On a weekday afternoon after practice, less than seven days before the start of training camp, Mo Williams sits at a worn table at Sokolowski's University Inn, surrounded by a gluttonous feast in full-court press. Pierogi, stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and kielbasa are splayed in front of the Cavs' new point guard, his toned 6-foot-1-inch frame threatened by the calorie-packing punch perfected by generations of Polish grandmothers.
"I'm building a small house over here," chuckles Williams. "I'm trying to lose weight. This food's too good. It's gonna have to be a once-a-month deal or they'll cut my playing time. I'll be a small forward."
Suddenly, my first notion of introducing Williams to Cleveland culture by popping wheelies with him on motorcycles in the Tri-C Corporate College parking lot in Westlake seems less dangerous by comparison.
Acquired in a three-team trade from the Milwaukee Bucks in the off-season, the 25-year-old Williams has been in Cleveland less than a month. With a new wife, three young kids and practice at the Cavaliers' Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence every day, he hasn't had much time to get settled, let alone explore the riches of his new city.
Then there's his new house in a West Side suburb, with duties from which even NBA players apparently aren't exempt. "I've been to every furniture store in town," he says, with an inflection in his voice and a look in his eye that every man inherently understands as the scar of endless hours spent staring at countless coffee tables, dressers and ottomans that all look the same.
The rest of his free time has been spent playing Daddy with his three boys - ages 3, 2 and 5 months - who seem poised to make a smooth transition to a new town, if only because they don't know any better yet. "They're smart, and they watch all the games, and my 2-year-old loves basketball," says Williams. "But every time they see a tall white guy, it's [Milwaukee Bucks' center] Andrew Bogut. Every white guy is Andrew Bogut, and every black guy is Daddy. So Z[ydrunas Ilgauskas] is Andrew Bogut. I don't know who A[nderson] V[arejao] will be yet, they might be confused by him. But LeBron … LeBron is Mo. LeBron is Mo."
With the exception of the trips to Crocker Park and the Cheesecake Factory - which Williams says "has been my best friend" - it's been practice and family, family and practice. So Sokolowski's, the venerable Tremont institution that's dished up comfort food cafeteria-style since 1923, serves as a baptism of sorts today. There is perhaps no place more Cleveland-y, and not just because of the ethnic fare. The walls are lined with framed photos of the city's most beloved athletes of the past eight decades; in fact, Williams sits directly in front of a signed sketch of Bernie Kosar. Every cook and dishwasher that angles over for a handshake during the meal echoes a sentiment familiar to anyone who's lived with these teams: Please help us win a ring.
The former University of Alabama star was GM Danny Ferry's big splash of the summer - the true point guard the Cavs have been lacking during LeBron's tenure. Last season with the Bucks, Williams averaged more than 17 points and six assists a game. After the failed Larry Hughes experiment, everyone is hoping the Wine and Gold have finally found the Robin to LeBron's Batman. It's an opportunity other players surely envy.
"I've gotten a lot of congratulation calls," says Williams, referring to the trade. "There are times when someone gets traded, and you're like, 'Aw man, I'm sorry. Just keep your head up and make the best of the situation.' But this is different. All I've gotten are congratulations, they act like I was in jail before and I just got released."
In between forkfuls of stuffed cabbage, I ask Mo Williams to tackle the most pressing question to Cavs fans: Just how will he replace Damon Jones, one of the best dressers on the team. "That's not my department, to dress better than D[amon] Jones," laughs Williams, who calls Jones a close friend. "My job is to focus on the basketball aspect of it. But, for the record, I got something in the closet. Listen, I'm not overly concerned with the way I dress. I put maybe two minutes into what I'm going to wear. He might sit up all night, sleep in the outfit and then iron it while it's still on."
With that important discussion out of the way, it's time to turn to actual basketball.
Having worked out and played pick-up games with his new teammates, Williams reflects the decidedly upbeat attitude the Cavs front office recently displayed when talking about the season's prospects. Everyone is under contract, unlike last year when both Sasha Pavlovic and Anderson Varejao held out. And the holdovers from 2007's mid-season blockbuster trade - Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West - will have a full training camp to learn Mike Brown's offense and defense.
"I don't know exactly how it was last year, but talking to the guys, they feel it's different," says Williams. "There's no talk of making moves or guys worrying if they're gonna get traded. It's like, all right, we've done everything we had to do, there's nothing else happening, so here we go. This is what we got. We have one goal, and if we don't get there, we underachieved."
If there has been one common complaint about the Cavs among fans and media, it's the offense - the stagnant, LeBron-dribbling-for-10-seconds, boring offense. The question is how Williams, a point guard who also happens to love to shoot the ball, will fit into the scheme and also how he might change it. With Z's ability to knock down jumpers on the pick-and-pop, and LeBron's knack for getting to the rim on the pick-and-roll, Williams' strengths seem to play into the natural inclinations of coach Brown's strategy, a system he might be able to make look pretty. But some things won't change.
"I think we are going to be a bit faster getting up and down the court and eliminate some of the standing around, but it's kind of tough at times with LeBron to do that," says Williams. "Teams gear around to stop him, load him up, triple-team him. So he has to take his time. Sometimes he might have to hold the ball three or four seconds just to get a balance and see where the defense is and find the open guy. We're still going to be in those situations. But for me in this system, I'll be the guy that catches the ball and gets it up court in three seconds. I'll be the guy to make open jumpshots and put myself in pick-and-roll isolations and let LeBron or Boobie or Z be the finisher in a situation like that. But I can also create for myself at times."
When Larry Hughes was traded to Chicago, his tumultuous stint in Cleveland closed with an honest-yet-disturbing admission from the man many pegged as the scoring spark needed to help the Cavs and LeBron get over the hump. Hughes told Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst and others, "I play to enjoy myself. Some people take this the wrong way, but winning a championship is not what I base everything on. I was given an opportunity to play basketball, travel around and have fun doing it, and that's what I want to do. I wouldn't take being unhappy and not being myself and winning. … I was asked to sacrifice for the team to win and for everybody, I guess, to get paid. That is what was told to me, and I wasn't happy with that."
By all accounts, Williams won't have a problem playing second fiddle. He co-existed well with All-Star and Olympian Michael Redd in Milwaukee. "It'll be good for guys like myself and Delonte West, and Sasha [Pavlovic] and Wally [Szczerbiak] down the line to just contribute on a daily basis," says Williams. "You do it collectively. That's what champions do. With the depth we have, you can't get caught up in what happens if, for two or three nights, you're not in double figures. Maybe the fourth night you are, but you can't worry about that every night. If you're on a bad team, sure, you can throw up 20 points every night. But when you're on a championship team, you can't worry about it. That's something that has to be developed in training camp."
Beyond the general structure of the offense, the second biggest concern for the Cavs has been the front court, where the roster looks a little thin with the departure of veteran Joe Smith. Each big man seems to have a specialty: Z, scoring; Ben Wallace, defense; Varejao, energy. But nobody seems to present the full package. Williams says not to worry. He's also impressed with J.J. Hickson, the rookie out of North Carolina State the Cavs took with the 19th pick in the draft. Versatility is good, he says, whether it's playing a small lineup with LeBron at power forward or lining up three big guys.
"In 2009, obviously, the smaller lineup is the way the game of basketball is going," he says. "You push the ball and speed up and score more points. But I think at the same time we don't need to do that to succeed. It's just a weapon in the arsenal. You think about being big, we can be big. You want to be fast, we can be fast. We can use that, or we can have the big guys pounding and banging on the inside. It might work for this game, or these two minutes. It's up to the coaches to determine that, but it's definitely a positive for us. We can go a lot of different ways."
It'll be Williams' job to facilitate that, whether it's pushing the ball on the fast break, or controlling the tempo in the half court, whether it's dishing dimes or putting up double figures. Williams brings the talent to do either.
He also brings something very special to Cleveland, along with all his skills on the hardwood. Ask any Bucks fan and they'll revel in telling you about The Mo Williams Show, a cult-classic short-video segment the Bucks used to show during timeouts. Williams would film 60-second spots interviewing teammates and coaches, giving them short questions like "Beyonce or Halle Berry" or "Number Retired or Hall of Fame." He'll be bringing the Mo Show to town and taking it to the next level, which could prove to be as distracting as it is funny.
"During games, we'd be sitting there listening to coach, and it would come on, and you look up, and everybody is looking at the Jumbotron and coach is still talking," says Williams. "And then coach stops talking and he's looking up too. That's when I knew it was a success. And then you look at the other huddle, and everybody over there is looking too."
Before Williams gets up to leave to pick up his children from school, and after he pushes away pounds upon pounds of tempting Polish cuisine, I turn the tables on him for some Mo Williams Show-style questions.
Who wins in a race, Prince Fielder or CC Sabathia? "Prince Fielder. He's fast."
Baseball or football? "Baseball. I'm a baseball fanatic. My childhood team was the Braves, but of course, my new favorite team is the Indians."
Better bald head, Mike Brown or Danny Ferry? "Mike Brown. Got to stay slick."
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