Tough journey for Mo Williams
L.A.'s guard finds drive and success despite a career of obstacles
LOS ANGELES -- Maybe it's better this way. Mo Williams will never admit that to himself. That would be accepting the situation, a surrender of sorts, and with it, the edge that's always made him play bigger than his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame.
So Williams is going to stay crabby. Going to play like he's trying to prove it shouldn't have been such a slam dunk for Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups to immediately knock him out of the Los Angeles Clippers' starting lineup. Going to remind everyone that no matter how much Billups meant to this team, out for the season with a devastaing Achilles injury, the Clippers will be just fine when Williams has to replace him and his production.
"I'm going to play with a chip on my shoulder anyway," Williams said. "What hurts me the most about the situation is that when I came to the Clippers my thing was to sign an extension and be here for the rest of my career, and then it all changed. To be honest with you, I don't know where I stand with the organization now."
Williams makes no secret of the hurt he felt when the Clippers traded for Paul and claimed Billups off waivers within a surreal 48-hour period from Dec. 12-14. Williams had done everything he could do to show the Clippers he was committed to the organization. He'd played through a painful injury the last 22 games of the 2010-11 season after coming over in a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers. He had amended his contract to help facilitate that trade. He even led offseason workouts during the lockout.
It hurt when the Clippers replaced him with not one, but two possible Hall of Fame point guards.
We get a little squeamish when players admit to feeling hurt or betrayed. Ooooh, controversy. Like it's inevitable that it's going to blow up somehow and wreck things.
But that's kind of naive. Of course Williams was upset. He's a competitor. A former All-Star. It would actually be more troubling if he wasn't upset. The question was whether he would channel that anger in a productive direction.
It wasn't a question for long.
Williams has done everything the Clippers hoped he would and more, averaging 14.5 points and 3.8 assists in just 27 minutes a game off the bench. He would be a leading contender for the Sixth Man of the Year anyway.
The season-ending injury to Billups may change Williams' role, but not his approach.
He has played with passion. He has been a leader. He has won a handful of games almost by himself. And yes, he has played angry. So what?
"Probably what is making him play so well is that he's playing with that chip," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "If that's the case then so be it."
This is how it has always been for Williams. He had wanted it to be different with the Clippers. Wanted to settle in here for the long haul. To be their leader and play with the kind of confidence you can only have when it's obvious the franchise is as committed to you as you are to it. After what he has been through in his life and career, Williams has earned that.
But this is how it's going to be here, too. Which is fine, because this is how it has always been.
Williams left college after his sophomore season at Alabama for two pretty good reasons: The people he was listening to convinced him he'd be a first-round pick; he had a young son to support and working at Mazzeo's Pizza in Jackson, Miss., wasn't going to cut it.
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"I had a son [KyDarius] when I was 14 years old, so it was a decision I had to make for him and my family," he said.
But Williams didn't get drafted in the first round or even the first half of the second round. No, he fell all the way to the Utah Jazz with the 47th pick of the 2003 draft.
He was stunned, hurt and angry. How could everyone have been so wrong? But instead of wallowing, he got to work. Utah ended up being the perfect place to channel all of it.
"That's where the chip started and it'll never leave until the day I retire from this game," Williams said. "Jerry Sloan started everything with me. What he instilled in me as far as how to be a professional, how to approach the game of basketball, how to approach practice, work ethic. All those things I got from Jerry Sloan and [assitants] Phil Johnson, Gordon Chiesa. All those guys on that coaching staff were terrific.
"They made me feel wanted. I worked hard, there wasn't much else to do."
Although the Jazz released him after one season, he had shown enough to earn a look from the Milwaukee Bucks. And when T.J. Ford went down with an injury, Williams got the opportunity he was waiting for, averaging 10.2 points and 6.1 assists in 28 minutes a game that season.
The Cavaliers were decimated. They lost an NBA-record 26 games at one point last season. It was beyond depressing. Which is why Williams was beyond excited to be traded to the Clippers at the trade deadline last season.
The Clippers had targeted him the summer before, but the deal fell through. They wanted him, which felt good to a guy like Williams who had already played for four teams in his eight NBA seasons.
The affection was personal as well as professional. Clippers general manager Neil Olshey had actually gotten to know Williams before the 2003 NBA draft and had kept in touch over the years. At the time, Olshey was working for super agent Arn Tellem.
While Williams didn't end up signing with Tellem, Olshey had formed a bond that would be key to managing Williams' feelings almost nine years later, when the Clippers landed Paul and Billups in that 48-hour span.
"He just said, 'Can we get away from the facility and talk?' " Olshey recalled. "So we headed over to Tony P's in the Marina [Del Ray] and sat for like three hours. It wasn't GM and player, it was just two guys that have known each other a long time. Mo's a great guy. He's the kind of player you can go and have a logical conversation with."
While Olshey braced himself for a trade demand, Williams was thinking something entirely different.
"I anticipated him saying, 'This isn't what I signed up, I want you to trade me' and it was the complete opposite," Olshey said. "He was like, 'I like it here, I love the organization, please don't send me to a bad situation.'
"And I told him, 'I give you my word, I'm not making any proactive phone calls about you. If I receive phone calls about you and it's something where I think we can come away with a fair deal, I will come to you and say, 'What do you think of this situation?'"
The whole thing is kind of refreshing. A gentleman's agreement in this day in age? A personal bond between two men in an industry like professional basketball standing up for more than a decade? Weathering personal disappointment like Williams was now trying to swallow? A little respect going that far?
"I don't feel bad because we're winning more, which is what Mo is about," Olshey said.
Williams nods when I tell him what Olshey said about him.
"I don't like to lose. I'm miserable on a losing team. I'm not going to be productive on a losing team. That's just me. I don't have any motivation to play for a losing team at all.
"So it's a situation where I'm between a rock and a hard place. I love this organization and I was planning to be with this organization for the rest of my career, and that all changed in one day."
The situation wasn't perfect then. It isn't perfect now. Williams thought he had found a home, instead he found another chip to put on his shoulder.
Maybe it's better this way.
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.
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