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Thursday, July 25, 2002
Updated: July 26, 1:43 PM ET
Off balance

By by Shaun Assael
Jayson Williams

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    The white SUV pulled past a baseball diamond and into the parking lot of a YMCA in Somerville, N.J., last month. And when it stopped, Jayson Williams hustled from the car to the front door of the Y, a gym bag draped over his once-broad shoulders.

    He looked so lanky that it was hard to imagine him ever trying to guard Shaq. But here, among the suburban jocks who play in the Y's fast-paced Monday night league, Jay is still as big as big gets.

    When I heard about the league through the grapevine, I decided to check it out. It would be the only way I'd ever come face to face with the man I'd spent two months getting to know from a distance, the man who faces 30 years in prison in the shooting of limo driver Gus Christofi.

    Jayson Williams
    Jayson Williams' 1,000 watt smile is gone.
    Toward the end of his 10-year run in the NBA, Jay had become the Nets' version of Bruce Springsteen -- a working stiff who made his Turnpike fans believe success didn't have to make you a whiny, self-absorbed millionaire. He accused his union of pandering to the wealthiest players during the lockout, and took the credit when its leaders finally did a deal with the league. When he emerged with one of the richest contracts in league history, he was hailed as a Gentleman Jay, making the papers every time he pressed hundred-dollar bills in the hands of the homeless.

    How much of this was calculated? Considering that he cut the knees out from under Nets coach John Calipari after he got his money, I figure, enough. That's why I'm skeptical that a New York Post photographer just happened to stumble on him crying over Christofi's gravesite last month, and turned the shot into a front-page exclusive.

    Get the chips and set the TiVo. The trial of Jayson Williams is going to make O.J. seem like bad cable. But beneath the headlines, another drama will be playing out: one that will show what it means to be Jayson Williams' friend.

    In the months before the shooting, few had been closer to Jay than Kent Culuko, a onetime semi-pro who went as far as Bulgaria to keep his career alive. Kent managed Jay's traveling all-star team. He played on a pro lacrosse team Jay owned. He was using Jay's money to build a basketball camp. He even took up part-time residence at Jay's estate. Jay, quite simply, was the best thing that ever happened to him.

    But when I called Kent the other day, he was depressed. It had been two months since he copped a deal to testify against his friend. His life was a wreck. The basketball camp that he'd run for Jay was struggling because of all the bad press. He was hurting for money. He was also wondering whether to accept an invitation to a wedding at which he suspected Jay might be. "I never thought Jay wanted to be separated from me," he said. "But the lawyers are keeping us apart. All I want is for him to know that we can still be friends."

    Still friends? Kent would never have faced jail time in the Christofi case if he wasn't Jayson's friend. But he doesn't see it that way. If not for Jay, Culuko also wouldn't have gained access into the exclusive world of celebrity jockdom, where he brushed up against Master P and Rick Pitino. "I miss the way it was," he says, sounding unlike a witness who'll come out swinging.

    Of course, not everyone considers Culuko the good influence that he considers himself. "One problem that Jay always had is recognizing what a friend is," says Brian Young, who grew up with him in the Lower East Side projects. Young doesn't mention Culuko by name. Nor does he mention Eric Allena, the Bridgewater, N.J., cop and sometime drinking buddy who allegedly encouraged Jay to cover up the truth after law enforcement officials were led to believe that Christofi's death was a suicide.

    But the message is clear enough: If they had exercised better judgement, if they had been willing to question the impulsive first reaction of their meal-ticket friend, Jay might have been convinced to tell the truth. You don't need Bill Clinton to tell you the coverup is always worse than the circumstance that spawned it.

    I wanted to ask Jay about these frayed friendships when I followed him into the Y. So, from behind, I called his name. He broke stride for an instant, then turned to face me. At first he was angry. And piqued that his Monday night secret was out. And maybe a little afraid a photographer might be lurking to take an unauthorized shot of him smiling and dunking.

    But then he became more composed. "Look," he said evenly. "I hope you understand. I really can't talk to you."

    He turned on his heels and started to walk away. But then he seemed to think better of it, and turned around. An enigmatic smile played across his face. It was the smile that he used to charm his old Turnpike fans. It was a smile that said: "You know me. You know I couldn't have done what they say I did."

    The jury is out on that one. Or will be, soon.

    Shaun Assael a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at shaun.assael@espnmag.com.