's an 84-mile drive each
way, and I used to do it in less than 50 minutes. I had a BMW
and a Jaguar, and I'd drive them 150 miles an hour on the
interstate. I totaled a couple of cars, and I walked right out
of them." After returning to his apartment, Williams says, he
would watch TV until morning, then sleep as long as he could in
the hope that Linda and Laura would appear to him in dreams.
Always before turning in, though, he did as his mother had
taught him to do years before. He fell to his knees, and he
folded his hands and prayed. Only now the words had nothing to
do with worship.
"I dare you," he said. "Come on, God. Do it."
"My family's been a disaster my whole life," Williams says. "I
always had drama. I thought that was how it was supposed to
be....Sometimes now I sit back and say to myself, Holy s---. No
wonder my first four years in the NBA were so screwed up."
It was 1959 when a friend of Barbara Mazzeo's introduced her to
a smooth talker named Elijah Joshua Williams. Barbara had two
daughters from a previous marriage, and E.J. and his previous
wife had five children together. Barbara was white and E.J. was
black, but race was only the most obvious of their differences.
Barbara was an Italian Catholic from New York City, E.J. a
Protestant from rural South Carolina who had come north to
Brooklyn looking for work as a brick mason.
The Williamses lived in a blighted area of New York's Lower East
Side, where, as Jayson remembers it, even children learned "how
to take care of things quick, fast and in a hurry." As a kid he
had a speech impediment and got picked on for pronouncing his
last name "Ilyums," but more often he got hassled for being
biracial. Even some of his family members called him
"half-breed" and "zebra."
"Having black and white parents showed me both sides of the
world and made me wiser," Williams says. "My mother could have a
Chinese over staying the night, and for breakfast we'd have egg
rolls and grits with marinara sauce on the grits. She used to
cook pasta with pig knuckles, if you can believe it. I was never
confused about my identity. I always thought that, socially, I
was advantaged because I was both book-smart and street-smart. I
could handle myself at a damn opera or at an X-rated movie,
either one, and I was comfortable."
In the summertime E.J. took Jayson with him to work almost every
day of the week. As a result Jayson says he learned how to
operate bulldozers, backhoes and other heavy machinery before he
had even earned a driver's license. His father seemed to know
everything about construction, but sports were another matter
altogether. E.J. knew baseball, but it was Barbara who
introduced Jayson to basketball. And soon Jayson was dribbling
the ball in his room, outside in the hallway and up and down the
stairs of their high-rise apartment building.
Barbara sent her son to Catholic schools where "my classmates
were a bunch of guys named Sal and Vinny," Jayson says. But his
best pals were his two half sisters, Linda and Laura Diaz, who
would regularly pick him up from school.
"Linda was a model," Barbara says. "She was six feet tall and
very thin with a perfect shape." One night in June 1980 Barbara
dreamed that Linda was attacked by a stranger. Linda was 23 then
and the mother of a one-year-old named Ejay, and she lived with
her son in the building across the street. The day after the
dream Linda stopped by to visit her mother, and Barbara debated
whether to tell her about the horrors she had seen in the night.
Finally Linda said, "Mom, I've got to go home and get my makeup."
"Linda, don't go," Barbara told her.
"But, Mom, I've got to. I need my makeup. I have to get ready."
One of Linda's friends was graduating from college, and she had
promised to attend the ceremony.
"I had a dream," Barbara said. "Please don't go, Linda."
Linda left anyway, and minutes later a stranger named Sergio
Velez attacked her as she entered her apartment. Velez
repeatedly stabbed her, and when she wouldn't die, he slammed a
hammer into her head. Ejay was in a baby carriage in the
apartment as his mother fought for her life, leaving clouds of
blood on the walls as she struggled from room to room. Somebody
from the building came to get Barbara, and she and Jayson ran
over and found blood puddled in the elevator and on the floor
leading to Linda's apartment.
It was just as Barbara had dreamed. Every detail. She and Jayson
found Linda lying in the bathtub in a shallow pool of blood.
Wild with rage, 12-year-old Jayson went to the kitchen and got a
knife and ran into a nearby park looking for somebody, anybody
with blood on his shoes.
Linda needed several pints of blood to replenish what she had
lost. And as ironies go, this one couldn't have been more
brutal: the transfusions that the family says led her from
death's door also escorted her back through it. Linda's blood
would then infect her sister Laura, who in turn would pass the
virus on to her husband, Augustin Rodriguez, who himself would
lose a battle with AIDS in 1994. And all for two lousy bucks.
For his role in the tragedy, Velez received a sentence of
three-to-six years in jail. "Everywhere Sergio beat Linda and
cut her open, she started to scar," Jayson recalls. "She never
recovered her beauty, but she was still beautiful to me."
Less than a year after the mugging Linda complained to Jayson
about stomach pains. "I thought she had kidney stones," he says.
"I took her to the hospital and asked the doctor if she was
going to be all right. I expected him to say, 'Of course, she'll
be fine.' But instead he said, 'If she makes it through the
night, it'll be a miracle.'"
Linda survived the scare, only to awaken to two more years of
pain, loneliness and humiliation brought on by her disease and
drug abuse. These years coincided with the height of hysteria
over AIDS transmission. "When you went to see her, they made you
put on this apron," Williams says. "The apron, and then plastic
covers over your shoes, a face mask. It was like a spacesuit.
And I went in the room where she was and I ripped it all off.
They had a guard watching the door. They would give her food and
step back, scared to get too close, and then I'd go in and feed
her. And she'd look at me with such unbelievable helplessness."
Linda's hair fell out in clumps and her teeth began to rot. When
she left for home, the hospital made her take the service
elevator down, a trip she shared with garbage. Back at her
apartment, Barbara had hidden all the mirrors so Linda, who now
weighed 70 pounds, wouldn't have to see herself.
After Linda died, it seemed to Jayson that nothing would ever
hurt him like that again, but then Laura, whom Jayson called
Sissy, got sick. Concerned that Jayson wasn't strong enough to
withstand another death, Barbara and E.J. had chosen not to tell
him that Laura, too, had AIDS. All along Jayson thought Laura
was stricken with a liver disease. He didn't learn the truth
until she was gone.
"I was so mad at Jesus," Williams says. I said, 'Why in the f---
are you doing this to my family?' I never rejected God, but I
could never understand why He would do that to me and my family."
Even with all the turmoil in his life, Williams was developing
into one of the city's best high school basketball players. Ron
Rutledge, a St. John's assistant, first saw him in 1985, the
summer before his senior year at Christ the King, in Queens. "He
was like a young colt," Rutledge recalls. "He was about 6'7",
185. And he had this relentless energy that was always trying to
The following autumn Rutledge went to visit the Williamses at
their Lower East Side apartment. "It was a real warm home, a
loving home," he says. "I remember Jayson had such great respect
for his mother and father and such a feeling for wanting to do
good, not for himself but for them. He told me there'd been
enough sorrow and hurt in his family, and he didn't want to
bring any more on them."
At St. John's, Williams never seemed to have enough time to
himself. In addition to his schoolwork--he would receive a
bachelor's degree in communication arts in 1990--and basketball,
he was busy helping to raise Ejay and Laura's daughter, Monique.
Some days his family duties made him late for practice, and he
never seemed to get enough rest.
"I wanted to quit and work construction," Williams says. "Coach
[Lou Carnesecca] called me and my father in for a meeting, and
he said he thought I had the talent to go pro. Dad said I made
him proud when he saw me on TV and saw the Williams name up
there on the screen and he started to cry, and I knew I couldn't
quit. It was the only time in my whole life I ever saw my father
As a junior Williams made second-team All-Big East and led the
Redmen in scoring (19.5 average) and rebounding (7.9). Rutledge
remembers him as "one of the real forces in the Big East. He
didn't back down from anybody--not from [Georgetown's] Alonzo
Mourning, not from [Syracuse's] Derrick Coleman, not from
anybody." That was the season, 1988-89, when Williams carried
his team to the NIT championship and was named the tournament's
MVP. But the next season, when he was a senior, Williams broke
his right foot and played only 13 games, and his scoring average
dropped to 14.6. The injury hurt him in the draft, as he fell
from being a likely Top 10 pick to a late first-round selection.
By then, though, Williams wasn't sure that he wanted to play pro
ball. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't square the sudden
status of being an NBA player with the losses he'd suffered.
Shortly after signing his first pro contract with Philadelphia,
Williams legally adopted Ejay, now 17, and Monique, now 22 and
the mother of a 14-month-old child named Alex. That makes
Williams a grandfather, one of only two current NBA players to
hold the distinction. (The Bulls' Robert Parish, 43, is the
other.) It hasn't been an easy assignment.
In the beginning of his NBA career, Williams says, he was so
distracted by family demands that he didn't develop into much of
a player. Injuries (a dislocated left ankle, which cost him 67
games during the '92-93 season ) added to his difficulties, and
his periodic brushes with the law left little doubt about his
reckless, immature nature. Moreover, Williams had a reputation
around the league as a weak defender who seemed to have left his
offense in college and would let his team down at the free throw
According to Nets senior vice president Willis Reed, Williams's
game was going nowhere until 1992-93, when Chuck Daly took over
as New Jersey's coach and pressed Williams to develop a single
skill that would make him invaluable. By specializing in
rebounding, particularly offensive rebounding, Williams
guaranteed himself an NBA future. "If Chuck had just left him
alone, I don't think Jayson would be where he is today," Reed
Daly departed the team after two seasons, and his successor,
Butch Beard, pushed Williams even harder to hone his skills on
the boards. Beard also showed compassion in dealing with
Williams's off-court struggles. In his first three seasons with
the Nets, however, Williams was hindered by an unusual condition
of his trade from the Sixers: If his combined average of minutes
and points per season equaled or exceeded 19, the Nets would
have to surrender a first-round draft pick to Philadelphia.
Thus, despite his effectiveness, the Nets carefully controlled
Williams's playing time (in '94-95, for instance, he averaged
13.1 minutes and 4.8 points). Last season, with the wraps off,
Beard almost doubled Williams's minutes, and Williams answered
by putting up rebounding numbers that underscored his progress.
He had 263 boards under Daly in 1993-94, then 425 under Beard in
1994-95 and 803 last season (342 of them offensive). "The
amazing thing is that Jayson's really just learning how to play
the game," says Beard, now an assistant with the Dallas
Mavericks. "I told him he needs to work on his free throw
shooting [last season he was a subpar 59.2%] so that a coach can
use him down the stretch. He also needs to develop one or two
shots that his team can count on."
Besides working on his game, Williams has worked on his
demeanor. His days of wild partying seem to be behind him, and
he has learned to walk away from a fight. On the other hand, he
has lost none of his volubility, as his selection to the
league's 1996 All-Interview team suggests.
"Jayson has turned his life around," says Nets president Michael
Rowe. "He defines the character we were trying to get for our
team. When we needed a hit of personality--when we were too
nondescript, a suburban team without urban sizzle--Jayson jumped
in and created a persona for us."
As a free agent after the 1994-95 season, Williams was romanced
by the Bulls, who offered him a contract worth a reported $2.5
million a year. Michael Jordan made a pitch to him over dinner.
But Williams chose to remain with the Nets and accept their
offer of $7 million for three years. Given the ensuing
season--Chicago won a league-record 72 games in the regular
season and the NBA championship, while New Jersey finished 30-52
and missed the playoffs--Williams's decision seems ill-advised
until one considers what he stood to lose by leaving his
"I couldn't afford to move my family and friends to Chicago," he
says. "I would've had to move the whole Lower East Side, and I
couldn't have everybody working for me. How many people can pick
up your laundry? Nope, I ain't leaving. I ain't going anywhere."
To prove it, Williams bought a 60-acre tract of hilly, wooded
land about an hour west of New York City. He and his father
designed a 35-room, 27,000-square-foot mansion that when
finished will cover the length of a football field plus a third
of another one. To cut expenses, Jayson and E.J. are doing much
of the work themselves, from clearing roadways to laying bricks.
"The house'll be worth four million when we're done," Williams
says. "But it's only costing me about $850,000."
Williams relishes the prospect of exurban solitude, which is
something he has never really had in his life: no one to knock
on your door and tell you to turn the TV down, no way to discern
your neighbor's nationality by the smell of his cooking coming
through the walls.
"The best feeling," Williams says, "will be when we're done with
the house and my mother is in the gazebo in back reading and
saying her prayers and my father and I are sitting by the pool
and the water's warm and maybe we're having a drink and suddenly
he turns to me and says, 'We built it, didn't we, Jay?' And I
turn back to him and say, 'Yeah, we built it.'"
COLOR PHOTO: MARK PETERSON/SABA Grandson Alex sits atop Williams's list of professional and family responsibilities. [Alex Williams and Jayson Williams]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN One of Barbara's many prayers--for Jayson to play in the NBA--was answered. [Barbara Williams]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER [See caption above--Jayson Williams in game]
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY THE WILLIAMS FAMILY Linda, once radiant, weighed only 70 pounds in the end. [Linda Diaz]
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY THE WILLIAMS FAMILY Having seen his mother die of AIDS in 1983, Ejay bid Aunt Laura farewell five years later. [Laura Rodriguez and Ejay Williams]
COLOR PHOTO: MARK PETERSON/SABA Out in Jersey, Jayson and his dad are building a new foundation for an extended family. [Jayson Williams and E.J. Williams]