Those close to John "Hot Rod" Williams were amused and thrilled by the events of the summer, which for Williams, was filled with rich irony and superstar wealth. The four-year veteran Cleveland Cavaliers forward received a seven-year, $26.5 million contract. He will be the highest-paid player in the National Basketball Association this season, earning $5 million.
Williams has never made the All-Star team. But he has paid his dues, a fact that makes recent characterizations of Williams seem almost humorous.
A little more than four years ago, it was not that way. Williams was an unfortunate man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. His destiny was controlled by a six-member New Orleans jury that was to decide whether he was guilty of shaving points while playing basketball for Tulane. He was faced with maximums of 17 years in prison and $35,000 in fines.
And the NBA, in essence, had told Williams he was guilty until proven innocent. Although Williams had not been convicted of a crime, the NBA refused to approve his initial contract with the Cavs until all charges were dismissed. He was forced to sit out the 1985-86 season, which would have been his rookie year.
"He went through some tough junk," said Cavs center Brad Daugherty, one of Williams' best friends. "It was kind of ironic what happened to him this summer. But I knew his time would come."
That is easy to say now. "They didn't say I was a lucky guy when I was sitting out that year," Williams said.
Ultimately, however, those close to Williams say he deserved what he got innocence, then security for life.
"There was a time when most people thought he wouldn't be in the NBA," said Mark Bartlestein, Williams' agent. "Throughout it all, he never complained and never bitched. It's so refreshing to see Hot Rod the beneficiary of a contract like this. If you want to talk about a true rags-to-riches story, about a life that has gone full circle, this is it."
Hot Rod Williams was abandoned as a child. His real mother died before his first birthday. His father one day left him with a grandfather, who was blind, and never returned. "I saw my dad once for about five minutes when I was 12," Williams said.
He was adopted by Barbara Colar, a single parent who raised four children in the tiny town of Sorrento, La., by working two jobs. It was Colar who gave him the name Hot Rod, because she said he hollered like a hot rod car.
Williams said he learned early to make the best of what he had. "I understood there were a lot of things I couldn't get because my momma just couldn't afford it," he said. "There would be Christmas, and I would tell her, 'Don't worry about me. Just take care of my little sister and my little brother. Some kind of way, I'm going to try and find a way to make it.'
"I wanted things like other kids had 10-speed bikes and stuff like that. So I would go to the dump and get a couple of old (bicycle) frames and make me up a bike. Me and my brother would put it together."
That ability to focus on solutions would serve him well later. Williams was arrested in March 1985 and charged with participating in a scheme to fix Tulane games with Memphis State and Southern Mississippi. His first trial was declared a mistrial because the judge said prosecutors withheld evidence that could have cleared him.
The second trial ended June 16, 1986, with jurors declaring Williams not guilty. Part of Williams' successful defense was to impeach testimony of accusers who had been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. One of the accusers faced 277 years in prison and $145,000 in fines before receiving immunity.
"They gave them all immunity," Williams said. "One guy said the D.A. would let him go free if he lied. So he lied. ... What would you do?"
Despite the seriousness of the charges, Williams said he never worried about the unpredictability of a jury or feared a conviction. "I knew I didn't do anything wrong," Williams said. "And I knew with the lawyer I had, there was no way I was going to lose."
Williams had the same no-lose feeling last season when he rejected the Cavs' five-year, $13.5 million offer and chose to become a free agent. It would have been easy to accept a contract that would pay an average of $2.7 million a year. But because of the NBA's new television contract, Williams was convinced he could get more.
So he went forward, never looked back, and Aug. 22 exactly five years to the day after his first trial ended in a mistrial he signed an offer sheet with the Miami Heat, which later was matched by the Cavs.
"When we decided to play out the year and go from there," Bartlestein said, "it bothered me because I worried about him getting hurt. But it never bothered him. John is a unique kid. He's got a tremendous ability to focus on one thing and forget about everything else."
And as a result of his determination and patience, Williams is in control of his destiny unlike four years ago.