I'm going to be honest with you: the Shawne Williams Topps Finest rookie auto card at left is not the most valuable basketball card I ever wrote. But I did write it, and I did even meet Shawne Williams when I was at the NBA Rookie Shoot back in 2006, during my time at Topps. (About which time you'll find more here). Williams was, like everyone I met at that event with the exception of Tyrus Thomas (so immature as to be kind of nervous-making) and Jordan Farmar (so cocky as to be a cock), seemingly a nice enough kid. Williams wasn't as self-possessed as your Dee Browns or Shelden Williams' or J.J. Redicks or Randy Foyes -- by the way, what a freaking terrible draft -- but I remember him being pleasant, if a little shell-shocked by the admittedly shell-shocky experience of being photographed a few thousand times during the AM hours at a gym in White Plains.
Williams, at the time of our 10 minutes of conversation, was 20 years old, and the Indiana Pacers had just made him the 17th pick of the 2006 NBA Draft. In so doing, they made him a millionaire. In a conversation I'm having with a good friend right now on The Gmail Chat -- because it's the future and such a thing is possible, and also because I'm the picture of bloggy dedication -- I was just asked if we can say, at this point, that Shawne Williams "wasn't that good." I don't know what to say to that, except that he was clearly a dazzling basketball player at some point in his young life. Williams was the best player on a Laurinburg Prep team that finished its '04-05 season at 40-0 and ranked ahead of an Oak Hill Academy team that featured Kevin Durant, Ty Lawson and Jamont Gordon (and Eric Devendorf, although that's not totally their fault). He then spent a year not being coached by John Calipari at Memphis, and then spent three years making a lot of money for not playing in the NBA and presumably dealing with the non-stop death-stare of villainous legend-who-looks-like-an-old-lesbian/Pacers GM Larry Bird. His stats are certainly not very good. But so much is presumed in cases like this, because we know so little.
What we know about Shawne Williams is that he bombed out in Indiana, was traded to the Mavericks and never played, then was traded to the Nets in a cost-cutting move and was more or less told not to show up; he didn't play in an organized basketball game in 2009-10. That's the transaction line. Williams' blotter is a bit more memorable: had a host of run-ins with the law that track pretty well with the sort of trouble that you'd imagine a suddenly very rich kid with limited life skills getting into. There are some differences -- most 21-year-olds pulled over for dumb traffic violations can't proffer their basketball card as a form of ID, and it's hard to justify not showing up for a court date whether you're an athletic wing who was once MVP of a national champion prep team or Lindsay Lohan or whoever. In January of 2010, after the New Jersey Nets bought out Williams -- more money as negative reinforcement, here -- he got into some much more serious trouble, this time for alleged codeine-related demi-kingpinnery. He was indicted, and -- having secured a signature success in the anti-sizzurp campaign dubbed "Operation Lockdown" -- the Memphis Police Department presumably took a moment to congratulate itself on ridding the city of crime for good.
In his mug shot, Williams looks tired and heavy. He hadn't played in a NBA game for over a year, but that didn't seem to explain it. Of all the failures in that 2006 Draft -- this would be a good spot to remind readers that Adam Freaking Morrison was the third overall pick -- here was the one that looked the most serious and most sad. You'd have to work pretty hard to project this recognition onto Williams' scared/sad face, but at some level Shawne Williams probably knew that this was the end for him, in a sense. Even before the arrest and indictment, Williams was on a deep dive towards the disdain-tinged anonymity from which his talent and long arms and athleticism might have rescued him. The sort of sports fans who wonder what happens to athletes once they stop being the most special people in the room know how this goes. Which is to say that we were about to hear the last from Shawne Williams. When the promise is dispelled, the narrative trail goes dead. There are exceptions to that, if the failure to deliver on past promise is dramatic enough -- here, for instance, is what Ed O'Bannon is up to these days -- but, for the most part, "Where Are They Now" is a rhetorical question.
Of course, the person who is also the player goes on doing whatever it was he did before the world started and stopped caring. He goes to jail for associating with the sort of visionaries who see a way to get high in a bottle of Triaminic or he goes to Europe and makes a bunch of money and learns a foreign language. Maybe he signs with a pro team in Iran, makes some money, writes a blog, and grows up into an interesting man or maybe he opens a barber shop or coaches or finds God or loses God or looks back and laughs or ferments in all that curdled narcissism into the meanest and most righteous sort of depressive. But all that happens off-camera, and to a certain extent the moral to Shawne Williams' story, and that story's ending, are already written, regardless of how the middle chapters fill in. The ending is yours to pick, not his: he's another knucklehead not ready for the spotlight or unready for failure or an incautiously pampered kid who has never previously been required not to be lazy or a nice kid surrounded by bad influences or a helpless/hapless product of a rotten environment or whatever you choose.
I can't say that I'm pulling for Shawne Williams any more or less than I'm pulling for anyone who has fucked up and should stop fucking up -- I met him once for 10 minutes and we talked about breakfast cereal and Jim O'Brien's emphasis on defense, I have no real emotional stake in this. The quote Williams gave me that day, which I used on the back of his Topps Big Game Picture Perfect Rookie Auto-Relic, is this: "I never thought about leaving college, never until the last game. The confidence (to do it) came from me and from God." We connected about as much as that quote suggests.
But, but: I was happy, in a way that had not too terribly much to do with Shawne Williams, when I saw that he was on the Charlotte Bobcats absolute monster of a NBA Summer League roster. I doubt that Williams makes the Bobcats -- he was indicted and got fat, and in most cases just one of those is enough to keep someone off a team's roster. (Usually) But what makes me so happy about the NBA Summer League -- happy enough that I wrote a feature about it for Slate that still stands as one of my favorite published journalistic attempts, and happy enough that I still get psyched when the Summer League rosters arrive -- is that it provides a home for the NBA's homeless, if only for a little while and if only in semi-watchable pickup-style games. But if it seems like there's a whimsy to these Summer League rosters -- and basketball dorks should know that Charlotte's roster, which also features ur-washout Darius Miles, among other refugees from the Island of Lost Wing Players -- I think it's because the residual joy of a basketball game overwhelms all the other bleak stuff I just spent all those words going over. The Summer League's ostensible purpose is to evaluate talent, and I suppose that it does that; players do get jobs off their Summer League showings, although those jobs are more frequently in Italy or Greece or Spain than in Indianapolis or Milwaukee or Oklahoma City. (Note: somehow, the latter are deemed preferable destinations) But more than that, if only by including your Shawne Williams' and Darius Miles' and Ndudi Ebi's, the Summer League celebrates talent more than it evaluates it. No one's putting Ndudi Ebi on the floor in a NBA game this year, I promise, but whoever brought him in to play for Orlando's Summer League team evidently did want to see him play. In that sense, the nameless talent evaluator -- the guy who will eventually stop returning phone calls from the agents of all these players -- was thinking like a sentimental basketball fan.
And Summer League games are different. There are coaches there, but for the most part the players just play -- it's really as close to watching these guys in a playground game (albeit an exceedingly self-conscious one) as most fans will ever get, and generally worth the $14.95 it costs to watch them online. Given his personal and professional struggles, given the fact that he seemingly never quite grew up into anything but an object lesson in the weaknesses of the NBA's Rookie Transition Program, letting Shawne Williams get out there and play this summer, if he can even find the floor, is both the least and the kindest thing the NBA can do for him. Shawne Williams will be paying for the mistakes he made as a dumb and not-ready kid for the rest of his life, either in jail or just by walking around with ubermenschy mega-success stories like me feeling comfortable deeming him a failure, full stop. I don't know enough about him to know whether things will work out for Shawne Williams, as a player or otherwise. But I liked him well enough all those years ago to be glad that someone in the game of basketball saw it fit to give him him an opportunity to get out there and play the game of basketball, and maybe see if there's any fun left in it. There's some real worth in that. Isn't that right, Darius Miles?