He Was the Next Michael Jordan
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
If you thought superstardom was guaranteed for the uber-talented, think again.
By Nathan Siegel
He stalked the baseline, waiting for a break in zone defense, and when guard Michael Jackson fed him the ball just 10 feet from the hoop, he pump-faked a defender, shot and … missed. Undeterred, he grabbed his rebound and sunk a floater over the outstretched arm of seven-footer Hakeem Olajuwon.
The Baltimore lad played for one of the best high school teams ever, won a national championship as a freshman at Georgetown and was voted Most Valuable Player in his final game. He’s still the college’s third-leading scorer, passer and rebounder, and when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers fourth overall in 1987, then owner Donald Sterling called him “a Michael Jordan-type player.” So why don’t many of us recognize the name Reggie Williams?
His versatility made Magic Johnson look like a one-trick pony.
He was a stringy kid who looked like he’d fall over in a strong breeze, and he wasn’t known for having much to say. It was “like trying to pull teeth to get him to talk,” says Mike Riley, an assistant coach at Georgetown when Williams played there. But don’t mistake silence for lack of confidence. Even in his first year at Georgetown, 1984, Riley and fellow assistant coach Craig Esherick never doubted Williams would step up when it mattered. And he got his chance when the Hoyas, under legendary coach John Thompson, muscled their way into the finals against the University of Houston. Williams’ initial points revealed what made him unstoppable: a fantastic jump shot and an explosive first step to the net.
Williams’ versatility made Magic Johnson look like a one-trick pony. OK, OK. But there have been few players before or since who could beat you any which way, including on defense. The 6-foot-7 string bean had a smooth jump shot that extended far beyond the three-point line, and he could slash to the basket and finish with the best of them. He gobbled up rebounds at the same rate as his teammate, future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing — a mammoth feat for a small forward. And he could pass and lock down on defense with a wingspan that would make a pelican jealous.
The three-point line wasn’t created until Williams’ senior season. It’s estimated he would have been second on Georgetown’s all-time scoring list had the three-point line been there throughout his career.
Williams would finish the championship game with 19 points, seven rebounds and a name college basketball fans from his day will never forget. Though, to be fair, he wasn’t exactly a nobody in high school. In fact, he was the high school player of 1983, leading Baltimore’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School to two straight undefeated seasons. The team was so stacked that even Williams’ backup, Reggie Lewis, ended up becoming an NBA All-Star. “They were one of the best teams I’ve ever seen,” says Esherick, who replaced Thompson as Georgetown’s head coach in 1999.
After leading a hodgepodge of inexperienced players to the brink of the Final Four his senior year — a squad Thompson deemed “Reggie and the Miracles” — Williams couldn’t have gone into the draft with more hype. He was picked fourth by the Clippers, which “wasn’t a good place for anyone to be drafted at the time,” says Ralph Lawler, the Clippers’ color commentator, referencing the team’s 12-70 finish the year before. But Elgin Baylor, the Clippers’ general manager, was convinced Williams was destined for superstardom — so much so that he passed over future Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen to pick him.
But in Los Angeles, Williams somehow “lost his swag,” says Lawler. Maybe it was the fact the Clippers were losing 60-plus games a year. Maybe Williams never adjusted to the NBA’s fast pace. Or maybe all those proclamations of impending greatness got to his head. Whatever the case, he got traded to Cleveland two years later, and left four other teams in his decade-long league career.
Ten years of sharing the court with the world’s most talented players is a momentous accomplishment — it’s just not Michael Jordan-esque. While Williams’ jersey will never grace the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it still hangs on the Georgetown rafters, where his son, now a junior walk-on, admires it along with thousands of Hoyas fans. Riyan Williams doesn’t play much, but he says shooting hoops for his dad’s alma mater and seeing his jersey on the wall is “amazing.”