“They just waived me, huh?” Shawne Williams already knew the answer when he asked Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni on the morning of Jan. 5.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” “You did everything we asked of you” and “Keep your head up” were the messages the coach delivered.
It felt like getting dumped by a girlfriend he loved, and Williams was emotionally wrecked.
“I was sick,” the player described his feelings as he was handed his instructions.
Williams recalled that he could not sleep on the “long flight” from Dallas to Los Angeles. His mind raced about being waived midseason, something he was ill prepared for. Upon landing, he met with Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, and Kupchak repeated the same phrases D’Antoni had uttered that morning: “You didn’t do anything wrong,” “You did everything we asked of you” and “Keep your head up.”
Williams was no longer a Laker.
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When he woke up the next morning, he was still wearing his Lakers branded jogging suit. Williams was emotionally devastated and in no mood to enjoy his newfound freedom. He didn’t do much more than sit on the couch and eat for the next three days. He completely lost his ability to function. Williams revealed that did not change clothes for two or three days. It was like he was clinging onto that one sweatshirt his girlfriend handed him before walking out the door.
Then, he woke up one day, and a light flickered. Williams realized he was on a path to self-destruction. He had initially turned down an offer to play with the D-Fenders during his exit meeting with Kupchak and Lakers assistant general manager Glenn Carraro.
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After three days of hiding in mental and physical darkness, Williams decided he needed to be back on the court before he woke up 50 pounds overweight.
“I just snapped out of it,” Williams recalled. “I knew I couldn’t get down about this. It’s about how I recover from this, not how it’s going right now.”
Joining the NBA Development League was a far cry from life in the NBA, and Williams quickly realized exactly how different.
Williams’ first game was at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California. The Lakers played at the same arena in the preseason, and that preseason game drew nearly 7,000 people. With the D-Fenders, Williams looked around and only saw the stands filled to the quarter mark.
The D-League was “different.”
Those days he spent with the D-Fenders were especially tough for the former Laker. Everywhere he went, he was reminded of the team he previously called family.
After his first game in Ontario, Williams was informed that the D-Fenders had practice at 2pm. With the D-Fenders, Williams had to go to the Lakers’ practice facility and wait for Lakers to finish their practice before being allowed onto the court.
“We usually practiced at 11 or 10 (am) and you have the whole day to yourself,” Williams talked about the luxury of being a Laker. With the D-Fenders, he was out of practice at closer to 5pm, and Los Angeles traffic was yet another difference.
Apart from dealing with traffic and playing in quarter-full arenas for significantly less money, every passing day provided Williams examples of the life he no longer had. Five-star hotels were replaced by motels that should have been investigated for even claiming to have one star.
“Everything is catered, five-star hotels, pillow top mattresses, soft sheets,” Williams talked about the luxuries of the NBA life. The Lakers fly in private jets; the D-Fenders fly Southwest Airlines.
Williams recalled coming to terms with his situation when he went to the airport for his first away game with the D-Fenders. He walked into the airport thinking he had an assigned seat, but he was told that the team boards by zones.
“We’re in the last zone,” Williams recalled thinking out loud before walking up to the ticket counter and paying out-of-pocket to board early so he could find a seat that would accommodate his 6-foot 9-inch frame.
“In the NBA, everything’s five-star,” Williams said. “You fly private, come through the back door of the hotel, don’t have to carry your own bags…”
While waiting to board the flight, curious travellers walked by and asked who he was and who he played for. The reality of responding “D-Fenders” rather than “Lakers” hit Williams hard. He called it a “reality check.”
After playing four games with the D-Fenders, Williams was at the Lakers’ practice facility practicing jump shots. The night before, he had made seven three-pointers in a win for the D-Fenders. After the game, he recalled seeing a bizarre situation in Cleveland.
In Ohio, the Lakers ran out of eligible players and had to re-instate a fouled out player. Williams could not believe what he was watching.
Before leaving the facility, word got to Williams that Kupchak wanted to speak with him. The Lakers general manager called Williams into his office and asked if a 10-day contract would interest the 27-year-old.
Twenty minutes later, he was a Laker and on a flight to Philadelphia. The Lakers informed Williams that no first-class tickets were available, so they booked him three seats, allowing him to lay his legs across. He may not have been all the way back to the NBA, but he was out of the D-League.
After the game, Williams caught the private plane back with the team.
When he completed his first practice, he was asked how it felt to be back. Williams exclaimed, “I love the Lakers.”
Since re-joining the team, he has appeared in every game and even returned to the starting lineup six days into his short contract.
“He’s a good guy. He buys into everything we do, brings a lot of energy always,” D’Antoni said about Williams after he re-joined the team. “He, like a lot of other guys, is trying to find his niche in the league. I think he has one. I hope people look at it. I hope we do it, but he can definitely play in the league.”
Williams’ 10-day contract is set to expire after Feb. 15, during the NBA’s All-Star break. That Sunday, Williams will celebrate his 28th birthday and likely will not be a Laker for the second time in 2014.
The Lakers can extend another 10-day contract to the forward before deciding to sign him permanently, but the timing of his current contract works against Williams. After Williams lines up against Kevin Durant on Thursday, the Lakers do not play again until Feb. 19, and the NBA’s trade deadline is on Feb. 20.
Even if the Lakers decide to bring Williams back for another 10-day contract, they will likely hold off until after the trade deadline to do so in order to retain an extra roster spot should a trade occur. That means Williams may have to sit around for five days without any clue as to whether the Lakers will be calling.
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“Thinking and all that is going to drive you crazy,” Williams admitted that he does think about the uncertainty. However, he understands that the only thing he can control is his performance on the court.
“It humbled me,” Williams responded when asked about how the month-long experience affected him. “This made me more appreciative.”
“The way I look at it, whatever I go through is going to make me a better person.”