Our story begins in December of 1989, when John Williams was lost to a knee injury in the Bullets' 18th game of the season. Having never suffered a serious injury before, Williams would become frustrated by the inactivity.
"I'd sit at home watching the games on TV, knowing I should be playing. But I couldn't do anything. I had a cast on. I couldn't walk or run or ride a bike. There wasn't anything else for me to do," Williams explained, "but sit in front of the TV and eat. That was my first outlet -- to get something to eat."
So he ate.
Hamburgers, mostly. Dressed with lettuce, tomato, bacon, pickles, chili and cheese. Accompanied by french fries and a milkshake. And if that wasn't enough, a pint of butter pecan ice cream; effectively a high-caloric medication, which Williams admits "eased my pain somewhat." Can't we all see ourselves taking that last spoon of ice cream from the carton?
By the time Williams left Washington for L.A. in April, he'd gone from 255 pounds to about 280. "People saw me at games and said I was picking up weight," he recalled. "I didn't pay them no mind." Williams admits this has been a traditional problem for him -- gaining weight and never paying much attention.
In L.A., Williams continued to binge: eating quickly, eating huge portions, eating late at night. "I could really put it down," he said. "I'd go to a restaurant, and order a fried shrimp dinner, salad and a baked potato with lots of butter, and eat all of that in maybe ten minutes."
He was big-boned and broad-shouldered anyway, and so, Williams claimed, he never noticed how round he was growing. "Looking at myself in the mirror, I really couldn't tell," which makes you wonder about the precision of his mirrors. One day last September, Williams stepped onto a scale and the needle topped out at 302. "What I thought was, my God, I weigh three hundred and two pounds! I've never been this heavy. How the heck am I going to go out on the court like this and not look like a fool? There's no way I can go to training camp at 302."
So he didn't. He didn't show, and he didn't tell the Bullets why. He didn't return their phone calls.
"I was embarrassed," Williams said. "I knew their first question would be: 'How's your weight?' It always is."
Halfheartedly, he tried to shed some weight. "But I'd only do so much," he conceded. "And then I'd say, 'I've had enough, let's call it a day.' " Over the next two months Williams lost just seven pounds. He weighed 295 when he finally came East in November. He was as wide as a billboard.
The Bullets were reluctant to let him out of their sight, so instead of shipping him to a fat farm to induce quick weight loss, they assigned him to strength coach Dennis Householder. He started Williams on aerobics and ruled all fried and fatty foods off his plate. Bye-bye, butter pecan. Williams is eating broiled fish and fruit, and drinking water. It seems to be working.
Late last week Williams weighed 272 pounds, and was somehow hoping to get down near 260 by next Wednesday, so he could return to action at home against the Atlanta Hawks. "I'm hungry," he said, oblivious to the irony in that phrase. "I'm looking forward to that first game back."
A more prudent man might choose to try out the act on the road rather than risk a chorus of catcalls from the home crowd. But Williams said: "I want to open at home, in front of our fans. I want to show them I can take up where I left off. . . . The big question is: How much wind will I have on the court? Everything else -- the defense, passing to the open man, setting picks, shooting, scoring -- I think I can handle."
After 14 months on the sideline, Williams intends to step back into the NBA on the same level at which he left.
Don't you just love the dreamers?
The Bullets sent him on the current road trip so the coaches could work him out and accelerate his weight loss. Fearing for the stability of his knee, they have no intention of playing him until he gets to 260; that's the magic number. If it's next Wednesday, good. If it's the following week, so be it. Considering the anguish Williams has caused them, the Bullets have been excessively patient.
There's a history here of excess weight and irresponsibility that goes back to 1986, when Kevin Loughery was the coach. Williams has never once come to camp in shape. He's promised them the moon, and delivered green cheese. Even now the Bullets wonder if the genial Williams is simply telling them what he thinks they want to hear.
It's difficult to gauge whether he sees this whole messy predicament as anything more than a transient episode that will go away once he resumes playing. After all, who among us hasn't sought relief in the soft midnight light of the refrigerator? He seems genuinely embarrassed by what happened, and anxious to get back on the court with his teammates, but he shrugs off the notion that he'd let them down. "That's life," he said. "You have ups and downs. I'm hoping they'd be understanding." Williams attributes his cavalier attitude about his weight to his sense that "everything always came so easily to me," a roundabout admission he was never disciplined. But, asked if he would seek outside help to avoid a recurrence, he said, "I can control myself," perhaps a wishful thought.
We see in John Williams, a 24-year-old millionaire, the classic example of a coddled athlete; someone whose marketable talent excused any aimless behavior at every stop along the way. "Basketball is my life," he says now. "It's all I know how to do." We can only hope this time he takes it seriously.