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From Crenshaw High to LSU, John Williams Plays Amid Controversy : It's Been Quite an Education

March 15, 1985|RICK REILLY, and Times Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. — So far in the life of Louisiana State freshman John Williams, L.A. schoolboy superstar, there have been rumors of college cash, an NBA dash, a nervous rash, transfer bets, recruiting nets and death threats.

For an 18-year-old with mostly simple dreams, life sure did get complicated.

Then again, you come out of Crenshaw High School advertised as Final Four in a bottle--one of the bluest blue chip basketball players in America--life doesn't tend to drag. For Williams, 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds, his amazing graces made for a mean season of creative--if not illegal--college recruiting. It became a circus so unruly that when Williams finally signed with LSU last April, he felt blessedly relieved. Yessir, clear sailing ahead.

Somehow, it hasn't worked out that way.

Instead, the John Williams file sprouts new growth almost daily here in Cajun Country.

A sampler:

--Rumors that Williams' outspoken mother, Mabel Marie Mathews, had been offered up to $150,000 by recruiters to deliver her son were oft heard, never confirmed. But to make a point, LSU Coach Dale Brown said he planned to walk into her South-Central L.A. home, open a briefcase filled with $150,000 in cash, lay a $1 bill on top of that and say, "There, that makes me the highest bidder. The meat truck will be outside in an hour to pick you up, John."

He was persuaded by school officials to forget it.

--Because Mathews' name came up in many of the rumors, Brown made a point of saying that Mathews would not be moving to Baton Rouge with her son. But today, she lives in Metairie, La., a suburb of New Orleans--about an hour from Baton Rouge.

--The LSU recruiter who eventually won Williams, Ron Abernathy, once had $2,000 in cash stolen from a briefcase during a recruiting trip. Abernathy explained that he was driving around town paying bills with the cash when he was suddenly called away on the recruiting trip.

--Jerry Tarkanian, coach at Nevada Las Vegas, approved full-bore recruiting of Williams for six months, then ordered his chief recruiter to drop out just two days before the signing date. Says Tarkanian now: "Things started getting ridiculous."

--LSU's Brown became so wary of agents wanting to hang around Williams on the road this season that he hired two security guards for the team.

--During the recruiting siege last April, Mathews says she got phone calls from someone telling her, "Make sure your life insurance is paid up," and warning her that she might find her son "at the bottom of the L.A. river" if he didn't make the right decision. The right decision, presumably, meant Williams' choosing the school of the caller's choice.

--The recruiting burden became so heavy for Williams that he suffered insomnia, headaches and a rash across his chest.

--Although Williams maintains that he was offered nothing illegally during his recruitment, Brown now says that during visits to Williams' home, he overheard illegal offers from two other schools. Brown will not name the schools, and at that point, there were more than 100 in the running.

The finalists in the Williams pageant--Louisville, Houston, Nevada Las Vegas, and UCLA--also hint that there was foul play afoot. But not by them.

And then there is this:

--In Williams' first three months at LSU, he was in the near-constant company of a man his teammates called the White Slave, a man who attended LSU practices, games, and, sometimes, classes with Williams, where he took copious notes. Occasionally, the White Slave would sleep on Williams' dorm room floor, or in Williams' car.

The announcement that Williams had signed with LSU was made at a press conference that Williams did not attend. For that matter, neither did Williams' mother, nor did anybody from LSU. The announcement was made by a man named Stan Ross. Months later, Ross was identified as a friend of the family.

Wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, Ross drove up to Crenshaw High in a rental car, read a prepared statement and left, answering no questions.

Where was Williams during his own coming-out party?

Shooting hoops.

That Williams wouldn't come to his own press conference isn't so surprising if you believe those who say Williams didn't want to go to LSU in the first place.

Certainly the LSU announcement came as something of a surprise at the University of Houston. Said Terry (Fat Chance) Kirkpatrick, the Houston recruiter, "John told us he was coming to Houston."

Fat Chance got his nickname by pursuing athletes he supposedly had no chance of getting--and signing them. That wasn't the case with Williams, though. He was so sure of Williams, in fact, that he sent for Houston Coach Guy Lewis, telling him to fly to L.A. to personally witness Williams' signing a Houston letter-of-intent.

Lewis came, but there was no signing.

"He just stood there, holding (the letter) with one hand and a pen with the other, just looking at me," Williams recalled. "Luckily, my mom saved me. She said, 'Well, you know, we're not quite sure. . . . ' "

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