By DAN GELSTON, Associated Press
WEEHAWKEN, N.J. (AP) — Jayson Williams wants to walk. After 26 months behind bars, Williams never squanders an opportunity to stretch the legs that once helped make him one of the NBA's most ruthless rebounders. Besides, he doesn't have a driver's license.
Dressed in a New Jersey Nets T-shirt and Chicago Bulls practice shorts, the 6-foot-10 Williams looms larger than the Empire State Building behind him in the distance. He takes only a few steps out from a hotel around Lincoln Harbor when a pair of 11-year-old girls wants to know if he played in the NBA.
He sure did. Was an All-Star, too.
"You're lying," one of the girls teases from her bike.
"Naw, I'm telling the truth," a laughing Williams said.
"I can't swear. But I'll tell you, it's the truth. It's a sin to swear."
Before asking for an autograph, the girl tells Williams she'll look him up online. He encourages the search. "No. 55," he throws in for good measure.
What they'll find of his name in a search engine is more than his successes and stats over an injury-shortened nine-year career. They'll also discover a cascade of stories detailing legal troubles that stretched more than a decade once his career dried up. They'll find Williams served eight months for drunken driving in New York and 18 months before that in New Jersey on charges stemming from a limo driver's shooting death.
"There's nothing I can do about that," Williams said.
Williams says all he can do today, and for the rest of his life, is apologize for his wrongs and crimes and start to move ahead, grateful for a second chance, with God on his side.
He quit drinking — 893 days sober and counting — discarded the guns, downsized the house, and returned to civilian life with a renewed focus and vigor for community work.
He walked more than a mile to his barber for a cut Tuesday because he was due later that night at an Upper Montclair Country Club fundraiser for HIV shelters. On Father's Day, he took a group of homeless men to the same barbershop, after arranging for breakfast at a local shelter, to clean them up and restore a chunk of their dignity.
In his first extended interview since he was freed from jail in April, the 44-year-old Williams stressed over and over that he's sorry, and vowed to live life without the toxic tag team of booze and bravado that fueled his reckless behavior and led to the shotgun death in his New Jersey mansion of chauffeur Costas Christofi and the night he drove his SUV into a tree in lower Manhattan.
"People say, 'Jay, you're a great guy, you just had a couple of bad nights,'" Williams said. "People that have themselves under control don't have a couple of bad nights like that. Plain and simple. I could have been better. That's my goal now, to be better."
It's a start for a man rendered unable to get a handle on his life. Williams, who tackled the lighter side of the NBA in "Loose Balls," reveals how he lost his way, and the lessons learned and scars formed from childhood and prison in his latest book, "Humbled: Letters From Prison." Williams wrote candid letters, journal entries, even poetry, to pass time in prison, mailed them to a friend who saved them, and turned them into a collection of his works.
In one entry, he reveals a secret — saying he was sexually abused as a child.
"I don't like talking about it and I won't talk about it," Williams said. "That was the most embarrassing thing to write. The most painful. It was very painful for me to read the book again."
Even with a wife and children, Williams' retirement was filled with pain because of the 2002 fatal shooting of Christofi.
Two years after a freak leg injury suffered with the New Jersey Nets forced him to retire, Williams killed Christofi with a 12-gauge shotgun while showing it to friends, having failed to check the weapon's safety mechanism before snapping the gun closed.
Williams then wiped down the weapon and placed it in the chauffeur's hands, stripped off his own clothes, handed them to a friend and jumped into his pool, according to testimony. Williams' lawyers maintained that the shooting was an accident and that his actions were driven by panic.
The tragedy will always haunt Williams.
"To be honest, you just think about the damage you caused, from the shooting to the irresponsible way I acted after," he said. "It's just so painful, you try not to think of it. I acted that way. I've got to take responsibility."
Williams made a tearful apology to the victim's family when he was sentenced for the shooting in 2010. He wants to sit across from Andrea Adams, Christofi's sister, and personally apologize and show his true remorse in person. He says if she's willing, he'll meet on her terms. Christofi's family received a reported $2.75 million settlement from Williams in 2003.
"I have to deal with what happened that night, every night, and the pain of that," Williams said. "But I don't have to deal with demons. The demons are anything that takes me from sobriety. Those demons are gone.
"I just had to turn it over to somebody. And the only one I could turn it over to was God."
He scribbles a bible verse next to his autograph and has eschewed the heavy drinking that was as much a part of his routine as shootarounds and road trips.
"I've never been in trouble without alcohol," he said. "So I took it away. I'm damn sure not going back to jail."
He's in an alcohol recovery and treatment program and also visits a psychiatrist.
Looking fit at 245 pounds, Williams says God and sobriety make him feel the best physically he has in years even though he has trouble sleeping.
On this walk, Williams is hilarious and heartfelt, quick with a quip and a hug and autograph for fans on the street or in the barber shop. Williams is so gregarious, he would have thrived as the life of any party, without getting loaded on booze or trying to play Doc Holliday in a mansion.
"No excuses, but when people come to your house as a young man," he said, "they don't want to see your Picassos, they want to see your pistols. The department of justice took the pistols off. So you're left with the Picasso, which is a lot safer."
The series of delays in the case led to Williams finally serving time eight years after the accident. Williams believes the ripple effect of that night in his mansion was the overwhelming stress that caused his father to have a stroke at 70 and die in 2009.
"Two lives were taken," that night, Williams said. "I'd tell my dad everything was going to be all right. He said, 'Not this time."
Williams did have staunch supporters while he was in prison. Former NBA star Charles Oakley was a frequent visitor. Williams calls former New York Jets running back Curtis Martin his spiritual advisor. And through all his legal woes, Williams maintained a tight friendship with director Penny Marshall.
It seems like a cast straight out of "Hollywood Squares." For Williams, the trio helped form the backbone of support through his darkest days.
Williams recently filmed an interview for Marshall for a documentary on Dennis Rodman. Marshall and Williams talked for more than an hour Monday night, connecting much as they have for most of their 27-year friendship. Using his best nasal whine, Williams recalled how Marshall implored him for years to cut down or cut out his drinking — he just failed to listen.
Williams also exchanged letters with NBA Commissioner David Stern while in prison.
Unemployed, Williams has friends in the entertainment business who pitched projects at him. But Williams is on parole until September 2013 and sure isn't going to Los Angeles.
A first-round draft pick in 1990, Williams would love to somehow return to the NBA via coaching or TV studio work. At the very least, he could be the type of motivational speaker to scare rookies straight at orientation.
"I think I can explain to those young folks better than anybody can how one mistake, one reckless act, can change your life," Williams said.
Williams, who lives alone in Hudson County, is close to finalizing his divorce from his wife, Tanya. He's tried to establish a daily routine with volunteer work and his longtime manager and best friend, Akhtar Farzaie, is always near for support. His legal woes took a toll on the $63 million he made in his playing career, but Williams insists he's not strapped for cash.
For eight years he talked to no one more than his attorney, Joe Hayden.
"He'd never give you, 'It's a good day,'" Williams said. "And how could it be? Everything was half empty."
On his best days, Williams knows brighter times are finally on the horizon.
They're just not here yet.
"I'll say life is simpler," he said. "I'll let you know when it's good."
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