While Team USA goes for the gold in the Beijing Olympics, we’re digging into the Dime archives for a closer look at the players who will make it happen. For the duration of the Games, we’ll be re-running some of our best Dime Magazine feature stories on DimeMag.com.
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No one notices him.
Deron Williams steps out of an elevator and into the main lobby of the $400-a-night Boston Harbor Hotel, drawing not so much as a sideways glance from the two dozen or so hotel guests and employees present. There’s not even a look from security; a virtual magic trick for a 6-3, 200-pound brotha with diamonds on his wrist.
It’s a cold, wind-whipped evening in March when Deron and the rest of the Utah Jazz touch down in Beantown in the middle of a five-day, four-game Eastern Conference road trip. About 24 hours from now, Williams will put up 32 points and eight assists in a win over the Celtics, handing the team with the NBA’s best record a rare home loss and keeping the Jazz near the top of the Western Conference standings. But tonight, he’s busy adding another important piece to The Deron Williams Empire — a steadily-growing portfolio belonging to one of the fastest-rising superstars in the sport.
In a meeting room that has been temporarily converted into a Dime photo studio, Deron is the subject of another, as he says, “big magazine” photo shoot. For the third-year pro who first rose to prominence as the steady hand guiding the University of Illinois to the 2005 national championship game, such opportunities haven’t come as consistently as his game warrants. One year after directing the Jazz to the franchise’s first Western Conference Finals trip since the Stockton/Malone era, Williams averaged 18.8 points and 10.5 assists (third in the NBA) in the regular season as the Jazz won the Northwest Division and secured a No. 4 seed in the conference.
Although he has yet to make an All-Star Game, Deron is widely considered one of the best point guards in the world; depending on the day, ranking anywhere from top-five to number one.
But compared to the others who could be in that discussion — Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Baron Davis, Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker and chief rival Chris Paul among them — Deron is near invisible on the public’s spectrum of NBA superstar status. He doesn’t have his own signature sneaker like CP or Billups. He isn’t an aspiring media mogul like Baron. He doesn’t star in national ad campaigns like Nash, nor is he gossip-page fodder like Parker or Kidd. As a public figure, Deron Williams remains low-profile. Almost anonymous.
Example: as he is being introduced to the crew of photo and video professionals handling this shoot, one man greets Deron by pronouncing his name “Duh-ron.” Another jokes that the last time he watched the Jazz play was in Celtic Pride. Deron absorbs the slights with a smile on his face and a barely-perceptible flare in his eyes. For someone whose ability to constantly create motivational material is on par with that of notoriously sensitive Gilbert Arenas, they are no doubt tucked away in his mind, hidden until the next night’s game. He’ll make them remember his name, take notice of his team.
Perhaps Deron is not always recognized as a star because he doesn’t exude star quality. He can be rather prickly and tight-lipped at times with the media, the industry’s last gatekeepers of true stardom. And in person, Deron doesn’t dominate a room like a larger-than-life presence — a Mike or Kobe or LeBron or Shaq — might. (At this, I’m reminded of a party I was at during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. While Parker, Rudy Gay, Brandon Roy, even Gerald Green drew stares and hangers-on wherever they went, Deron was able to move through the crowd mostly unmolested despite being plainly visible in V.I.P.) On this night, as the richest and tallest and best-dressed man in a small room overlooking the New England waters, he blends right in with the expensive wallpaper. In between photo set-ups and interview questions, Deron sits quietly in a corner, tapping away at his Blackberry.
A little more than an hour after it began, his work is done. Making his way back through the lobby and to the elevator, Deron Williams is, again, unnoticed.
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Dime: When you first came into the League, in every interview you did, John Stockton’s name would come up. Now it seems like every interview you do, Chris Paul’s name comes up. Do you ever think you’ll be at a point where you can stand alone on your own as a star?
Deron Williams: Probably not. You know, that’s the way this League is. John Stockton was one of the greatest players and point guards to ever play the game, and me coming in after him, I’m always gonna be linked to him. There’s really no getting away from that. As far as Chris, we’ve pretty much come to a conclusion that we’re not gonna get away from that, either. Picked 3-4 in the draft, us being two point guards to have success early in our careers … that’s definitely gonna be a debate for the next 10, 12 years.
Dime: Deron versus Chris has become the NBA’s preeminent 1-on-1 rivalry. Everyone wanted to make it LeBron versus ’Melo, or LeBron versus Kobe, or Kobe versus Shaq, but you and Chris get just as much attention when you go head-to-head.
DW: It’s definitely a rivalry that people have picked up on. Even though we’re friends and we hang out and talk a lot, when we get on the court it’s all business. I love playing against him, but I feel like the media, they make a big deal about that. We don’t make as big a deal about it as they do. It kind of gets old talking about it, you know, whenever we play them and everyone asks, “Are you excited to play against Chris?” I play hard against everybody, no matter who it is: whether it’s Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Rafer Alston. No matter who it is I’m gonna play hard and want to win the game.
Dime: Whose Jazz team is this? Yours? Carlos Boozer’s? Jerry Sloan’s?
DW: We have different leaders on the team. Coach Sloan has been coaching for so many years and is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game, so you have to say it’s his team. We’re all extensions of him on the floor. Booz leads in different ways than I lead, and we need all of that together to make this team successful. So it’s not a thing where it’s my team or it’s his team — it’s everybody’s team.
Dime: Do you have to be more of an extension of Coach Sloan because you’re the point guard?
DW: Yeah, I think so. I do a lot of the play-calling now and controlling the game, so I definitely have to be an extension of Coach out there. Sometimes I recognize what’s going on more than other players when I’m out there on the court.
Dime: One of the knocks on your game coming out of college was that you weren’t athletic enough to hang with other top point guards. You’ve pretty much killed that one. What other criticisms do you think you’ve crossed out in your career?
DW: I don’t think people expected me to be this good this quick, or expected me to be this good at any point in my career. I remember seeing stuff on mock drafts where they had projected your best season. My best season was supposed to be like 12 (points) and six (assists). So, you know, I think I’ve proved a lot of people wrong. I knew I had it in me, but I don’t think a lot of people did.
Dime: But even you didn’t think you’d be at this level this fast, right? Playing in the conference finals in your second year, considered maybe the best point guard in the League in your third year…
DW: There’s no way to know. There’s no way to know what to expect when you get to the NBA because it’s a whole different world, a whole different ballgame. My rookie year was a little frustrating; sometimes I was playing, sometimes I wasn’t. I was playing different positions; sometimes I played the two. I just had to earn trust from Coach and learn some things my rookie year. It was definitely a learning experience. My second year was a lot better — he just gave me the ball and let me go. I’m just having fun doing it right now.
Dime: What is left to improve? For a young player you’re pretty close to being a finished product.
DW: A lot. Free throws, defense … I can always improve everything, every aspect of my game, and I’m gonna continue to work hard in the offseason. I don’t want to be a finished product. I want to continue getting better, make All-Star Games, win a championship … just keep getting better every offseason.
Dime: A few months ago, Stephon Marbury was in the magazine talking about how young players a lot of times come into the League and get caught up in all the money and cars and jewelry, just the lifestyle of being in the NBA. That doesn’t seem to be a problem with you — you seem more focused.
DW: I mean, I got some nice cars, some nice things, definitely. But you know, when you don’t have much money growing up and you come into the NBA, it’s just a different lifestyle. You can definitely get caught up in it the wrong way. That’s why I think it’s a blessing that I went to Salt Lake. It’s not the nightlife like in New York or L.A. or Miami. I get to focus on basketball, and I think that’s great for me and great for my career.
Dime: Does having a family help with that?
DW: It definitely helps. It keeps you grounded, keeps you stable when you have kids and a wife.
Dime: When you do get a chance to spend your money on you, though, what are you into?
DW: Clothes. I shop like a woman … probably more than women. (Laughs) I’m always buying something new. I went through a stage where I wore a lot of suits, but now I don’t wear too many suits; I wear more sport coats and sweaters, things like that. I love cars — I got a car problem. I got a white-on-white Range Rover with 24’s on it. I got a Bentley GT coupe. I got a big truck, a F350 black-on-black, and I got a black-on-black Impala.
Dime: The first time you were in Dime (Issue #21, Jan. 2006), you said you had to go to Vegas to get the clothes you like because they didn’t carry those brands in Salt Lake. Is that still the case?
DW: I get a lot of my stuff tailored now. I get a lot of custom stuff, so I don’t have to do that. They come to me, so that’s easier.
Dime: I don’t really see you wearing a ton of jewelry.
DW: I got a chain, but I don’t really wear it no more. It was one of those things I got when I first got in the League. It’s kind of big and gaudy … I don’t really like that style anymore. I usually just wear a watch and a bracelet. I can’t go anywhere without a watch. I’m more into Cartiers, stuff like that. It doesn’t have to have diamonds on it.
Dime: It was well documented how hard you worked out the summer you got drafted, then again going into your second year. This past summer you were coming off a long playoff run, and then you played with Team USA. Were you able to put in as much time in the gym?
DW: Leading up to the USA tryouts and the [Olympic qualifying tournament], I was working out hard, two times a day like I normally do — sometimes three. The USA practices we went through were great workouts, playing against the top players on the planet. That’s better than any workout I’d had in the previous two years. You get to be on the court with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd … I think that summer was more beneficial than any one so far.
Dime: If you didn’t have as much to prove last summer as you did in the previous two, what pushed you to work that hard on a day-to-day basis?
DW: I still got doubters. I still got people to prove wrong. Like I said, I wanna make the All-Star Game. I wanna win a championship. I just want to get better for my teammates. I’m only 23 years old, you know? There’s a lot of room for improvement; a lot of time for improvement.
Dime: There’s probably going to come a time, though, when you don’t have as many doubters. After a while everyone will know you’re that good. So what will motivate you then?
DW: I’m a self-motivator. I want to be the best I can be. Aside from the doubters — I wanna prove them wrong — most importantly I wanna be the best for me and my family and provide for my family. That’s what motivates me.
Dime: Aside from the on-court accomplishments, what is still missing from … I guess you could call it the Deron Williams empire or the Deron Williams brand? Do you want more endorsements? More exposure?
DW: As far as endorsements, I have some solid endorsements: Nike is a big one of mine. Vitamin Water is one. I’ve got some good things working and some more that are in the process. Utah’s a smaller market than a lot of places so it’s harder to get a lot of endorsements, but the better you play and the farther you go in the playoffs, it helps. If you can go far in the playoffs and get a championship, the accolades will come with it.
Dime: Isn’t it more than just winning, though? The Pistons go deep in the playoffs every year and you still don’t really see guys like Chauncey and Rip out there like that. Do you have to win but also have more to it than that?
DW: There’s chosen guys, definitely. Some guys are going to be more marketable than others. It’s about showing your personality and showing you can do more things than just play basketball, which I think I’m capable of doing.
Dime: Do you think you have to make an effort to be more marketable?
DW: I think so. I mean, some guys don’t wanna do that — they don’t care about that kind of thing. I feel like while you’re playing and you’re in your prime, it’s time to do all that stuff.
Dime: If that is one of your goals, wouldn’t you almost have to go to a bigger market? Can you build that superstar-level profile in Utah?
DW: I think so. I think so. John Stockton and Karl Malone definitely were up there; John just really didn’t care about that stuff. Everything with him was on the court, because that’s his personality. But like I said, the better you get and the more you win, the more endorsements and things like that are going to come.
Dime: You’ve said before that athletes’ personal lives should be kept personal. But do you feel like in order to reach that next level of celebrity, you’re going to have to open up yourself a little more?
DW: I think I do that now. I mean, I’ve had stories on my kids and stuff like that. I think people are getting to know me and see a different side of me when I do some of these different things. I just did a commercial in Utah where you can see different sides.
Dime: There’s a chance you could be a free agent in 2009. You know someone like Mark Cuban will have a ton of money to throw at you; and there’s a chance Jason Kidd could be retired by then; and you grew up in Dallas. You know where I’m going with this, right?
DW: Really, I don’t think the possibility (of leaving) is very strong, especially for this first contract. This is where I wanna be. I think we have great team chemistry right now — I think we have a championship team with the guys we have. I don’t see myself going anywhere for the next five years.
(Editor’s note: Two months after this article was published, Deron signed a four-year, $70 million contract extension with the Utah Jazz.)