DISTRICT HEIGHTS - Reggie Williams has hands that define him. They are weathered with effort, the long fingers fading into the leather of an ever-so-worn basketball. For years he used the hands to send up shot after twine-stroking shot, first at Dunbar High, then at Georgetown and in the NBA. But now, over three years after washing away the rosin and sweat for a final time, Reggie Williams' hands are full again.
He is a coach.
A first-time boss in a first-time league, Williams has taken the reigns of the Washington Justice, one of six teams in the National Rookie League, a minor-league training ground for aspiring professional players that begins its inaugural season Sunday. At first glance, it is an odd decision - after all, this is a man who was once suspended for refusing his coach's request to enter a game - but it is one that fits into Williams' life because of its unpredictability.
His role on the 1983 Dunbar dream team that won a mythical national title, as well as his dominating collegiate career at Georgetown, seemed to have set a table of success upon which he would gorge himself for seasons to come. But the feast never materialized, and after the star-crossed L.A. Clippers drafted him fourth overall in 1987, his professional career began to slide.
"The toughest times for me were in L.A.," said Williams, who shouldered the pressures of being a highly touted rookie on a lowly team during his first year in the NBA. "It's a different life and a different level. When I came into the league, guys didn't help me handle the changes or adjustments. They were scared, maybe, that I was going to take their job. But when I got older, I always tried to lend my hand to the younger guys and show them the way."
The way, unfortunately for Williams, was an interstate highway that had NBA exits in Cleveland, San Antonio, Denver, Indianapolis and East Rutherford. Williams suffered through the highs and lows of shooting slumps and surges, forever battling the notion that his easy-going attitude was nothing more than laziness.
"I'm too laid-back; I had the talent to be an all-star but it just didn't happen," said Williams, whose professional zenith may have come when he captained the Denver Nuggets to an out-of-nowhere upset of the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the 1994 NBA playoffs. "But I've always led. Even though I played forward I would call out the plays and run the offense. And I've always thought I've had the temperament to be a coach. I think I have the patience to do it, and patience is one of the big keys."
This season won't be the first time that Williams has played the role of leader. Though winning the 1984 NCAA national title as a Hoya was a dream come true, the truest measure of his career may have come in 1987 - when he averaged 23.6 points a game and led a squad of no-name teammates to the Elite Eight, reserving a place in history for "Reggie and the Miracles." Now, the man they once called "Silk" for his liquid moves on the hardwood will look to lead a new crop of anonymous followers toward their own set of dreams.
"I don't know what my nickname should be now," Williams said. "I guess 'coach' would be good enough for me."
Turning to coaching will be an adjustment for Williams, whose most famous run-in with a coach was when the Clippers' Don Casey asked him to go into a blowout in the final minutes. Williams refused, sulking at the end of the bench.
"There are guys who do a lot worse things than that today; it was a mistake," Williams says. His remorse is evident. It was a rookie error, and one that he might not have made if he had some sort of idea of how to be a professional. Now, the 36-year-old Williams hopes to be a part of a process that will make it easier for young players to hone their attitudes, as well as their jump shots.
"There's a lot of lying and dishonesty that goes on in professional sports," said Williams, who points to a lack of openess between coaches and players as the biggest problem he encountered. "I promised myself I wouldn't keep anybody in the dark about what their role is to the team. There's not a lot of loyalty these days, but I want to be honest with the guys."
The honesty extends to himself. Williams readily admits he doesn't truly know what being a coach is all about. He spent the month of May working at a camp under former L.A. Lakers coach Kurt Rambis. Coaching was a decision that Williams made after realizing that what was left of his playing days were afternoon stints at the Olympic's Gym in Dunkirk, in Calvert County, and it is one that he wants to be all his own.
"I never officially retired, and I kept telling my wife that I was going to go back," said Williams, who played his last NBA game in 1997. "But during the summer of last year I realized that I couldn't do it. I had to find my place and coaching is where I fit now. When I first stopped, I missed the playing, the travel, everything. But that faded and I knew I could coach this game. Now I'll start from the bottom and work my way up."
And the bottom it is with the NRL, a venture that was supposed to start last year. NRL president Bruce Stern said there wasn't enough capital to make a 1999 start-up possible.
"We knew by January that we couldn't do it and we didn't want to try it halfway," said Stern, a Washington-based attorney. "I always thought that the NBA would create a minor league for players, but it never did. We're very cognizant of the fact that we're dealing with minor-league economics too, and that's why we're based along I-95 [so that there will be no plane flights]. We want to start small and build from a base."
The base, says Stern, comes from somewhere between 100-150 private investors, who have put up anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. Players will be paid from $500 to $2,000 for the 13-game regular season that features games played entirely by NBA rules.
Creative marketing and local draws, like Williams for D.C., Baltimore Blaze coach (and Williams' teammate at Georgetown) Charles Smith and former Penn guard Michael Jordan for the Philadelphia franchise, should generate publicity.
Stern described the mission of the league: to give kids with talent an opportunity to prepare for professional basketball without going to college - or, to let them know if they should look for a different line of work.
"One thing I'll say is that even if the kids can't make the team, I'll try and help them find something else," said Smith, who was one of the "Miracles" with Williams at Georgetown in 1987.
"As a lawyer, I certainly recognize the value of an education, but the bottom line is that college isn't for everyone," added Stern. "We want to give people opportunities to go forward. The players, the coaches, everyone.
"I hope that next year Reggie Williams is coaching in a league that's initials aren't NRL."
NRL at a glance
League name: National Rookie League (NRL)President: Bruce Stern, Washington D.C. area lawyerTeams: Six teams in four cities (there are two traveling teams that do not play home games): Baltimore Blaze, Gotham City (New York) Knights, Philadelphia Force, Washington Justice. Traveling teams are NRL Thunder and SOS Data.Opening date: Saturday at The Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro. The 1 p.m. doubleheader features Baltimore vs. Washington and Philadelphia vs. Gotham City.
Notable names: Reggie Williams coaches the Washington Justice, Charles Smith coaches the Baltimore Blaze, Michael Jordan (Penn guard) plays for Philadelphia.Home games: Baltimore plays at Towson Center. Washington plays at The Showplace Arena and the University of the District of Columbia.
On the Internet: Team logos and a league logo can be downloaded at www.rookie.com