Who is John Williams, the man who will make nearly twice as much as Michael Jordan this season?

That is what most of the sports world is asking about the 6-foot-11 free agent forward, who signed a 7-year, $26 million offer sheet with the Miami Heat Wednesday night.

Williams will earn $5 million in the first season, nearly $1 million more than any other NBA player. By comparison, Magic Johnson makes $3.1 million, Pat Ewing $4.2 million. In the first four seasons of the new contract, Williams will make $17 million -- an average of $4.25 million.

Williams, 28, spent the first four seasons of his pro career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have 15 days to match the Miami offer. Although the Cavaliers won't make an announcement for two weeks, they are expected to grimace and then sign the check that will keep Williams in Cleveland.

Having just added Danny Ferry, losing Williams would be both a public relations and a severe talent setback for a team that has been knocked out of the playoffs in the second round this past season and the first round the season before.

But who is this guy? In the NBA, it is hard to keep the John Williamses straight. The other John Williams has been with the Bullets since being drafted in 1986 in the first round, the same year the Cavaliers drafted their John Williams in the second round. Neither has ever made an all-star team.

This John Williams is 6 feet 11, 232 pounds and averaged 17 points and 8.1 rebounds last season, by far his most productive in the NBA. He is known for his defense, his work ethic, his willingness to be the Cavs' sixth man even though a less-talented forward often started in front of him.

He earned $600,000 last season.

Once upon a time, he was John "Hot Rod" Williams, implicated in the 1985 Tulane point shaving scandal. He had to sit out a season before he was exonerated in court.

That was a painful time in his life, a source of bitterness about which he seldom speaks other than to say, "I never threw no games, I never did nothing wrong and I never lied about it."

He came from absolute poverty, his childhood home a ramshackle trailer in Sorrento, La. His first basketball hoop was a bent tire rim. He knocked out the spokes, nailed it to a tree and "our court was sand. I played until my white socks were black from the dirt."

Williams never knew his parents and was taken in by a woman named Barbara Colar, a neighbor who found him as a 6-month-old weeping on a front porch. Williams refers to her as his mother.

"She had three jobs at one time," he said. "She nearly worked herself into the grave to take care of me. I owe her everything."

She named him "Hot Rod" when he was about 5 because he made motor sounds while playing with toy cars on the floor. He also is very close to Cavs Coach Lenny Wilkens, whom he calls, "Coach Lenny."

Family is the most important aspect of Williams's life. When he became one of the richest men in all of sports Wednesday night, he was at his mother's home in Sorrento, "Working out back in the tool shed," she said.

Williams has named all of his children after himself -- John Jr., Johnfrancis and his daughter, Johnna. "I want my kids always to know who their daddy is because I never knew who mine was," said Williams. "I want them to have the things I never did and this contract means they'll never have to worry if something happens to me."

.....ESTIMATES FOR 1990-91 SEASON.........

.................................Salary in

Player, Team.....................Millions*

John Williams, Cavaliers.............$5.00

Patrick Ewing, Knicks................$4.20

Akeem Olajuwon, Rockets..............$4.00

Chris Mullin, Warriors...............$3.30

David Robinson, Spurs................$3.20

Sam Perkins, Lakers..................$3.17

Danny Ferry, Cavaliers...............$3.10

Magic Johnson, Lakers................$3.10

Michael Jordan, Bulls................$3.00

Charles Barkley, 76ers...............$3.00

Larry Bird, Celtics..................$2.75

*Does not include incentives, bonuses or revenue from endorsements.