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STARTING A NEW CYCLE : John Williams Exchanged His Basketball for a Bicycle and Resolutely Pedaled to a Berth on Team USA

June 24, 1989|TIM BROWN | Times Staff Writer

The colors seized him. Splashes of reds, yellows, blues, greens. They poured past the ever-widening eyes of John Williams so swiftly he could hardly distinguish where one hue started and the next began.

His expression was that of a youthful Norman Rockwell subject staring into a kaleidoscope for the first time. He leaned closer, squinted, then pulled back, trying to focus on the array of darting figures before him.

"I was blown away," said Williams, still fascinated by the vision four years later. "Just the colors, there was so much accent. I didn't even know what was going on, but I was so into it."

Williams, 25, known as Scooter since childhood, was hooked.

He had experienced more than a roadside view of his first cycling race. The Mountain View Criterium, which the small town just south of Palo Alto no longer plays host to, served as Williams' direction.

"Sitting there watching that race," Williams said, "I decided I wanted to race bikes."

This April, 3 1/2 years later, Williams received a tattered envelope. Several forwarding addresses were scribbled over the face of the letter, which eventually landed in the mailbox at his parents' home in Agoura Hills. In the upper-left corner was the emblem of the United States Cycling Federation.

The note inside, signed by USCF Executive Director Mark Hodges, asked Williams to race for Team USA, the Olympic development program based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Williams treated the correspondence like it had Ed McMahon's picture on it.

Am I the John Williams whose life is about to change?

"It was totally a shock to me," he said. "I got this letter and thought it was a mistake. I actually called Mark Hodges to say, 'This is John Williams. I received a letter. Are you sure I'm the right person?' "

Hodges, who had heard reviews of Williams' racing through a track manager at a San Jose velodrome, assured him he was.

"John's going to be quite an asset to Team USA in the future," Hodges said. "He's really, really fast. I see him challenging some of the guys in '92."

That's 1992, as in the Year of the Olympics .

Yet the trail from criterium clod to Olympic hopeful can be considered smooth only if one takes into account the trials preceding.

Scooter Williams was first and foremost a basketball player.

At 6-foot-2, he was an All-Camino Real League guard while at Serra High, a private, all-boys school in Gardena. Before graduating in 1982, Scooter three times led the Cavaliers as far as the playoff quarterfinals.

Scooter , of course, is a basketball player's nickname. Cyclists are called Ulf or Franz or Alexi, and are not given nicknames because their real names are so colorful anyway.

In fact, when Hodges received a recent inquiry about "this Scooter Williams kid," he asked, "Scooter who ? You mean, John Williams?"

Uh, right.

Williams was raised a mere double-dribble from the Great Western Forum, when it was known simply as Fabulous. He mixed it up on the playgrounds of Inglewood with the likes of Laker Byron Scott, former UCLA and Boston Celtic swingman Kenny Fields and Milwaukee Buck guard Jay Humphries.

He was going to be a basketball player and in 1982 headed off to Stanford with a full scholarship and a world of expectations packed neatly away in his duffel bag. What he found instead was a new coach--Tom Davis--new rules, and, finally, a situation that became very demoralizing.

In three seasons at Stanford, Williams scored 49 points and had 22 rebounds. He played in just 16 games. In 1984, at the start of his junior season, he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot.

Still not healed, Williams red-shirted his senior season with the intention of returning. He never played for the Cardinal again.

When healthy, he got little playing time. When injured, little encouragement. So Scooter Williams began his arduous transition to John Williams.

At the time, he placed much of the blame on Davis, whose first season at Stanford coincided with Williams'.

"When I was there, it got to the point I wanted to leave," Williams said. "I thought of transferring. Several times, I'd sit in my room and cry.

"I took myself away from the players, the involvement, the people. People I loved. Friendships I had formed that are, now, still really good friendships. It was quite an emotional time for me. I hated him.

"I didn't like to come home to see my high school friends, because I was embarrassed that I didn't play. I was supposed to play."

Davis, who now coaches at the University of Iowa, remembers Williams as a "unique" and "lively" personality and recalls his emotional difficulties as relatively typical.

"What he was going through was normal," Davis said. "I think any time you're looking at players who are not in the starting lineup or the starting rotation, it's always a difficult relationship. It's just a matter of trying to accept that role and not being broken by it. I thought Scooter was handling it well."

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