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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.
"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.