The first thing Jayson Williams ever said to me was a joke.
"Kenny Anderson is so skinny, we don't take him on the plane when
we travel," he said, referring to one of his New Jersey Nets
teammates. "We just fax him from town to town." Williams said it
loudly, which, in my experience, was the way he said everything.
His comments were never meant for just one listener; they were
aimed at everyone in the room--in this case the visitors' locker
room at Madison Square Garden in 1995. No matter what he was
saying, the volume of his voice was its own message: Come on
over. The party's right here.
Williams was always the life of that party, just as he was on
Feb. 14, 2002, a night that began with him treating his friends
to drinks and ended when the shotgun Williams was holding went
off, killing limousine driver Costas (Gus) Christofi. A jury
convicted Williams last week of four charges related to his
attempted cover-up of the shooting but acquitted him of three
charges, including the most serious, aggravated manslaughter. The
jury deadlocked on the lesser charge of reckless manslaughter.
Legal analysts consider the outcome to be the best that Williams,
36, could realistically have hoped for. He could receive a
maximum of five years (no sentencing date has been set), but it's
more likely that if Judge Edward Coleman sentences him to any
jail time at all, it will be less than a year, which would be
served in county jail instead of in a state penitentiary.
Because the jury couldn't arrive at a verdict on the reckless
manslaughter charge (it voted 8-4 in favor of acquittal),
prosecutors can still retry Williams on that count. If they do,
they will need jurors who can see past the gregarious, fun-loving
aspect of Williams's personality to his darker, more dangerous
side--something the original panel couldn't or wouldn't do.
Williams was one of the NBA's most personable players, and that
charisma also endeared him to viewers when he retired and became
a broadcaster. But he also has a history of brushes with the law
and recklessness with firearms, and according to former teammate
Dwayne Schintzius, he once shot his rottweiler in the head
because the dog caused him to lose a bet. When they had to decide
Williams's fate, the jurors, like so many others in his life,
simply found him to be a likable fellow. In some posttrial
interviews--and reportedly in one note to the judge during
deliberations--they referred to him by his first name, as if he
were a longtime friend.
The prosecution was also hindered by one of its own witnesses,
former NBA center Benoit Benjamin, who testified that he saw
Williams pull the trigger. At least one juror said she didn't
find his testimony to be credible, making the prosecutors merely
the latest team to regret depending on the chronically
disappointing Benjamin. It was also a reversal of Williams's old,
carefree days, when he was the one telling the incredible stories
and Benjamin was the subject. Williams used to recount how
Benjamin was pulled over for running a stop sign and protested to
the officer that he didn't deserve a ticket because although he
didn't stop, he had slowed down, and there was no difference
between the two. "So the cop starts hitting Benoit with his
nightstick," Williams would say, "and he says to Benoit, 'Now do
you want me to stop, or do you want me to slow down?'" That story
always drew roars, and Williams would go on to spin more tales in
his deep, booming voice.
Williams was uncharacteristically silent during the trial, never
taking the stand in his own defense. Yet somehow the charming
part of his personality shone through. Like his voice, that
persona is so big and overwhelming that it can obscure certain
hard truths, one of which is this: In letting Williams off
lightly for his reckless act, the jury committed one of its own.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER
"Roddick called the firemen to his balcony."
--HELPING HAND, PAGE 20