NBA Hipster Profile: Jason Williams (i.e. “White Chocolate”)

Jason Williams (center) was not just known for his spectacular play, but also carrying a NBA Hipster legacy

NBA Hipster Profile is a part of Flannel, PBR and PER where I look at NBA players both past and current who represent the “Hipster” players of their generation or time. This can be in terms of style, the way they played, their attitude with media, management, players, etc. Hopefully this becomes a year-around series that also delves into the D-League and College game as well.

Jason Williams was probably one of the most important players during the Rick Adelman era in Sacramento. I am not saying he was the best player or most crucial to their success. In fact, his successor, Mike Bibby, experienced much more success as the point guard of the Kings, especially in the postseason (Bibby was a catalyst in the 2002 playoffs, especially against the Los Angeles Lakers, where he almost pushed the Kings to the NBA Finals). But even though Bibby was probably the better overall point guard and had a more lasting impact on the Kings in terms of wins and losses, nobody jump started the new era of the Kings more than Williams. Through his brash, highlight-making, and unapologetic style of play, Williams helped the Kings jump onto the national radar and began the process of what would be their incredible run in the early 2000’s. But more importantly, he inspired a generation of point guards and guard play that was incredibly against the grain and well…hipster.

Why was Jason Williams hipster, even if such a term did not really exist for him during his playing career? Let’s look at a few reasons why.

Reason #1: His style of play was incredibly different from what was expected from NBA point guards

Williams in all sense of the word was a showman, especially when it came to his passing and ballhandling. Regularly, Williams was a regular feature on Top-10 lists on Sportscenter and his style of play not only captivated fans, but also inspired a generation of “streetball” players that eventually morphed into a greater interest and participation into the “And1 MixTape Tour” movement.  You wouldn’t think a white guy from West Virginia, who played college basketball in a Football-Mad conference (He played at Florida and in the SEC) would have such a profound impact on the game of basketball not just in the NBA, but at the amateur level with And1. But, I have a hard time seeing And1 stars such as “The Professor“, for example, reaching the kind of legendary And1 status without the influence and success of Williams in the NBA his first 3 years in the league.

And if you don’t believe me, watch some of the highlights below. Watch as Williams make incredible crossovers (he crosses up Bibby quite a bit when Bibby was a Grizzly; ironic considering they were traded for each other) and passes with style, swagger and ease. Witness as his expressions pump up the Sacramento fans and teammates. (Heck some of his plays made Tariq Abdul Wahad look good…no simple task mind you!) Tell me that was not fun to watch. You’re either a curmudgeon or a middle school basketball coach from Southern Indiana if you cannot find some kind of joy or entertainment in Williams’ highlights.

Without a doubt, his streetball style changed what was expected going forward from NBA point guards. Point guards were expected to be Bobby Hurley types: leaders, intense competitors and quarterbacks on the floor who were known to be composed and consistent in order to leader to efficiency on the floor and boredom in the personality area. As a Gonzaga alum, I love John Stockton. He was the prototype of what was expected from a NBA point guard: no flash, play within the offense, execute regularly to the point where it almost becomes routine. A lot of NBA point guards have followed that mold. You could argue current NBA point guards such as Chris Paul and Tony Parker have found success following the mold Stockton set before them (and Paul’s excitement comes from his arguing with the refs and flopping; when the ball is in play, he is consistent and deliberate in his play and it is beautiful to watch).

Williams on the other hand? Everything was flashy. The behind the back passes. The crossover step backs. The baseball bounce passes from beyond half court. Everything Williams did was high risk on the floor, the antithesis of what a good point guard did. A good point guard, in any coaches’ mind, is to run the offense while minimizing risk. Williams wanted to maximize the risk. He would go faster in a car to see if he could jump a gorge rather than brake and stop before it like any sane, normal driver would. This kind of quality endeared a lot of Kings and NBA fans to Williams, especially the younger generation as well as those who enjoyed the playful spirit of street-style, playground basketball. Williams was anti-expected, anti-establishment when it came to the foundation of what constituted a “good” point guard in the league and that was a “hipster” quality in him that becomes more and more appreciated as the years pass, especially as the game gears more toward his style that he helped push and pioneer when he entered the league.

Reason #2: Williams bucked the expectation and style of the “white” player in the NBA.

Stockton wasn’t just the quintessential “NBA” point guard. He was also the prototype image for every “white” player in the league. Stockton was clean-cut, wore short shorts, did ho-hum interviews and did borderline “dirty” things on the court that was usually characterized as “scrappy” or “intelligent” by the mass media. Bobby Hurley followed that mold. So did Greg Ostertag and Bryant Reeves and Christian Laettner. They were not just basketball players, but they also could have served as presidents of their chapters Young Democrats or Young Republicans in college.

Williams could have followed that mold. When he initially came into the league, he had a full-head of hair and a boyish look that made him resemble more like a Boy Band member than the point guard of a NBA squad. But, as he garnered more minutes and started to display his “streetball” style of playing that made him such a hit with NBA and Kings fans, it became obvious that Williams was going to break that “white point guard” mold that had become expected from media and general basketball fans.

By the second year, Williams ditched the Boy Band haircut and went with a shaved head and went with a buzz cut for most of his career beyond Sacramento (he also played for the Grizzlies, Magic and Heat). He started to garner more tattoos each year, as he only had a couple as a rookie but by his later years in the league his arms were covered almost as much as Chris “Bridman” Andersen’s. There was an urban swagger to Williams and unapologetic way he carried himself not just on the court, but off it as well. Williams, from West Virginia (he played high school sports famously with Randy Moss), didn’t care if the traditional media or basketball fans didn’t approve of his style. He didn’t care if people claimed he was trying to be something he wasn’t (which proved to be untrue; Belle, West Virginia is like any coal-mining West Virginia town and though it was primarily white, the town had its hardships like any major town from that tri-state area (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia) suffering both socially and economically after the fallout from many mines and plants closing; Williams never claimed he was from Compton or Baltimore or somewhere likewise). And his uncompromising way of carrying himself endeared Williams to many young basketball fans and players who wanted to rebel against the status quo regardless of race or background (I know as a half-white, half-Asian american, I secretly admired Williams both on and off the court growing up).

In fact, if you don’t remember, check out this segment from ESPN’s “The Life” which profiled Williams’ first year in Memphis. He is candid, honest, blunt, and incredibly intense both on and off the court. If you have some time, watch the 20-minute clip. I find it hard to see a lot of point guards in general both then and now displaying the kind of honesty that Williams displayed in this video segment.

Reason #3: His style still influences guards today

In his day, Williams was the leader of the “rebel” cause at point. He didn’t look to make the “sure” play, but the spectacular one. He was a gunner when he wasn’t making the flashy pass, as he posted a career 49.1 percent 3-point attempt rate (the percentage of his shots that came from beyond the arc), something that wasn’t typically associated with great point guards. Point guards, when they weren’t passing the ball or making the assist, were supposed to get to the hoop on the pick and roll. And while Williams was certainly capable of that, his affinity for the 3-point shot drove him a little bit more.

For many NBA fans, Williams probably seemed to be the last of his kind, the product of the “Streetball” “And1 Mixtape” movement that died out in the late 2000’s. But since the turn of the decade, we are starting to see more and more point guards not just dominate the ball with flashy move and energy, but the 3-point shot as well. The biggest example is Stephen Curry who displays the same kind of highlight producing skills that Williams showcased in the early to mid-2000’s. Look at the highlights of Curry below and see how similar Curry and Williams’ games are similar nearly a decade later.

Is that saying Curry is the modern-day Williams? No. Curry was a whole lot more efficient with the ball and a much better shooter. (After all, Williams never won a MVP award). But, Williams broke the mold that a point guard could show flash and be successful. He displayed that a point guard could be a 3-point shooter and still be labeled and successful running the point. Maybe Stephen Curry exists without Jason Williams. But to say Williams game didn’t have an influence on guards like Curry, whether intentional or not, is dubious to think.

Final Thoughts on “White Chocolate”

Williams was a unique character both on and off the court. Even though he came off as a showboat on the court, he was incredibly reserved and easily agitated off of it. He was incredibly blunt and not just with the media, but opposing fans, as it even got him into trouble quite often (I remember his incident where he got in an intense heckling match with Golden State fans where Williams crossed the line with his comments). For a while, Williams was characterized as a “malcontent” and a “cancer”, but in reality, he just happened to by a hyper-competitive player who wanted to win, who wanted to play the game the only way he could (with panache and style) and wanted to stick close to his roots despite the misconception and sometimes, criticism (Williams was a West-Virginia proud guy; for those from Kansas City, he was like someone from Wyandotte County, which I got a lot of love for since I used to live there for a couple of years and found it hard to leave).

In short, Williams was hipster before the term was popular or even existed. The only thing Williams cared about was the game. He didn’t care about making movies. He didn’t care that he punted a lot of opportunities to market himself beyond the court more because of his style and the way he carried himself. As I said before, Williams could have probably been a media and marketing darling if he bought into the “98 Degrees” look he sort of sported his rookie year. But Williams passed off on that, because he knew that wouldn’t be who he was at the core, and “White Chocolate” can only be him at the end of the day.

There probably won’t be a hall of fame spot for Williams. And frankly, I don’t think Williams cares nor does he think about it, and that not only makes him a retro NBA Hipster, but so endearing as well. It is refreshing to see, in a day where many athletes are so self-conscious about their image and legacy, that he willingly stays out of it and doesn’t give a crap. Instead, his legacy is displayed in the current crop of budding NBA point guards endearing themselves to new waves of fans (like Curry) and his son, who is already gaining notoriety as “White Chocolate Jr.

It is exciting to think that another Williams can make it in the league. It gives hope to future generations that they can enjoy basketball like we younger fans did in the early to mid-2000’s when Williams was out there tearing up and “Hipstering” up the league.

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