October 4, 1997
Eric Williams was a happy man as he eased through the handful of reporters at the Denver Nuggets' media day Thursday. He was the starting forward on a young, ever-rebuilding team. He had just signed a contract extension worth $ 33 million over six years, validating his belief in his ability and staying power.
He never doubted for a moment that this day would come. He never suspected for an instant that it would not come in Boston.
It has been more than a month since Rick Pitino stunned Celtic Nation by trading Williams to Denver for two throwaway draft choices. The next day, the Celtics signed Chris Mills and Tyus Edney, completing the deal.
The deal was not surprising in terms of the individuals who came to Boston. But hadn't it been less than a month since Pitino had slobbered all over Williams, saying he was in great shape and ready to go? Hadn't it been just draft night when Pitino said he turned down a lot of interesting trade offers because the other guys wanted Williams?
What happened in the interim? Pitino said Williams fell off his screen when the player kept missing appointments with the strength coach. Williams, who has not spoken about the move, simply laughed when he heard that explanation.
"That was a bailout," he said. "I don't think that was it. I did rookie camp. I did the voluntary workouts. I never got a clear-cut reason. If that's the reason, then what about Antoine Walker? He missed all of rookie camp. I know our situation is a little different, but performancewise, we're about the same."
He said he has not spoken to Pitino since the deal, although the coach said last week that he "really likes" Williams and that the move was made to (a) get Mills and (b) remind everyone who's the boss. "He was not willing to adhere to what we were trying to do," Pitino said. "If the strength coach comes down to see you, you should be there. Some of the guys, not just Eric, don't understand that. They will now. It's a two-way street."
Williams said his only contact with the Celtics since the deal was a brief chat with general manager Chris Wallace to have something notarized. He found out about the trade when his agent paged him while he was in a Providence theater watching, interestingly, a movie called "How To Be A Player."
To put it mildly, he was floored. He had heard his name in trade rumors earlier in the summer but figured his play in rookie camp and at the summer league in Atlanta ended all such speculation.
"I was shocked. I didn't understand why," he said. "I thought I was going to be a part of that nucleus. I would have liked to play alongside Antoine for the rest of my career. I was really comfortable with him."
Asked specifically to address the no-shows, Williams blamed it on "a miscommunication. We just missed each other. But I thought we were behind that. I thought it was resolved. If he was upset, why didn't he say it to my face? I don't appreciate that."
Pitino did not want to get into a back-and-forth over the issue but did use the word "meetings" when asked how many Williams missed. Williams added that he felt there might have been some problem when he showed up a day late for rookie camp, although "I thought I had a good excuse. I was there that day, but late. We had given my mother a surprise birthday party, and, well, I partied. I got off to a late start the next day."
Williams added, "I was fired up to play for him. That's why when the trade came, it was such a shock. I was focused and I thought the organization wanted me and I thought I could have made the team better. I guess everything works out for a reason. If he thinks they're a better team because of the trade, I can live with that, no problem."
His new team is, well, would you believe a lateral move from last year's 15-67 debacle? The Nuggets lost a lot of their credibility as well as their top player when they dealt Antonio McDyess to Phoenix for three first-round picks, none of them a potential show-stopper. Williams had looked forward to playing with McDyess. Now it appears he'll start next to Dean Garrett and possibly rookie Tony Battie because LaPhonso Ellis may not be ready.
Williams is in excellent shape. The excess weight from last summer stayed off this summer. He said his body fat is down to 9 percent; it had been 14 percent last season.
"I'm happy with the situation," he said, sounding like he even believed it. "It's going to be exciting. There's a lot of enthusiasm. I've always put a lot of pressure on myself, and this situation is no different."