IndyStar.com Columnists Bob Kravitz
September 16, 2007
Give Pacers' Williams a break -- this time
He's a kid.
Shawne Williams, the Pacers' properly repentant second-year player whose minor brush with the law created last week's now-annual pre-camp firestorm, is a kid.
A kid who has seen a lifetime's worth of terrible things, seen his older brother brought down by gunfire two years ago, seen too much of life's hardships in the South Memphis neighborhood where he grew up.
And that's the thing we've got to remember before he gets lumped in there with Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson and the other Pacers who've had brushes with the law.
Those are older players. They've had time to learn the delicate art of staying true to their roots while keeping trouble at arm's length. By now, they ought to know better.
For Williams, 21, who went pro after just his freshman year at the University of Memphis, this is all quite new. And he's been forced to learn lessons, tough lessons, that players from more stable, economically advantageous backgrounds never have to learn.
"I've always felt the hardest thing for these kids who grow up in tough neighborhoods is knowing when, where and how they can be with the people they grew up with,'' said Derek Kellogg, a University of Memphis assistant coach. "At some point, they've got to make that separation. And it's hard because those are the people who cared about you and knew you when you were young. Those are your friends. You don't want to leave those people behind, but it's hard being a millionaire and being out in a tough neighborhood.
"Because if you're not careful, those people can put you in a bad situation.''
Was that the case with Williams this past week?
Well, sort of.
Those were friends from his father's side of the family. Williams said Friday he was not aware of the presence of marijuana or a stolen gun in the car. It should be noted, the marijuana charge against Williams was dropped.
Whatever happened, it's not exactly the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.
Let it go.
Seriously, let it go.
And understand, the Pacers handled it perfectly, the way they should have handled previous missteps by assorted players, quickly suspending him for three games. And Williams himself handled it like a pro, accepting responsibility, stepping out in front of the media Friday on his own accord.
He may be a kid, but Friday, he looked and sounded like an adult.
"I look at where I'm at now and where I was back then,'' he said the other day. "And I sure don't want to go back there. I'm a pro ballplayer now and I've got to separate myself from some people because I know some of them are bringing trouble.
"You're around people 17, 18 years, that's all you know. A lot of them aren't doing the right things, but they're the ones who supported you. But now I've got to keep them away. I can still talk to them, but they've got to know, if they're doing wrong, it's my face showing up in the newspapers, and it's me and the team that's getting embarrassed. It's like coach Cal (Memphis' John Calipari) used to say, 'Just smile and say, hey.' "
Who thinks to stop and ask passengers if they're carrying a stolen firearm?
Now, he does.
For so many professional athletes, there is a perplexing duality to their existence. They come from neighborhoods ravaged by drugs and violence and poverty, and they ascend to a life of great riches and privilege.
Where, then, do they belong? There is a fine line, an elusive line, between keeping it real and, as my friend Jason Whitlock likes to call it, "keeping it real stupid.'' Sometimes a young athlete has difficulty establishing that line of demarcation. Sometimes, there are mistakes in judgment.
That is not an excuse.
But an explanation.
Listen, I've never been comfortable with the notion that athletes from rough neighborhoods and unstable families should be held to a different standard of comportment. Right is right and wrong is wrong, whether you grow up in Carmel or Indy's Eastside. There is something to be said for what I've heard described as the "soft bigotry of lowered expectations.''
One of the finest athletes/people I've ever known is Laphonso Ellis, the former Notre Dame and NBA star. He grew up in gritty East St. Louis. There are scores of young men (and women, too) who have emerged from the harshest circumstances and become terrific human beings who give back to their old communities.
Now, having said that, we need to understand that when I go back to my old cushy New York suburb, I return to a different planet than does Williams or Artest or Jackson. I am generally not surrounded by drugs or guns or unemployment or random violence. I don't have to make hard choices about the company I keep.
"There was just so much stuff going on off the court, it was easy to make that left turn instead of the right,'' Williams said. "So many people coming around, unemployed, doing the wrong things. It's really hard to stay focused on what you've got to do to get out of there."
Well, now he's out. And he's got a taste for how quickly it can all go wrong. He's a kid and kids learn. Something tells me he already has.
Bob Kravitz is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star. Call him at (317) 444-6643 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.