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FROM MY SEAT: 'Friends and Strangers'


Wednesday at FedExForum, Jason Williams will play his fifth opening-night tilt in Memphis, though this time it will be in a Miami Heat uniform. The best -- and most revealing -- Williams story I can share is centered around the first question I asked him. On November 1, 2001, the Memphis Grizzlies hosted the Detroit Pistons at The Pyramid. After decades of essentially being the country’s biggest Minor League Town, the Bluff City went Big League. To welcome the NBA, commissioner David Stern was in the crowd, Isaac Hayes -- merely weeks after 9/11 -- sang “God Bless America,” and Justin Timberlake sang the national anthem. 19,405 fans packed the pointy building and relished the city’s first step onto the national stage of professional sports.

After the game, in a crowded, ironically subdued Grizzlies locker room -- Detroit had crashed the party, winning 90-80 -- I asked Williams how this night compared with the other three lid-lifters of his career. His response? “Opening night is opening night to me.” Next question.

However much love Memphis NBA fans may have come to harbor for the talented, mercurial J-Will, that affection was decidedly unrequited. Anything Williams was asked to do beyond his responsibilities in uniform was a Herculean venture for the person making the request. (I witnessed pleading members of the Grizzlies media-relations staff ignored by Williams without so much as eye-contact being exchanged.) If modern professional sports is littered with mercenary, me-first, me-only isolationists, Jason Williams might just be the flag-bearer. So, welcome back to the Bluff City!

The irony in Williams’ character shortcomings is that he is so giving on the basketball court. His assists-to-turnover ratio over the four years he played in Memphis was among the best in the NBA (3.1 assists for every turnover). The eight-year veteran will need to be particularly charitable with the ball in south Florida, as he’ll be, at best, the fourth scoring option behind Shaquille O’Neal, Dwyane Wade, and Antoine Walker. (He’ll defer to Alonzo Mourning, too, with Udonis Haslem itching for more touches.) Just how well Williams blends into the Shaq/Wade mix will determine if the Heat can take aim at a championship firmly in the grip of the San Antonio Spurs.

Regarding title hopes, Memphis made its own moves, and the changes will be evident early. Unless you can get your hands on a player named Shaquille or Duncan, there is no quicker way to change the style and image of your basketball team than by changing point guards. And for the 2005-06 Grizzlies, this change is a double-scoop of freshness. While Damon Stoudamire will start where Williams once did, Bobby Jackson will come off the bench as a more capable scoring backup than Earl Watson ever was. With apologies to Eddie Jones and rookie Hakim Warrick, Stoudamire and Jackson are going to define how Year Five of the Memphis Grizzlies unfolds. You can bet, in addition, that Memphis fans will judge this pair relative to the performance of their predecessors.

“Memphis is a great town,” Jackson told me in mid-October after a preseason practice at FedExForum. “The organization is great, and everyone’s welcomed me with open arms.” A much different take, to be sure, from that of the last Sacramento point guard brought to Memphis in an offseason trade. (Jackson actually spent one season -- 2000-01 -- backing up Williams in Sacramento. He averaged 7.2 points that year, 11.1 the next.) Wednesday night, Memphis will get its first taste of a team whose ingredients have been more than a little shaken and stirred since last April. And the guess here is that it won’t be, ho-hum, like any other opening night we’ve seen.

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