Nick Lee was watching Reggie Williams, the former Dunbar High and Georgetown basketball star, work his magic with hundreds of inner-city youngsters yesterday at a "Stay In School" clinic at Druid Hill Park.
"A lot of these kids never make it through the maze," said Lee, now an executive with IBM and a community organizer who was a world-class sprinter for Morgan State in the early 1960s. "Some of them will die of drugs, get in trouble with the law or just get lost. If we save a couple of them with programs like this, it's worth it."
Williams made it through all the obstacles of youth growing up in the Lafayette Projects of East Baltimore, where he competed with and against David Wingate, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis -- all of whom would be his teammates at Dunbar. But Williams lost his way for four tumultuous seasons in the NBA before finally finding his game again last winter in Denver. He averaged 18 points and five rebounds for the rebuilding Nuggets.
After playing for four teams and six coaches in six years, Williams, 28, appears to have recaptured the peace of mind and quiet confidence he displayed in leading Dunbar to the mythical national championship and then becoming the leader of "Reggie and The Miracles" his last two seasons at Georgetown.
Selected by the Los Angeles Clippers with the fourth pick in the 1987 draft, Williams arrived in Southern California with great fanfare and expectations. Clippers owner Don Sterling hailed him as "another Michael Jordan" and boldly predicted "Reggie will set this city on fire."
By the end of a frustrating rookie year in which he averaged 10.4 points on 35 percent shooting, Clippers fans were wondering if the team had really meant to draft hometown hero Reggie Miller of UCLA or mistaken Williams for that other Reggie from Baltimore -- Reggie Lewis, who slipped to No. 22 in the draft and now stars for the Boston Celtics.
Similar questions about Williams' skill level and commitment to the game cropped up in Cleveland and San Antonio the past two years. Then-Spurs coach Larry Brown gave him a pink slip on Christmas Eve two years ago.
He was considered a square peg in a round hole, not consistent enough to be a pro shooting guard or physical enough to play small forward. The cruelest blow came when Cavaliers general manager Wayne Embry accused him of not seriously competing in playing 32 games for Cleveland in the 1989-90 season.
Everyone tried to psycho-analyze the former whiz kid. Cavaliers guard Mark Price even suggested Williams had suffered "burnout" in L.A. But all the theories fizzled when Williams joined the Nuggets and blossomed under Paul Westhead's free-wheeling system.
Yesterday, Williams, without rancor, looked back on all his troubled times. He said he bears no malice against the coaches and NBA executives who questioned his love for a game he began playing passionately at age 9.
"Last spring, I got a letter of apology from Embry," he said. "Wayne told me he had made a mistake in judging me in Cleveland. That showed me he was a heck of a person and it meant a lot to me."
In retrospect, Williams said he had been asked to fill too many roles by too many coaches in too short a time.
"It seemed like I was always moving from one place to another on the court or to another team," he said. "I'd miss a couple of shots in Los Angeles, and I'd see people from the Clippers front office shaking their heads.
"The Clippers only won 17 games the year before they drafted me, and I was supposed to be their savior. They couldn't afford to be patient.
"In San Antonio, I started when Willie Anderson got hurt and thought I played well. But when Anderson came back, I got buried on the bench.
"In Cleveland, I heard nothing but negatives. The Cavaliers made a bad deal to get Danny Ferry from the Clippers, and, I guess, I became the scapegoat until they released me."
Said his former Dunbar coach, Bob Wade: "Reggie was feeling real down and needed a lot of support. I'd call him a few times a week to try and boost his morale, and his wife, Kathy, also helped him get through the rough times."
L In Denver, Westhead greeted Williams without preconceptions.
"To be honest, I didn't know a lot about Reggie," recalled Westhead, who was fired last month and replaced by Dan Issel. "But I discovered he was a better-than-average shooter with good range. The more he played, the more his confidence grew. By the end of the year, it looked like he'd put all the pieces together again."
Although he knows little about Issel or his coaching style, Williams calls playing for the youthful Nuggets -- who include fellow Georgetown alumnus Dikembe Mutombo -- "a perfect fit."
"We're building a winning team stick by stick," he said. "[General manager] Bernie Bickerstaff believes in his young players and won't put too much pressure on them to win immediately."
It sounds like the reborn Reggie Williams is finally ready to put down some roots.