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It was a rare sight for any Knicks observer: Herb Williams, New York's perennial 12th man, was on the court, with sweat on his brow, and stepping up to the free-throw line for a foul shot. It's unusual to see Williams in any game situation and this was no exception. The scenario took place at the Knicks training facility in Purchase, New York, and not in an actual contest. But Williams was not merely lining up to sink an irrelevant shot from the charity stripe. He wasn't even working to perfect his
technique for that unkown game down the road when he may well be called upon to deliver (though he is known to work hard in order to stay prepared).
No, Williams was out on the court after a rigorous three-hour practice working with one of his young teammates to correct a flaw that had cropped up in the Knicks' first couple of games. They had opened the 1999 season with two straight losses, due in part to the team's dismal performance from the line. So there was Williams, drilling point guard Charlie Ward on the fine points of foul shooting.
"Hit the front of the rim," Williams urged, as Ward set his feet and sized up the basket. A moment later, Williams was at the line taking none of his own advice. "I can make it go in, son," he declared as his shot clanged off the rim, prompting Ward to unleash with some good- natured ribbing of his own. With a diligence tempered by playful warmth, Williams continued to engage his young teammate in the exercise until they were the only two left on the court.
"Big Herb? That's my Pops!" Ward later said of his senior colleague, after shooting 6 of 7 from the stripe against the Washington Wizards. "He's like my big brother."
As the oldest active player in the league, Willliams, who turns 41 this week, has worn a comfortable groove into his seat at the end of the Knicks team bench over the last six seasons. Although his on-court contributions have been minimal of late, he remains a strong and influential presence on the team. His popularity among fans is indisputable. On the rare occasions that Coach Jeff Van Gundy calls his number, Williams is greeted with roars of approval from the crowd. And even during his long idles on the bench, there seems no shortage of praise for the 6-11 veteran center who spent many years first with the Indiana Pacers and later with the Dallas Mavericks as a formidable low-post force. (He averaged 19.9 points and 9.1 rebounds in his best season, 198586, with the Pacers.)
Along with his solid experience, Williams also enjoys widespread respect among coaches and players in the league. Teammates look to him for advice and encouragement, while Van Gundy relies on Williams to use his gifts as a communicator to exert his spot-on coaching instincts with players. And then there is the palpable lift in team spirits that Williams brings. Knicks officials say he has helped sustain the team's sense of continuity and calm through the persistent changes in personnel in recent years. Williams's good vibes even came through during his brief exile to the Toronto Raptors in 1996. On a Knicks road trip that year, when players on the team bus heard that Williams was on the other end of a cell phone, they refused to let him hang up until everybody on the roster had a chance to talk to him.
Despite the goodwill flowing from all directions, and what team officials describe as an impeccable work ethic and excellent conditioning, Williams has remained Van Gundy's last option on game night. At press time, he had yet to log any minutes in the 1999 regular season. In the closing moments of last week's Knicks' victory over Washington, Van Gundy waved unproven reserves Rick Brunson, David Wingate, and Ben Davis off the bench, leaving Williams the lone Knick still sporting a warm-up suit. Van Gundy calls the old sage a "capable player," but his unwillingness to publicly test that capability reveals Williams's true ability to contribute. Last year, even with Patrick Ewing sidelined for much of the season, Williams played in just 27 of 82 games, averaging 1.4 points, 1 rebound, .3 blocked shots, and 6.5 minutes per game.
Nevertheless, the Knicks recently re-signed Williams to a one-year deal worth a reported $1 million. But as the lockout and the departure of the beloved John Starks have recently reminded us, loyalty and warm fuzzies do not a contract make. Basketball is a business. So what exactly makes Williams worth a million when the Knicks could pluck any old big man out of the CBA to polish the pine for a fraction of the price?
If you train your eyes on the Knick bench during a game, you'll find part of the answer. Williams studies the action intently, rarely taking his eyes off the floor. Rather than jumping to his feet in protest when one of his teammates is called for a foul, he seems to deconstruct the play out loud, bending the ear of anyone who will listen. And Williams has always found a willing audience among his fellow Knicks.