LANDOVER -- The return of John Williams to the Capital Centre after more than a year's absence served as a useful distraction for Washington Bullets fans last night, permitting them to momentarily forget the home team was quickly coming apart at the seams.
While the smallest crowd of the season -- 5,834 -- vented its frustration on Williams, the recalcitrant forward who missed all of last season with a weight problem, his new Los Angeles Clippers teammates busied themselves with routing the injury-depleted Bullets, 117-98.
Even Williams, obtained by the Clippers in an October trade that sent rookie forward Don MacLean to Washington, gained a small measure of revenge.
While the fans hooted his every move, unleashing a steady stream of "fat man" jokes, the still-robust forward quietly contributed 12 points in 22 minutes and tossed in several familiar spin moves.
"I really didn't know what to expect," said Williams, who weighs around 300 pounds. "But the boos didn't anger me. I know a lot of people don't like me in this town.
"I was just trying to concentrate on the game. I didn't feel any added pressure. I heard some negative remarks, but I also heard a few people yell, 'Good job! Glad to see you back.' Hey, I'm starting to feel good about myself again."
Clippers coach Larry Brown offered Williams a chance to start, but Williams told him the regular starters had worked too hard in practice to change the rotation.
xTC Indeed, it was forward Danny Manning (30 points), shooting guard Ron Harper (20 points) and point guard Mark Jackson (15 assists) who did most of the damage as the Clippers, fighting to retain a playoff berth, raised their record to 29-27.
Meanwhile, the downward spiral continued for the Bullets (16-40), who yesterday added Rex Chapman to the injured list already occupied by center Pervis Ellison (knee) and guard Doug Overton (thumb).
They also played last night without guard LaBradford Smith, who sprained his left ankle in Miami Wednesday night.
With their patchwork lineup that had recently acquired Byron Irvin of the Continental Basketball Association in an emergency starting role, the Bullets competed on equal footing for close to a quarter.
But poor shooting (7-for-23) in the second quarter matched by 17-for-23 accuracy by the Clippers allowed the visitors to lead at the half, 63-47.
The Bullets, led by Harvey Grant (26 points), closed to within 11 several times early in the fourth quarter. But the Clippers simply turned the game over to Jackson and Manning, who played an effective two-man game to send the Bullets to their ninth loss in 10 games.
"I thought we played extremely well tonight, especially moving the ball," said Brown, who carefully rations his superlatives.
"We had 24 assists in the first half, and that's the best we've passed it in a long time. When we're moving and Mark Jackson is finding the open man, it makes Harper's game that much more effective."
Brown concedes that Williams still has a long way to go to regain the form he displayed before he blew out his right knee in December 1989.
"We talked about John coming back to Washington since the day we made the trade," said Brown. "We wanted him to make certain that he could perform without embarrassing himself, and that's what he did. But he still needs to get in playing shape. We didn't make the trade for this year, but the future."
The future also is a major concern for the Bullets.
Said coach Wes Unseld: "We need to get in a frame of mind that we can still win. We don't have to perform like losers. Our young guys should be ecstatic about getting an opportunity to play meaningful minutes."