Deep in the heart of All-Star guard Gus Williams of the Seattle SuperSonics are the real reasons he sat out the 1980-81 National Basketball Association season, reportedly turning his back on $500,000.
Most fans figured Williams had stayed away strictly because of the money - that he felt he was being underpaid by the Sonics compared with what other top guards in the league were getting. But now Gus says that money was only part of the reason.
''I have certain principles as a man and they weren't being met,'' Williams told me recently while here for a game against the Lakers. ''The contract adjustment was part of it, sure. But there were other things I also had to get clear in my mind.''
Even though I pressed him several times for a more understandable explanation , Gus let my questions hang there like knee socks blowing on a clothesline. He would only share what he wanted to share, leaving the reporters present to think whatever they wanted to think about his new five-year contract at a reported $3 million.
So far this season Williams has played as though he had never been away. The speed, the timing, the imagination, the stamina, the instincts, the appearance of hanging in midair while deciding whether to shoot or pass are still evident. With or without the ball, Gus is worth the price of admission.
''Never once did I ever think that I wouldn't be able to come back and do everything I could before my holdout,'' Williams said. ''I know a lot of people wondered, but I didn't. You don't lose any skills at my age.
''In fact, the whole idea that I might have some problems coming back was crazy. It wasn't like I was getting over an injury. It wasn't like they didn't want me. It wasn't like I had lost my confidence. All I really had to do was show up.''
Asked if he played any serious basketball during the months he was away from the pro game, Williams replied:
''Sure I did. Although it was summer league basketball mostly, what a lot of people call playground basketball, the competition was good. I played hard and I earned my points. I did enough so that I knew I hadn't lost anything. To keep my legs in shape, I also played a lot of tennis.
Williams, who currently leads the Sonics with a 23.2 average, could probably top the entire NBA in scoring some year if he just concentrated on shooting the basketball. He has that quick first step to the basket that the defense is rarely able to anticipate, and if the traffic inside is too heavy, he has the ability to mail the ball to the hoop from outside.
The fact that Gus prefers to play a complete game is what makes him so valuable; so hard to replace; so tough to contain; so important to the game of those around him; and such fun to watch.
''Williams adjusts his game beautifully to whatever is happening on the floor , and the way he confuses opposing defenses is something you can't teach,'' explained Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens. ''Our offense is set up so that any of our guards can run plays.''
''But when I look out and see Gus controlling the basketball, I always figure our chances of scoring have just gone up,'' Wilkens added. ''I mean, if the shot isn't there for him, then he'll get the ball to someone on our team who can make it.''
Last season when Seattle was missing both Williams and forward Lonnie Shelton (who played in only 14 games because of injuries), the Sonics skidded all the way to the bottom of the Pacific Division after winning 56 games the year before.
''Without Gus in there for me to get the ball to on the break, our transition game disappeared last year and our playoff chances right along with it,'' explained center Jack Sikma. ''It was like we were a different ball club. We didn't run the way we did the year before; we seldom got any easy baskets; and we never blew any opposing teams out of the building the way we did when Gus was around.''
Early in his holdout last year, Williams got a number of letters from upset fans wanting to know how Gus could pass up $500,000 for approximately eight months' work. Yet when Gus was introduced to the fans before Seattle's first home game this season, all he got were cheers.
Higher scorers than Williams have always been commonplace in the NBA. But a man with his great overall game and willingness to play the tough defense is hard to find. So, presumably, is another player with a contract that reportedly numbers 45 pages!