The rolling Who Knew? estate that Jayson Williams built in the western woods of New Jersey is basketball's version of Graceland, a sprawling playpen for someone with a fear of loneliness and a phonebook full of famous friends. There's the movie theater with huge red-leather chairs. The two-hole golf course. The off-road track. The horse trails. Its very existence is an invitation to long and luscious parties. It is, therefore, a curious place for someone to come to kill himself.
Nonetheless, when New Jersey state police respond to a call early on Valentine's Day, that is precisely what they are told has happened -- that a limousine driver, Gus Christofi, turned a 12-gauge shotgun on himself in Williams' bedroom sometime after 2 a.m.
There is the blood. Again.
There are the questions about a gun. Again.
He is drunk. Again.
And as the detectives start talking to the dozen live men in the house who have been with him that night, Jayson Williams will soon be called a liar. Again.
It's the summer of 1986, and Paul "Doc" Nicelli is working upstairs at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club on 29th Street in Manhattan when Jay pops his head through the door and asks if he can practice a few late-night dunks. The gravelly-voiced Doc loves the 18-year-old kid. Jay's mom, Barbara, is a good Catholic from the Lower East Side, a giving woman who spends her time praying at St. Teresa's for the struggling immigrants, crackheads and elderly along Cherry Street.
Jay has her round eyes, trim mouth, delicate cheekbones. He also feels the ire of her Polish and Italian family because his father is black. One day, his cousin announces that their white grandfather "always hated niggers, and he hated your family, too." Jay lunges at him, fists up.
Doc looks out his office window at Jay pounding the boards. He's got the hands of his father, E.J. "Big Daddy" Williams, a tough-as-nails builder who's never worked for anyone but himself. Since Big Daddy makes his son work construction during summers, Jay doesn't have skills as polished as the kids who play summer league. But none of them has as much money jangling in his pockets, or his own Caddy.
Jay was 6 when Big Daddy brought him back to Ritter, his rural South Carolina hometown right out of a Southern Gothic potboiler. E.J. rolled around town in a '73 Thunderbird with ".45 Magnum" on its license plates -- proudly advertising the gun he kept in the glove box. Jay would tell the story of the time two of his stepbrothers got into a fight, and one grabbed a loaded shotgun, shooting the other in the leg. Jay stayed there until he was 9, then returned to his mother's turf -- the ethnic crossroads of the projects, where Jews, Italians, blacks, Irish and Chinese elbow one another for space in the shadow of the waterfront. When his mom was at St. Teresa's and E.J. was away on business, Jay learned about the city's streets from his adult stepsisters, Linda and Sissy. They taught him about the night and how to keep its secrets.
So that he could stay out late shooting hoops and not awaken his folks when he came in, he outlined the squeaky tiles on the floor of his room with a glow-in-the-dark marker. For a kid, it was sweet.
Then came the June day in 1980. Jay was walking home from school when he saw cops in front of Linda's place. He ran in, 12-year-old eyes wide as he took in the blood on the wall. The red streaks led him, like signposts, to the bathroom. He found Linda bleeding from multiple stab wounds inflicted by a mugger who'd lain in wait for the two bucks in her purse. Linda was rushed to the hospital and given blood that was tainted with HIV. For the next three years, Jay watched as she suffered the new doomsday plague, shriveling to nothing and living for morphine. Sissy, her soulmate, shared her pain, her needle and, eventually, her disease. So much bad blood.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
Jay could have withdrawn, but he became a one-man revival act instead. He joked when he visited Sissy. He joked when he helped Victor Santiago, a friend who would one day become his adopted brother, kick drugs. He joked with the kids at Doc's boys club.
The best side of Jay thought anything was possible. One summer afternoon in 1986, after he graduated from Christ the King High School in Queens, Jay spied Eddie Lau, a Chinese kid whose parents toiled long hours as a cook and a seamstress, shooting alone at the P.S. 134 playground. Lau had a bad case of pre-teen acne, and Jayson took the boy under his wing, even paying for him to see a dermatologist. "He could have chosen anyone, but he chose me," says Lau.
The worst side of Jay thought anything was possible too. It's why he insulted teachers, chugged beer and got someone else to take his SATs.
Jay hands the rock back to Doc and smiles, bidding the AAU coach a warm goodnight. Doc loves the kid. But he also knows that that smile is a mask hiding pain. Later, when Doc shuts off the lights and heads out through the gym, he sees just how much. The rim Jay used is so horribly bent and misshapen, Doc has to spend an hour replacing it.
The Jay who walks into Lou Carnesecca's gym at St. John's University in the fall of 1986 is a jumble of ill-fitting ends, each hidden by a different mask. As the trips to Rockaway to watch Sissy die become more frequent, he quits the team a dozen times. Each time he comes back, his coach ties the ends together.
Jay moves Sissy's daughter, Monique, and Laura's little Ejay into his apartment near St. John's. He dresses and feeds them and drives them to school in Manhattan, all before he makes it to his first class. With the NBA in sight, he blooms as a player, too, leading the Redmen to the 1989 NIT title. A year later, he's sitting in Carnesecca's office when he hears the Suns have picked him 21st in the NBA draft.
Leave the limelight for Phoenix? No way. He decides to act like he's whacked. He threatens to play in Europe if he doesn't get $10 million -- five times what the Suns offer. He rams a Pontiac they've given him. He stays stinking drunk. The Suns don't know what to think. He's an acting father, acting like a child; a big-city boy who seems afraid of the suburbs; a hesitant shooter who acts cocksure. Finally, CEO Jerry Colangelo unloads his draft rights to Philly. "I played Jerry like an accordion," Jay brags cynically.
Never mind that Phoenix might have done Jay and the kids good. Fine schools, clean air, a fresh start. Instead he commutes to Philly from NYC. "If the game ended at 9:50 in Philadelphia, I'd be having my first tequila back in New York by 11:15," he once told The Magazine. He uses his NBA money to open a Lower Manhattan bar, Big Daddy's. It's a cross between a social club and a Bowery mission, packed with friends who come to him for help like they do to the nuns at nearby St. Teresa's. "I can't ever remember seeing a cash register there," one regular says.
Inside the NBA, he's developing another reputation. As a rookie trying to impress veterans, he plays up his friendships with the low-level mobsters he went to school with, delighting when Sixers vets dub him Al Capone. One day in 1991, he stuns a handful of them at a shootaround by bragging that he'd slept with an absent teammate's wife. The best part was how he said he arranged it: He'd gotten the husband out by promising to meet him at a nightclub so they could chase women together. No one knew if the story was true, and it "was funny when you heard Jayson tell it," says a player who was there. "But then you think about it, it's damn underhanded, too. That tells you a lot about Jayson."
Yinka Dare, the Nets' easily flustered Nigerian center, is going crazy. In a mean-spirited prank, Jayson has hidden his teammate's key ring so Dare would be locked out of his apartment. And Jay has turned his cell phone off so Dare can't reach him.
Williams has been a Net since the '92-93 season, when Philly traded him for draft picks. And the Dare prank is just the latest headache he's caused. One January night in 1994, a security guard heard early-morning shots ring out in the Meadowlands parking lot. Days later, cops found a .40 caliber semiautomatic in the trunk of Jay's car -- the same gun believed to have been used to shoot the hubcaps of an empty van in the lot. Over the objections of prosecutors, a judge let Jay walk. Now, after the Dare fiasco, coach Butch Beard is so angry at Jay that the veins in his neck are bulging. "Boy, what's the matter with your head?" he yells, backing Jay up in the locker room. "You don't have to do this crap. You have to decide if you want a place in this game, son." Beard leans in farther and tells him every team needs a rebounder: "Just think about it."
Beard hopes the suggestion will appeal to the side of Jay that can be salvaged, the side that still wants to see himself as a hero. He's 27 and, having adopted his niece and nephew, is now a grandfather. How many more years can he spend on the bench, hung over and begging laughs?
Jay pours on muscle. Friends and family prevail on him to curb his drinking. One day at the practice facility, Jay bets Beard he can pick up a bar loaded with 175 pounds of weight with one hand. "Damn if the fool didn't do it," Beard chuckles. He becomes one of the league's top rebounders, but after the Nets fire Beard and suffer through a bad half-season under John Calipari, Jay is snubbed for the '97 All-Star Game. Depressed, he has thumb surgery and retreats to the palace he's building in the western New Jersey woods.
It's not so different from the upstate New York hills where his mother had kept a small trailer, and where he used to love to sit up in trees and hunt ducks. Old friends are invited to Jersey for cocktails and skeet shooting on his new range. "There's a part of Jay that wants to be this society sportsman, but there's a part that wants to be a gangster and watch Scarface 10 times," says one guest who leaves after growing uneasy with the mix of hoods and woods.
Calipari gets a taste of Williams' firepower that summer too. In GQ, Jay publishes a diary in which he complains, "I don't want a man who's only eight years older than me yelling and hollering at me and telling me what I can do." Calipari is left seething. But anything can be forgotten when a team starts winning.
With a revamped nucleus for '97-98 that includes rookie Keith Van Horn, No. 55 comes into his own. Calipari has Jay front rival big men, turning his smaller size to an advantage by letting him nimbly spin around them to grab rebounds. He winds up leading the league in offensive boards and gets the All-Star invite he craves -- at Madison Square Garden, no less. Cherry Street might be 50 blocks south, but he's never felt farther away. "I'm the most powerful man in the franchise," he boasts in a Dec. 14, 1998, profile in The Magazine. (Williams declined requests to be interviewed for this article.)
Other doors open. Billy Hunter, head of the players union, thinks Jay can play a key role on the bargaining team that will face the owners. He's quick-witted, and the tabloids love him. To Hunter's surprise, Jay declines. A union official says they didn't hear from Jay until the season was hanging in the balance -- and then only through the press. In early January 1999, he becomes the highest-profile player to break ranks when he accuses Hunter of pandering to the wealthiest players and agents.
"The guy could have been honest and said, 'I need the paycheck,'" grumbles the union source. "Lord knows enough others called us to say that. But he had to go tee it up that he was being altruistic for Joe Blow." More galling, Jay is hailed for saving the season when the union and league strike a deal days later, and he walks away with the largest contract allowed -- $85.8 million for six years.
A new Gentleman Jay emerges on the public stage. He pledges $20,000 to Meadowlands workers who've lost money from the strike. He presses 100-dollar bills into the hands of the homeless and gives lavish tips to waitresses at the city's top clubs. But the charity he learned on Cherry Street doesn't extend to Calipari. He has little use for the man who helped him get his fat contract. When the '98-99 season finally starts, the Nets lose all but three of their first 20 games. When he's axed, Calipari sees Jay's fingerprints all over the pink slip. "If you're losing and you have a few bad seeds, I can't explain to you misery like that," Calipari says bitterly. Still, even Calipari has to marvel at Williams' gamesmanship. He finally has it all. The money. The power. The worship.
He has it for exactly 10 games.
With 1:05 on the clock and the Nets up 85-83 in a Feb. 9 game against Atlanta, he plants his right foot in the paint, ready to rebound. Below him, Stephon Marbury caroms off Dikembe Mutombo and into Jayson's right leg. It buckles as it hits the floor, breaking at a deformed, almost cartoonish angle. If a surgeon looked at his X-rays, he'd assume the poor guy had wiped out on a motorcycle. Jay will spend the next 15 months struggling to get back to where he was on the way up for that ball.
The grounds of Who Knew? look like a county fair. It's June 2000, more than a year since Jay has been out of the NBA. Since then he's pledged $2.1 million to St. John's, replaced a stolen $5,000 wheelchair for a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy and made countless hospital visits to kids. That's why Laurence Fishburne and Lauren Hutton are mingling by his pool. It's why Governor Christie Whitman is taking a horseback tour of the grounds. It's why Michael J. Fox is accepting a $50,000 check for Parkinson's disease research.
It's also why scores of reporters are on hand, though not the only reason. Jay has kept himself on the hot list by publishing a best-selling autobiography. In one typically wicked story, he writes that his friend and ex-Net Armon Gilliam is so cheap that he saves on electricity by storing food in snow. Just one problem. "Not a word of it is true," says Gilliam, now a coach at Penn State-Altoona. "Don't you recognize it? It's an old Richard Pryor routine."
But Jay can't sell the fiction that he's returning to the NBA. He's worked round-the-clock to rehab the leg, repaired with five screws and a bone graft from his hip. Just when he's ready to rejoin the Nets, he breaks his left toe in practice. When he resumes his workouts, his knees swell like balloons. The Nets send him to three specialists. All offer the same prognosis: serious arthritic deterioration. Three days after the celebrity party, the Nets announce the inevitable: Jay's body has reached its limits. He retires with an insurance payout of $60 million. Beard sends him a note: "Use the money to have a good life."
Jay tries. He gets a commercial driver's license so he can do the kind of construction work still good enough for his dad. He dabbles in real estate, eyes land to permanently house a basketball camp, sinks $500,000 into a National Lacrosse League team for New Jersey, placing billboards along the turnpike that show him going up for a dunk with a lacrosse stick.
He also gets married -- for the second time. Tanya Williams is a beautiful basketball player-turned-lawyer. But she also seems mindful of the outcome of his first marriage and guarded about their future. In a not-very-well-understood interlude, Jay had married a California model named Kellie Batiste in late December 1999. But the union ended almost as abruptly as it started. "I saw the woman at the wedding and never saw her again," says one member of the Nets family.
If the new bride hopes to help Jay move on, a May 2001 press conference at which he announces his lacrosse investment shows how haunted he remains by seasons he wasted: "Every day I wake up and want to continue playing for the Nets," he says. It's his last bid to use the media to help him. Like the rest of the NBA, the Nets aren't listening.
After 2 a.m. on a July morning in 2001, Jay is at a Manhattan nightclub when he spots Dikembe Mutombo. It's more than two years since the lockout ended and Mutumbo, a key negotiator, gave him an elbow in the paint that broke his nose. Jay shouts over the loud music, then reportedly slaps a drink out of Mutumbo's hand. Mutumbo glares and walks away. Jay's not worth the attention. "When it got late, you looked at him slumped in a seat and he just wasn't there," says a bartender at one of the clubs he frequented. "His eyes were just blanks. It was sad."
But to NBC Sports and, for that matter, America's sports fans, Williams is still a star. The network hires him to be an NBA halftime talking head. For laughs, he disses former rivals, calling Patrick Ewing "old man winter." But it's hard not to notice spite seeping into his candor. Like in the old days, nights stretch into the early morning. At his height, New York's gossip columnists chronicled his nights with fashion models and Hollywood stars. Now no one's watching.
Kent Culuko may not be Marcus Schenkenberg, the Calvin Klein underwear model who used to accompany Jay around town in the old days. But the prep school star who once tried out for the Nets is an eager friend. He runs Jay's summer hoops camp, plays on Jay's lacrosse team and spends nights in Jay's mansion. Most important, he delivers Jay a crowd.
When the 2001-02 NBA season starts, Culuko trolls for veterans of European leagues who are staying home because of Sept. 11. He forms a practice squad to keep Jay from getting depressed. It works. The dunking and running, the shooting threes in traffic, are exhilarating. Jay brings the whole squad to his vacation home in Hilton Head to play an exhibition against a team led by his neighbor, Julius Erving. In the weeks that follow, the team meets more often and books games against squads run by Master P, members of the Philadelphia Eagles and Rick Pitino. There's even an exhibition in Salt Lake City against, believe it or not, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. For Culuko, it's as close as he'll get to the big time. "We were like a real NBA team," he says. But it's hard to imagine Jay being as satisfied.
In November 2001, Jay drives to a bar near his home. With him is Eric Allena, a 27-year-old cop from Bridgewater. Maybe the badge makes Jay feel bold, because when a customer reaches to shake his hand, Jay pulls his hand back. A press report has Jay slapping at the man's head and two bouncers dragging him out. When he tries to get back inside, they flag down a cop. According to a police report, Jay twice tries pushing past the officer. After he's charged with obstruction (he later pleads guilty), he starts apologizing. The cops figure they've caught him on a bad night. But an incident two months later suggests the outburst may have been part of a troubling pattern.
On Jan. 19, a family-oriented sports bar in Manhattan is packed for the NFL playoffs. Jay has $50,000 riding on the Raiders over the Patriots. As the game seesaws, customers grow uncomfortable as he gets more upset, according to a witness at the restaurant. A waitress walks over to see if Jay's party needs help. "Get out of here, you're bad luck," he yells, loud enough to be overheard. When Oakland loses, the witness says Jay boozily challenges a man at the table to a draw to see who can most quickly whip his gun out of his ankle holster. In that frozen moment, his friends are positive he'll do it. It's only after they point out that kids are running around that he seems to snap back. He returns to his drink.
The group around Jay when he takes in a Harlem Globetrotters game on Feb. 13 is so straight-laced, it wouldn't raise an eye at Wal-Mart. Kent Culuko and his younger brother Craig; Kent's friend and church league coach John Gordnick; Gordnick's 6- and 15-year-old kids; a semipro hoops pal, John McPartland; and Dean Bumbaco, a starstruck landscaper. Jay's adopted brother, Victor, is there too.
For them, the chance to be around Jay means the chance to turn an ordinary night into something extraordinary. But for Jay, the game at Lehigh University about 26 miles away is an excuse to get out of his empty house on a night when Tanya won't be there. After the game, he invites two ex-Nets, Benoit Benjamin and Chris Morris, to join his suburban posse, along with Trotters Curley "Boo" Johnson and Paul "Showtime" Gaffney.
Gus Christofi, 55, is behind the wheel of the van hired, via a 10:30 p.m. call, to haul the extra bodies. He's an ex-con who's kicked drugs and turned his life around. As they all load in, Christofi feels lucky in his own way. He drives the guests 26 miles to the Mountain View Chalet restaurant, in tandem with Jay's car. When he parks, one of the Globetrotters invites him to wait inside with them. While his clients run up an $1,800 tab, Gus sits alone drinking coffee. Two hours later, when the group is ready to leave, Gus learns they're going to Jay's house.
At 2:15 a.m., Gus pulls past the wrought-iron gates of Williams' estate, past the bronze image of Jay shrugging his shoulders, past the sign that reads Who Knew? When the van reaches the front door, Gus' eyes are big as basketballs. Culuko invites him in. It's a house built for a man with a fear of being alone. Yet it's so big, how can a man help but feel lonely in it? That's why, at an hour when most of New Jersey is fast asleep, Who Knew? has 14 people milling about. Jay should go to sleep, but he's too restless for that. Or maybe the word is haunted.
The men are scattered throughout the estate's 41 rooms. Victor is asleep. According to published accounts, the others are gawking at photos, shooting hoops in his gym and partying while Jayson is in his bedroom with Gus and Culuko. Soon a shot rings out. Jay will scream for anyone who knows CPR. He tries plugging the gaping hole in Gus' chest with his hands. Looking at his palms smeared with blood, he could have been 12, and scared all over again.
Williams will be accused of putting the dead man's fingerprints on the gun to make it look like suicide. Culuko will break down and tell prosecutors that he helped; in hopes of escaping jail he'll agree to plead guilty to evidence and witness tampering. He promises to testify against his friend. He'll also promise to testify against Gordnick, who'll be charged with helping Jay shed his blood-stained clothes. Allena, Jay's cop buddy, will be the fourth man charged, accused of arriving at the house and encouraging the men to continue lying. Jay's mother will drive three hours from the city to be with him. When she arrives, she'll be so distraught that she'll just lock herself in one of the rooms and cry. E.J., who sent all of his eight children to college, will be crushed as he watches his youngest charged with aggravated manslaughter. And paramedics will roll poor Gus Christofi into a body bag.
So much bad blood. Again.
This article appears in the August 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Assael: Off balance
With his friendships frayed ...
Who's on the cover today?
SportsCenter with staples
Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...