Ask John Williams a question -- any question -- and you seem to always get the right answer.
Whose fault is it, John, that your life got messed up?
"I just didn't take care of myself?"
Could you have done it differently?
"Bernard did. He took care of business, and I didn't. There's no one to blame but myself. It was all my fault."
John Williams, four games into his comeback, talks a better game than he plays right now, but that is to be expected. If you saw him yesterday at the Baltimore Arena, you saw a heavy, slow, tentative player re-learning the game after being away for 15 months. It was a 15-month vacation, and you don't get unlimited holidays in real life.
Williams says he understands that now.
"I know I have to try hard all the time," he says. "I have to stay focused. It's a year-round job, and I'm not going to let this happen again."
What happened, in case you missed it, was that Williams injured his knee last season, forgot to re-hab in the off-season, failed to show up to camp on time this season, but the one thing he didn't forget to do was eat in all seasons. His teammates call him Rock, and there was a piece of the rock for everyone, and leftovers, too. He has lost weight, maybe 40 pounds, down to 260, and he still needs to lose 15 more.
"I'm going to lose more," he says. "You can always lose more."
He sits in a chair in the Bullets' locker room and tells you his story. He's not defiant. He says he holds no grudges. It was him. It was all him.
But although talking the game is a great start, there is still the follow-through. And that scares Williams. He'll tell you it does. He's playing the game scared, and that's a different experience for this gifted athlete who was on the verge, before the knee injury, of becoming a star in the league.
"The hardest part is getting over the fear when I'm out on the court," Williams says. "When I take a shot, or go up hard for a rebound, or try to make a move."
Fear of injury or fear of not performing up to expectation?
"A little of both," he says.
He plays with a huge brace on his right knee, for 21 minutes yesterday in the Bullets' win over Cleveland. Scoring only two points on 1-of-5shooting, he did do some good things, however. He passed the ball (four assists) and grabbed five rebounds and tried to fit into the offensive flow as well as he could. It's coming slowly, but it seems to be coming. It was still Williams, the 6-foot-9 forward, who brought the ball up against the press.
And he helped the Bullets win a game. A.J. English scored a career-high 31, Ledell Eackles scored 20, and the Bullets made up ground in the race for the playoffs. If Williams can contribute in any significant manner, the Bullets, in what was supposed to be a lost season, should make the playoffs easily.
But after four games, it isn't yet clear how much help he'll be. The moves seem to be shot in slow motion, and Williams doesn't seem ready to fully commit the knee to either jumping or running. It will take time.
"I'm trying to do the things I can still do well," he says, "and work on the things I'm not. I don't want to get frustrated. I have to keep my head up."
It's no easy manner playing and trying to get in shape all at once. It's not much fun playing when you can't do all the things you're used to doing. But it's part of the price he's having to pay. There are others, of course, including being laughed at. He heard all the weight jokes, and he doesn't want to hear them again.
"I don't know if they made him mad," says Wes Unseld, the Bullets coach. "They made me mad. I know he's sensitive about it, but it's up to him to get over that. Since he's come back, he's worked real hard, and that's what we've been looking for from him. Will he get back to where he was? That's a question nobody can answer right now."
It is the question, though, to which Williams needs to know the answer.
"I was on my way," he says of the days just before the injury. "It was still early in the season, and it was all coming together. I was basically doing it all. Now it's like starting all over again. It's like being a rookie. You go out there and you're nervous and you're not sure what you can do. That's what it's like for me now."
If the Bullets are to find a way out of the morass, they need Williams. For now, it's Bernard King's team, but King is 34, and even he can't last forever. Besides, Williams can effectively complement King. There is little, in fact, that a healthy, focused Williams can't accomplish.
This is the first time in his life where he has understood that he is under challenge. No one can predict how he'll respond, but certainly he has King to look to as a model.
"Bernard had a much worse injury than I did," Williams says of King. "Everybody saw what he did. People had doubts about him, and he proved them wrong. I don't think I have to prove anything to anyone, but I do have some things to prove to myself. I want to prove that I can be the player that I used to be." He knows what to say. All he has to do is do it.