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"He has a lot of knowledge," newcomer Kurt Thomas says of Williams. "Whenever I go out on the floor, I look to him and ask him what I should do, what I should expect from other players." Coaches and players alike praise Williams's profound understanding of the game, as well as his unfailing ability to read and anticipate his opponents.
After his post-practice shoot-out with Ward, Williams gave a succinct assessment of one of this week's most anticipated opponents, the former Knick Charles Oakley, who comes to town with the Toronto Raptors. "When you got Charles Oakley, know what you've got. There's no surprises. You got a guy that's going to work hard. He boards the ball. He's going to be there to help on defense. He's gonna knock down jump shots. Anytime you get a player of his caliber to do what he's done, as many years as he's done it . . . I mean, it's tremendous. Most guys want to score points or to be involved in the offense. He takes his shots when he gets 'em. There's no surprises."
The regret in this emphatic praise for his friend and former teammate is unmistakable. But Williams has no harsh words for Oakley's less predictable replacement, 24-year-old Marcus Camby. "Marcus will be all right," Williams says of Camby's shaky start. "He's just never been with a team that has worked real hard. When you're young you have a tendency to think your ability is always going to get you through. You always have to use your mind. The game is more mental than physical." Sure enough, a few days later, a more heady Camby broke through with an eight-block effort against the Bulls.
Williams's strong rapport with his teammates and his keen basketball insight were also big factors in Knicks General Manager Ernie Grunfeld's decision to re-sign the aged center. "He has a coach's mentality. He sees the game, he sees the plays before they happen," says Grunfeld. "Not only can he still help on the court, but he's invaluable off the court. He's always calm. He provides great leadership for younger players with his work ethic. He's in early lifting weights every day and stays late to work on his foul shooting. Those are the kind of examples you want to show to young players."
While it is refreshing to hear someone in the NBA's management ranks talk about something other than cost certainty and marketing revenue, one wonders what Williams might have to offer the Knicks besides consummate professionalism. The truth is, Williams has twice been traded away by the Knicks, only to be re-signed as a free agent. Has his basketball expertise and interactions with fellow players grown more attractive since some less-than-professional athletes have joined the team? Could coaching be in Williams's future?
"He emphasizes what coaches emphasize, but in his own way," says Van Gundy, who adds that Williams is well-equipped to be a skipper. "He is universally respected by all players and coaches. And that's hard to achieve. I think it's a testament to his character and honesty." However, Van Gundy points out, the demands of a coaching job grueling hours, undending frustrations, constant stress may not appeal to Williams.
Still, Grunfeld says he has promised Williams a position with the organization either on the coaching staff or in the front office when he finally hangs up his jersey. But just last summer, Williams turned down a job offer from Grunfeld in favor of another year on the bench. "He loves the game so much, he's not ready to give it up yet," says the GM.
"I'm not sure," Williams says of his future after this season. "A lot of people have been talking about coaching and management. That's not on my mind. You can't focus on anything but playing basketball when you play basketball. This is my living. I study the whole game, I don't just study certain facets of it."
It is that kind single-mindedness that has enabled Herb Williams to breathe new dimensions and respect into the humble job of bench warming.