PHILADELPHIA -- It is an hour before the suddenly respectable Los Angeles Clippers will play the Philadelphia 76ers at the Spectrum. In one corner of the court, a smiling John Williams is going one-on-one against Stanley Roberts.
Labeled by a California sportswriter as the Clippers' new club combo -- "Hot Plate and Cold Cuts" -- Williams and Roberts stand a combined 13 feet 9 inches and weigh about 600 pounds.
But save the jokes. In a flashback to his early years as a professional with the Washington Bullets when he still had two sound knees, Williams,6 feet 9 and now listed as "a tad under 300" by conditioning coach Carl Horne, makes a spin move around Roberts to score on a finger roll, and coach Larry Brown nods in approval.
"Some people might laugh when I say this, but I really believe that if John had stayed healthy, he would have been on the Olympic Dream Team in Barcelona last summer," Brown said.
"Go back to the way he was playing for Washington in 1989 before he blew his right knee, and I can say flat out that John Williams could have developed into one of the 12 best players in the NBA."
And it is why Brown remains enamored with the potential of Williams, 25, who played only 51 games the last three seasons before the Bullets branded him a lost cause and traded him to the Clippers Oct. 8 for rookie forward Don MacLean and reserve center William Bedford.
"For me, the trade was strictly a no-brainer," said Brown, who initiated the deal with Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "From the day I took the Clippers job, I wanted John on my team. I liked MacLean, but with the veteran forwards we had -- Danny Manning, Ken Norman and Loy Vaught -- he wouldn't have played for us.
"Even now, with John still having such a long, hard road ahead of him, whenever he's on the floor for us, he's got the uncanny knack of always doing the right thing. He can handle the ball, pass it, set picks. He's like having another coach on the floor. Just great basketball instincts."
For Williams, averaging 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds as a reserve center, just playing again, after almost two years of inactivity and acrimony with the Bullets management, is "a great feeling."
He is now sitting in the Clippers dressing room, resembling a mini-Buddha, with both knees attached to a blinking machine that will test their comparative strength. He seems almost eager to talk to a familiar face from his Washington past about "his fresh new start" in his hometown of Los Angeles.
"My first game with the Clippers, I felt like a rookie again, jittery and nervous," Williams said. "Sure, I'm overweight, and I'm still slow, trailing the break and not jumping well.
"But Coach Brown believes in me. And he wants me to get in shape by playing games while I'm also dieting and working out twice a day to get back in condition. He doesn't urge me to do anything. I know I've got to do this myself."
The Bullets only wish that were the case the past two years when they had trouble even locating Williams. Ultimately, they -- withheld an estimated $1.6 million of his salary because of his failure to get in playing shape -- a prescribed weight of 260 he never came close to.
While Brown still harbors great expectations for Williams, who left LSU at 19 to become the Bullets' first-round draft choice in 1986, Washington general manager John Nash sees only "a great tease."
"I know that Larry figures John is only 25 and can still fulfill all that great promise," said Nash. "But, personally, I may have benefited by being through this scenario before.
"When I was the assistant general manager in Philadelphia in the TC early '80s, I saw the 76ers go through the same thing with Darryl Dawkins, a powerful, young giant who came to the pros right out of high school.
"Every now and then, when he wasn't breaking backboards or talking about 'Lovetron,' you'd think, Darryl is maturing and finally going to get it together. But it never happened because he lacked the motivation and effort, and never fully understood the seriousness of his profession. He just wouldn't pay the price and we finally traded him.
"Well, John is from the same mold as Darryl. He came out of LSU, flashing all that great potential -- a big man who could shoot, rebound, plus pass and handle the ball like a guard.
"But John didn't make the commitment to improve his game. In 1990 and 1991, the two years he missed our training camp, he came to Washington all contrite and full of regrets. He'd talk the talk. He just never walked the walk, and we simply decided that we wouldn't go through it another year."
Before Nash succeeded Bob Ferry as the Bullets general manager, he said the team made firm commitments to help facilitate Williams' comeback both psychologically and physically. And, in the next two years, the team continued to offer him nutritional and conditioning programs both in Washington andLos Angeles to help Williams shed more than 40 excess pounds.