PHILADELPHIA -- The jump shot was gorgeous. When all else failed, he could make a ball dance in the air. He would stand at midcourt during practice and watch the ball's flight and then its descent, smiling when he heard the sound, that woosh, of leather meeting net.
He could do it once, twice, three times. He would move, five steps here, five there, and do it again.
And then, the shot vanished. They had taken his confidence in Los Angeles, his dignity in Cleveland, his job in San Antonio. They had taken the gift from him in four years of basketball torment.
One day, the gift reappeared. He no longer looked over his shoulder, fearing the sight of a coach stomping away in disgust, waiting for the horn that would signal his exit from the game.
Now, he moved stealthily on the court, finding an open space, receiving a pass, flicking his wrist and watching this perfect arc as if it were some sort of rainbow after a long, violent storm.
He was back. Reggie Williams was back.
"I surprised them all," he said. "Going through the tough times, a lot of people would have quit. But I didn't."
Williams has found a home and reclaimed a career with the Denver Nuggets. He has emerged in this NBA season as a devastating small forward. He is one of those success stories the league keeps dredging up, a player who, after years of failure, finally finds success, even, contentment.
"Denver is heaven," he said.
The Nuggets are a team on the rise, led by a 7-foot-2 project-turned-franchise named Dikembe Mutombo. While Mutombo has received the bulk of the credit for Denver's turnaround from a 20-62, 1990-91 disaster, it is Williams who has supplied the fine touch from the outside. Through 20 games he had an 18.2-point average while applying an in-your-face defense to his opponents.
Stardom, the type that long has been predicted for Williams since he played for Dunbar High School and Georgetown University, finally may be approaching.
"Reggie is in the final phase of his reconstruction," Denver coach Paul Westhead said. "You get over the hump, and you begin to play well. Now, you've got to play well every night. Put together 20, 25 games, and people will say, 'This Reggie Williams, he is a legitimate starter in this league.' "
On the court, Williams, 27, is all lines and lean muscles at 6-7, 195 pounds. But don't be misled. He can play with power, suddenly coming alive as he slashes through the lane. In a 98-88 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday night, Williams scored 24 points. He also created one end-to-end highlight play, slipping between Mutombo and Charles Barkley to grab a rebound, racing up court, and then rising over Charles Shackleford to score on a ferocious dunk that left the backboard shaking.
Off the court, Williams is still soft-spoken, but he has shed the "introverted" label that followed him at Dunbar and Georgetown.
"Basketball is fun again," he said. "I can still play the game. I know that. I don't have to change my way of life or my attitude. I don't talk much. But I play."
The joy of playing has only come back in the last year. It wasn't supposed to take this long. The beginning of his career was perfect. The foundation created at Dunbar. The toughness added at Georgetown, where he played on one national championship team and left the school as its third-leading scorer.
And then, the NBA. Two lost years with the Los Angeles Clippers, who made him the No. 4 pick in the 1987 draft and tried to turn him into a point guard and then a shooting guard, and watched as his shooting percentage bottomed out at .356. The nightmare season of 1989-90, when he played with the Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs, when rumors followed him across the country: that he was some sort of "anti-social" figure, that he was dabbling with drugs.
"All I could do was laugh," he said. "I'm a family man. I've never used drugs. I don't even use alcohol. When you're quiet, people say anything about you."
Worse still were those awful nights in Cleveland, when the crowd booed him, the coaches spurned him. Getting cut was a relief. Finding work in San Antonio was a reprieve, a chance to regain a portion of his confidence. He wasn't even shaken last January when the Spurs cut him.
He went home to Los Angeles to be with his wife Kathy, son Reggie Jr. and daughter Jazzmyne. He watched television. He waited.
"I told my agent to sign me with the first team that called," he said. "I didn't care. I was getting a rhythm again. It's like a car that doesn't run. You need to run the car so it doesn't rust."
The first to call was Denver, a team with six wins and no stars. The Nuggets were the official circus of the NBA. They had this wacky open-door offense that was creating scoring records -- for the opposition. But it was a perfect setting for Williams.