Jay Williams was in danger of losing his left leg. He was 21 years
old, a promising point guard for the Chicago Bulls, but on the
afternoon of June 19 he drove his motorcycle into a light pole on
Chicago's North Side, dislocating his leg at the knee and the
pelvis. Surgeons at the Illinois Masonic Medical Center were
considering amputation the next day when Chicago's general
manager, John Paxson, arrived. "Jay was putting on a brave face,"
recalls Paxson. "You're thinking how tragic this is and how awful
he must be feeling, then you put yourself in his family's
position. It's the worst call you can get, hearing that one of
your kids has been in an accident."
Three months earlier, when he was doing the team's color
commentary on radio, Paxson would have felt only sympathy for
Williams, who was not wearing a helmet, does not have an Illinois
license to drive a motorcycle and was riding his bike in
violation of a clause in his contract. (The Bulls intend to
ignore the violation and pay Williams the $7.7 million he's owed
for the next two seasons, according to a team official.) But on
April 14 owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired Paxson to replace the
retiring Jerry Krause, and now Paxson also had to gauge the
impact the accident would have on the team as it prepared for the
draft, six days away. Though doctors succeeded in saving
Williams's leg, he still had a fractured pelvis, a left knee
whose ligaments must be reconstructed and possibly permanent
nerve damage. Williams, who had undergone two pelvic surgeries at
week's end, will not play next season. Paxson says it will be
"miraculous" if he ever suits up again.
Though Williams struggled at times last season after being
drafted No. 2 out of Duke, and lost his starting job in March to
second-year man Jamal Crawford, the Bulls saw him as their
quarterback for the next decade. Paxson faced two problems in
dealing with the fallout from Williams's injury. First, Paxson
had spent the previous two months weighing offers from the
Minnesota Timberwolves and the Seattle SuperSonics for Crawford
and hastily preparing either to use his No. 7 pick on a wing
player or to trade the choice for a veteran who might help
reverse Chicago's pitiful road record of 3-38 last season. Now
needing Crawford to man the point, Paxson had to dream up a new
strategy, which touched on problem number 2: his inexperience.
"I'm competing against guys who have been at this for years," he
says. "They know it, and will always know it, better than I do."
If Paxson was insecure, it didn't show. "John knows much more
than I think he's giving himself credit for," says Bulls scout
B.J. Armstrong, who had hoped to replace Krause after serving as
his assistant for three years. Coach Bill Cartwright describes
his new boss as a quick, authoritative leader. "It was boom,
boom, boom," Cartwright says of Paxson's predraft maneuvering.
"While the calls were coming in, he knew what deals he liked and
what deals he didn't like."
As an overachieving 6'2" guard, Paxson helped Michael Jordan win
his first three titles with defense and clutch shooting.
Reinsdorf, who had employed Paxson since 1985, knew that he could
handle the G.M. job, but Krause worried about his lack of
experience. The closest Paxson had come to working in management
had been during the 1995-96 season, which he spent as a Bulls
assistant coach before deciding that the odd hours and travel
were too great a price for his wife and their two sons to pay.
But he made clear his determination to succeed Krause, who gave
him hours of advice.
The most influential counsel, however, came from Paxson's older
brother, Jim, who after becoming general manager of the Cleveland
Cavaliers in June 1999 had a scant three weeks to begin
recruiting a new coach and to decide how to use his team's pair
of first-round draft picks. "I was surprised by how many
[possible trades] John had going," says Jim, who offered advice
on a variety of moves. In the days leading up to the draft Jim
avoided talking to his brother so he wouldn't hear John's final
plan and have to answer questions about it from other teams. (Not
that anyone needed to ask John what Jim was doing: The elder
Paxson plucked LeBron James with the No. 1 pick.) In time,
though, that sort of cooperation is bound to give way to
brotherly competition. "As a player I was an All-Star a couple of
times, but he won those championship rings," says Jim with a
laugh. "Maybe I can beat him to the punch with a championship as
Throughout his 11-year playing career John Paxson was known as a
complementary player with no fear of taking the big shot. In his
new role he followed the same course, relying on the opinions of
Armstrong and scouts Gar Forman and Ivica Dukan as well as
salary-cap expert Irwin Mandel--all of whom, after years of
working under the autocratic Krause, were more than happy to be
leaned on. In the end Paxson decided not to make any trades and
narrowed his focus to two college guards. When one of them,
Marquette's Dwyane Wade, went to the Miami Heat at No. 5, Paxson
picked the other, Kirk Hinrich, a 6'3" Kansas senior, who will
back up both Crawford and shooting guard Jalen Rose. "It's funny,
but I almost didn't have Kirk work out for them," says Hinrich's
agent, Jeff Austin. "Before Jay Williams was hurt, it didn't make
Now it made perfect sense. From his new office chair Paxson looks
forward to seeing if Hinrich--a bigger, stronger defender--is
better suited than Williams to play alongside Crawford in the
backcourt next season. Paxson hates that he had to move forward
so quickly with Hinrich and leave Williams behind. The excitement
and anticipation of Hinrich's arrival "is not fair to Jay," says
Paxson, just as the gloom cast by Williams's misfortune "is not
fair to Kirk."
Last week Williams moved his foot in a way that suggests major
nerve damage had been averted, according to his agent, Bill
Duffy. "Our goal is that Jay will be back on the court in 2004-05
earning the money the Bulls are paying him," Duffy says. Last
Friday, Jay's mother, Althea, told Paxson that her son had
watched the draft from his hospital room and that the sight of
Hinrich in a Bulls cap had motivated him. The next day she
watched as Jay stood with the help of a physical therapist, then
took the first of many steps to come.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN DELICATE BALANCE After assessing Williams's health and weighing trade offers, Paxson used the No. 7 pick on the 6'3" Hinrich.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL SMITH TOUCH AND GO Williams, who lost his starting job last year, will be lucky ever to play again.
How Good, How Soon?
With so many mysteries in the NBA draft--14 of the 29
first-rounders were teens or foreigners--most selections can't be
fully judged for at least two years. Setting aside the Cavaliers
(No. 1 pick LeBron James), Pistons (No. 2 Darko Milicic) and
Nuggets (No. 3 Carmelo Anthony), here are the teams that made the
safest choices and took the biggest gambles. --I.T.
*HEAT The experience and skill of Marquette guard Dwyane Wade
(No. 5) will help Pat Riley return to the playoffs next season.
*WIZARDS In 6'7" Georgia swingman Jarvis Hayes (No. 10), new
coach Eddie Jordan gets the savvy scorer he needs.
*SONICS Seattle wants to run, and with Kansas forward Nick
Collison (No. 12) and Oregon playmaker Luke Ridnour (No. 14), it
*CLIPPERS Central Michigan 7-footer Chris Kaman (No. 6) needs
schooling, and L.A.'s not big on player development.
*GRIZZLIES Only Jerry West would trade down to take guards Troy
Bell (No. 16) of Boston College and Dahntay Jones (No. 20) of
*HAWKS Who knows how French swingman Boris Diaw-Riffiod (No. 21)
will fit into the plans of whoever is hired as coach?