PHILADELPHIA -- It is an hour before the suddenly respectable Los Angeles Clippers will play the Philadelphia 76ers at the Spectrum. In one corner of the court, a smiling John Williams is going one-on-one against Stanley Roberts.
Labeled by a California sportswriter as the Clippers' new club combo -- "Hot Plate and Cold Cuts" -- Williams and Roberts stand a combined 13 feet 9 inches and weigh about 600 pounds.
But save the jokes. In a flashback to his early years as a professional with the Washington Bullets when he still had two sound knees, Williams,6 feet 9 and now listed as "a tad under 300" by conditioning coach Carl Horne, makes a spin move around Roberts to score on a finger roll, and coach Larry Brown nods in approval.
"Some people might laugh when I say this, but I really believe that if John had stayed healthy, he would have been on the Olympic Dream Team in Barcelona last summer," Brown said.
"Go back to the way he was playing for Washington in 1989 before he blew his right knee, and I can say flat out that John Williams could have developed into one of the 12 best players in the NBA."
And it is why Brown remains enamored with the potential of Williams, 25, who played only 51 games the last three seasons before the Bullets branded him a lost cause and traded him to the Clippers Oct. 8 for rookie forward Don MacLean and reserve center William Bedford.
"For me, the trade was strictly a no-brainer," said Brown, who initiated the deal with Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "From the day I took the Clippers job, I wanted John on my team. I liked MacLean, but with the veteran forwards we had -- Danny Manning, Ken Norman and Loy Vaught -- he wouldn't have played for us.
"Even now, with John still having such a long, hard road ahead of him, whenever he's on the floor for us, he's got the uncanny knack of always doing the right thing. He can handle the ball, pass it, set picks. He's like having another coach on the floor. Just great basketball instincts."
For Williams, averaging 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds as a reserve center, just playing again, after almost two years of inactivity and acrimony with the Bullets management, is "a great feeling."
He is now sitting in the Clippers dressing room, resembling a mini-Buddha, with both knees attached to a blinking machine that will test their comparative strength. He seems almost eager to talk to a familiar face from his Washington past about "his fresh new start" in his hometown of Los Angeles.
"My first game with the Clippers, I felt like a rookie again, jittery and nervous," Williams said. "Sure, I'm overweight, and I'm still slow, trailing the break and not jumping well.
"But Coach Brown believes in me. And he wants me to get in shape by playing games while I'm also dieting and working out twice a day to get back in condition. He doesn't urge me to do anything. I know I've got to do this myself."
The Bullets only wish that were the case the past two years when they had trouble even locating Williams. Ultimately, they -- withheld an estimated $1.6 million of his salary because of his failure to get in playing shape -- a prescribed weight of 260 he never came close to.
While Brown still harbors great expectations for Williams, who left LSU at 19 to become the Bullets' first-round draft choice in 1986, Washington general manager John Nash sees only "a great tease."
"I know that Larry figures John is only 25 and can still fulfill all that great promise," said Nash. "But, personally, I may have benefited by being through this scenario before.
"When I was the assistant general manager in Philadelphia in the TC early '80s, I saw the 76ers go through the same thing with Darryl Dawkins, a powerful, young giant who came to the pros right out of high school.
"Every now and then, when he wasn't breaking backboards or talking about 'Lovetron,' you'd think, Darryl is maturing and finally going to get it together. But it never happened because he lacked the motivation and effort, and never fully understood the seriousness of his profession. He just wouldn't pay the price and we finally traded him.
"Well, John is from the same mold as Darryl. He came out of LSU, flashing all that great potential -- a big man who could shoot, rebound, plus pass and handle the ball like a guard.
"But John didn't make the commitment to improve his game. In 1990 and 1991, the two years he missed our training camp, he came to Washington all contrite and full of regrets. He'd talk the talk. He just never walked the walk, and we simply decided that we wouldn't go through it another year."
Before Nash succeeded Bob Ferry as the Bullets general manager, he said the team made firm commitments to help facilitate Williams' comeback both psychologically and physically. And, in the next two years, the team continued to offer him nutritional and conditioning programs both in Washington andLos Angeles to help Williams shed more than 40 excess pounds.
"Look," Williams said Friday night, "I realize I put myself in this predicament, and that's all in the past. But what the Bullets claim isn't the whole story. Last year, they said I couldn't use their weight and conditioning facilities in Bowie. That really ticked me off.
"I'd been playing pick-up ball in Los Angeles against pros and college players from UCLA and USC. I was losing some weight. But the Bullets took the position they didn't care about me, so I took the position I didn't care about them. It reached the point I didn't want to do anything but be traded."
Anger, then reflection
After finally exhausting the patience of Bullets owner Abe Pollin, who had vowed never to trade him, Williams fired a bitter parting shot at the Bullets.
"I hope they don't win a game this year," he said the day following his trade to the Clippers.
Now, on reflection, he said, "That was just me expressing my anger and frustration. I'd reached a point in my life where nothing seemed to be going right. But I no longer have bad feelings about the Bullets. I'm even appreciative they gave me the opportunity to start my career. This is just a new beginning."
Brown, pardon the expression, is force-feeding Williams, playing him close to 24 minutes a game, mainly at center in support of the foul-plagued Roberts.
But the games and team practices are only a small part of Williams' massive rehabilitation program that includes a conditioning coach, a trainer and two nutritionists, one from each coast, who also work in reining in Roberts' appetite.
Pam Smith, an Orlando nutritionist, has outlined a low-fat diet for the Clippers duo, and, when the team is on the road, even orders room service for both Roberts and Williams.
Wide targets for barbs
But the pair remain easy targets for courtside critics. During the 76ers game, fans tried to bait Williams and Roberts by yelling "Din-Din, boys," or offering them all kinds of arena treats, from pizza to popcorn, to sample while they sat together on the bench.
"Hey, I'm immune to it by now," said Roberts, a 7-foot, 295-pounder who was acquired from the Orlando Magic in September. "Me and John, we kid ourselves about it. We're soul brothers with a similar problem working toward the same goal, only he's a bigger project than me.
"I have to keep John going when he gets tired doing all that cardiovascular work, some two hours a day. But we don't worry about what people say no more. We're getting that fat off, and then will have the last laugh."
Said team trainer Keith Jones, "John has come a long way in two months. He had to weigh 325 when we made the trade, so he's dropped close to 30 pounds. We don't worry about him sneaking off to McDonald's. He's got real motivation now. He's back home and performing in a much happier environment."
Home where as a teen he was considered a man among boys at Crenshaw High, drawing scholarship bids from almost every major school before settling on LSU, where he turned up on campus driving a $20,000 Nissan 300 ZX, that his mother purchased with a loan from a Baton Rouge, La., businessman.
In a sense, however, he never left his Los Angeles roots, where he finds sympathy and comfort from his friends and family and father-figure Fred Slaughter, his agent.
"They really supported me through the rough times," Williams said. "I could have lost my home when I didn't get paid for almost two years, but my friends gave me financial help and pulled me through."
Teammates are convinced
He already has won favor with his new teammates.
"John just makes us a better team," said veteran point guard Mark Jackson. "He's a big-time player who helps us in so many ways, especially the guards the way he handles the ball and sets picks. When he gets in reasonable shape, he's going to shock a lot of people."
Privately, Williams hopes he will truly shock the Bullets when the Clippers make their final eastern swing three months from now.
"I've already got it circled on our schedule," Brown said with a laugh. "We play in Washington, March 4. I told John, 'You'd better be svelte by then.' "
John Williams' NBA chronology
June 1986: Washington Bullets select John Williams with the 12th pick in the first round of the NBA draft after the 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward leaves LSU following his sophomore season.
July 1986: Williams, 19, signs a four-year deal worth a reported $1.2 million.
October 1986: Williams reports to his first NBA training camp two weeks late, weighing more than 260 pounds.
February 1989: Williams signs six-year, $6 million contract extension with the Bullets.
Dec. 2, 1989: After averaging 18.2 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists for the first 18 games, Williams tears the medial collateral ligament in his right knee playing against Utah and is lost for the remainder of season.
Nov. 1, 1990: After missing all of training camp, Williams rejoins Washington weighing 302 pounds. The team medical staff declares him unfit to play until he loses more than 30 pounds. He is fined an estimated $426,000 for failure to adhere to prescribed rehabilitation program.
Feb. 12, 1991: After missing 112 consecutive games, Williams returns to action, averaging 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds over the final 33 games of season.
March 1991: Williams' agent, Fred Slaughter, files a grievance with the NBA Players Association over Williams' withheld salary.
April 18, 1991: In effort to recoup his fines, Williams agrees to lose 4 pounds a month throughout the summer to reach 260 by the opening of training camp. But Williams ends the agreement after failing his second weigh-in. Slaughter argues that the weight clause is invalid.
Nov. 1, 1991: Williams, weighing 305 pounds, fails Bullets preseason examination and is placed on medical suspension.
Dec. 9, 1991: Williams' grievance is heard by NBA arbitrator Daniel Collins. The Bullets defend the fines by saying Williams violated league contract by being unfit to play. Williams ultimately misses the entire season.
Jan. 24, 1992: Collins rules in favor of the Bullets in upholding $426,000 in fines.
Oct. 8, 1992: Los Angeles Clippers acquire Williams from the Bullets in exchange for rookie forward Don MacLean and center William Bedford. Williams reports to Clippers camp weighing 326 pounds.
Year .. .. team .. .. G .. .. Rpg. .. .. Ppg.
86-87 .. .. ... Wash. .. ..78 .. . 4.7 .. .. . 9.2
87-88 .. .. ... Wash. .. . 82 .. . 5.4 .. .. 12.8
88-89 .. .. .. Wash. .. .. 82 .. . 7.0 .. .. 13.7
89-90 .. .. ... Wash. .. . 18 .. . 7.6 .. .. 18.2
90-91 .. .. ... Wash. .. . 33 .. . 5.4 .. .. 12.5
91-92 .. .. ... Wash. .. . Did not play
92-93 .. .. ... L.A.C.-x . 18 .. . 4.5 .. .. . 5.8
x-Through Friday's game