Every player on an NBA roster is much better than the rest of the world has ever been at the game of basketball. Even the guys who barely play could realistically be superstars in most other leagues around the world—and some of them opt for that route instead of sitting the bench.
More often than not, the players that become most beloved by fans are the best on the team. It’s easy to root for the one scoring all the points, as that usually has a direct correlation with the team for winning.
Jason “White Chocolate” Williams never reached superstar status, but he made basketball fun and quickly emerged as a fan favorite regardless of the franchise you cheered for.
Originally picked seventh overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 1998 NBA Draft, the point guard had a knack for making the simple play extravagant. A pass became a no-look behind-the-back assist, a dribble became a skip, etc. Each time he touched the ball, he was likely to create a highlight play.
And the league was desperate for highlights at the time.
Following the 1998 NBA Finals, there was a Michael Jordan-sized void left in basketball for me. The greatest player of all-time had announced he would be retiring (for a second time), and the dynastic Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were all going their separate ways: Scottie Pippen signed with the Houston Rockets, Dennis Rodman signed with the Los Angeles Lakers and Phil Jackson took a year off from coaching.
The league had also dealt with a labor strike that resulted in there being a lockout-shortened season for the 1998-99 season. Games didn’t start until late-January, and by year’s end, the great-but-bland San Antonio Spurs were crowned champions.
I missed the flair that Jordan brought to the floor every night. He had the ability to finish plays off with moves that most had never seen before or thought impossible for a human to do. The Spurs, led by Tim Duncan and David Robinson, played spectacular basketball, sure.
But it was based on their mastering of the fundamentals that led to their rise to the top.
At this same time, a little known basketball apparel company, AND1, was trying to make a name for itself. They signed Rafer Alston from Fresno State and, in the summer of 1999, through a partnership with retail store Footaction, they handed out a free VHS tape with over 200,000 purchases in a three-week span.
This birthed the AND1 Mixtape series.
Eccentric ball-handling and passing were en vogue. For myself and my peers, AND1 was all the rage. I begged my parents to get the trash talk t-shirts that the brand had a seemingly endless supply of.
We all tried to recreate the moves we saw “Skip to My Lou” (Alston) do and would practice the dribble combinations in our basements and outdoor courts in hopes of potentially crossing up each other the next time we all played together.
However, it seemed like streetball and professional basketball were destined to operate on separate ends of the spectrum. Alston was AND1’s biggest star, but it didn’t translate to NBA success. (To his credit, Alston did log 10 NBA seasons with six different teams and averaged double figures in 7 of them, often as a starter.)
So when the Kings rose into the upper echelon of the Western Conference, it made Williams all the more popular.
He was quite literally performing streetball moves against the best players in the world (for a winner, no less). And, more often than not, he was succeeding.
Early on, White Chocolate had his big breakthrough moment against Gary Payton. Nicknamed “The Glove” for his defensive prowess, Payton had the reputation as the best defensive point guard of his time and the mouth to back it up.
Let’s rewind to the moment: During his rookie season (on the road in Seattle I’ll add), Williams is on a fastbreak and Payton is retreating back to meet him at the three-point line. Normally, with no numbers advantage and another Sonic defender trailing, players would pull the ball out and try to set up a half-court offense.
Williams plays into that by slowing down and dribbling between his legs as if he were about to let his teammates catch up. Payton starts to square up to the ball and relaxes slightly leaving himself flat-footed. As soon as this happens, Williams immediately combines a hesitation dribble with a crossover, which allows for him to blow past Payton and kiss the ball high off the glass over Detlef Schrempf for two points.
Watch Payton’s reaction after the play. He knows that he was bested and can’t help but smile at the pizzaz and confidence of this rookie point guard. Kings teammate Chris Webber hypes Williams up as he gets ready to play defense.
Plays like these came often for Williams throughout his career, especially during those early Kings days (he would go on to play for the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic as well).
Another milestone moment came during All-Star Weekend in 2000 when Williams played in the Rookie vs. Sophomore game. He was once again leading a fastbreak with Lamar Odom playing moderate defense given the situation. On Williams’ right side, Dirk Nowitzki was streaking down the floor for what would’ve been an easy two points.
Odom notices this too and starts to move slightly to his left to gamble for a steal.
Williams gathers his dribble and opens his body up as if he was going to make the bounce pass to Nowitzki. Now Odom thinks he’s gotten J-Will dead to rights and commits fully to Nowitzki’s side. But as that happens, Williams takes the ball in his left hand and wraps it around his body. He brings his right arm back towards it and hits the ball with his elbow, which then careens right into the waiting arms of a trailing Raef LaFrentz.
When was the last time you saw an NBA player pulling that against other stars?
I was someone who played with a pass-first approach. I would rather make a great pass than hit a tough shot. The first time I made a defender fall, I finished the play by passing off to a cutting teammate for an and-one rather than taking an open jump shot.
Few players epitomized that mentality as well as Williams and that’s probably why I loved him so much. There aren’t many others who could compile a 12-plus minute NBA highlight video featuring only passes.
And not just passes, either. Entertaining passes that were as much a part of the show as the ensuing buckets (and sometimes that much more).
To this day, whenever “White Chocolate” highlights, articles, posts, etc. comes across my timeline I have to watch it, read it, retweet it. He was that great and that important to me. His combination of flare and skill is what I strove to exemplify in my own game.
In 2006, with his prime well past him, he finally got to be part of a championship team as a member of the Miami Heat (in a point guard timeshare with Gary Payton, no less).
As fun as it was to see Dwyane Wade come into his own that year or the dominant Shaquille O’Neal give it one last superstar hurrah, the memories that will always stick with me from that team is seeing Jason Williams be Jason Williams at the pinnacle of the sport.
Flashy could win too.