- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

It had all the makings of a memorable evening. Or, at the very least, a future letter to Penthouse Forum.
Hot lights above. Video cameras below. Four sweaty, straining, semi-dressed women, buxom to a silicone fault. The promise of no-holds-barred, full-contact action. A crowd of eager, paying onlookers.
And in the middle of things? None other than Toronto Raptors forward Jerome Williams.
"I was a little too close to the action, let me tell you," Williams recalled with a laugh. "It was a very entertaining job."
Despite the jiggle, however, the hair-pulling task at hand had nothing to do with Larry Flynt. Or even Russ Meyer. Rather, Williams was serving as a special guest referee for a professional wrestling match, a World Wrestling Entertainment tag team "Femme Fatale" extravaganza featuring fairer-sex smackdown artists Trish Stratus, Jacqueline, Lita and Molly Holly.
Looking a bit like the world's tallest Foot Locker employee in his black and white-striped shirt, Williams entered the ring at Air Canada Centre last summer with a single, simple mandate: Keep matters on the up and up.
Up, of course, being a relative term in an environment where a folding chair to the back of the head is not only accepted, but encouraged.
"They showed footage of Trish teaching me to be a referee, and the basic story line was that I had to make sure she won," Williams said of Stratus, a Toronto native. "So of course, the hometown girl came out on top. But it was a great match."
Williams should know. A lifelong wrestling nut, the former Georgetown star and area native has brought some of the squared circle's amped-up, ear-cupping energy to the realm of pro hoops, becoming an off-the-bench dynamo and fan favorite in the process.
Last season, the 29-year-old Williams averaged 7.6 points and 5.7 rebounds as a reserve and helped key Toronto's surprising playoff push, a run that saw the left-for-dead Raptors win 12 of their final 14 games following star guard Vince Carter's season-ending knee surgery.
"Jerome's just got tremendous energy," said Raptors assistant general manager Bob Zuffelato. "He's relentless. He changes the tempo of a game with his running, hustling, diving on the floor. If the crowd is sitting on their hands and Jerome comes into the game, they seem to come alive."
Along the way, Williams also has parlayed his NBA fame into a series of 'rassle-riffic crossovers, including stints as a smack-talking manager (for Stratus and "Crash" Holly) and a guest commissioner (for Wrestlemania).
Even his basketball nickname, "Junkyard Dog" JYD, for short pays homage to the deceased Sylvester Ritter, a former football pro turned 1980s wrestling icon.
"It's just fun to do," Williams said. "I've done everything but get in the ring and wrestle. The last step is to get in there and mix it up."

Touched by the Hulkster
Williams' love affair with all things turnbuckle began at an early age, when his father, Johnnie Jr., took a 7-year-old Williams to a WWF show at Capital Centre in Landover.
Joining a crowd of children near the ring, Williams found himself face to face face to 24-inch python, really with a grappling legend.
"Hulk Hogan came out and I went up to the front," Williams said. "He slapped my hand. I thought I had touched God. I thought I was the man. Ever since that day, I was hooked."
Swept up in the 1980s wrestling boom, the young Williams said his prayers, took his vitamins and enlisted in an army 10,000 Hulkamaniacs strong. He marveled at Jimmy "Superfly" Snooka's off-the-ropes drop kick. Learned to fear the Iron Sheik's devastating Camel Clutch.
Saturday mornings were a blur, with a popular and memorably musical WWF cartoon, "Hulk Hogan's Rockin' Wrestling" bleeding into the real thing (followed, of course, by Kung Fu Theater).
Even the traumatic if inevitable discovery that wrestling wasn't exactly on the level didn't dampen Williams' enthusiasm. Following another show at Cap Centre, Johnnie Jr. and a 9-year-old Jerome drove past a limousine packed with grapplers.
"The windows weren't tinted, and they had the lights on inside," Williams said. "There were two wrestlers that had just faced each other, laughing, joking and counting money. We honked our horn. They waved. My dad said, 'See? It's not real.' But that didn't turn me off one bit. It just made it better. Now I knew that the [wrestlers] were OK afterward."
At the time, Williams never dreamed that he would later meet the Hulkster in person. For that matter, he didn't plan on playing in the NBA. Or even suiting up for Georgetown.
As a 6-foot-2 senior point guard at Rockville's Magruder High, Williams didn't receive a single college scholarship offer. Unfazed, he spent two years at Montgomery Junior College in Germantown, working a string of part-time jobs.
"I had every job in the books, from pumping gas to washing cars to cutting lawns to working as a waiter at the Marriott," Williams said. "I was living like everybody else, trying to get my education. In terms of life, basketball was never going to be a moneymaker for me."
A 7-inch growth spurt changed everything. Averaging 23 points and 17 rebounds a game as a sophomore, the suddenly rangy Williams earned Maryland's JUCO MVP award and moved on to Georgetown.
Despite playing in the shadow of Allen Iverson, Williams became the darling of the Cap Centre student section, thanks largely to his hustling style. His trademark high socks an old-school staple of the Washington playgrounds only enhanced his on-campus popularity.
"It's a D.C. thing," Williams said. "If you wore the long socks back in the day, you'd better have game. If you didn't, take 'em off."
In two seasons with the Hoyas, Williams earned the right to keep 'em on. He posted the sixth-highest career rebounding average (9.3 per game) in school history for a squad that twice advanced to the NCAA tournament.
In fact, only one thing kept Williams' college experience from being complete.
"At Georgetown, we didn't even get the [cable] channel that had wrestling," he lamented.
Following the Byzantine wheelings and Machiavellian dealings of Vince McMahon and Co. didn't become any easier when the Detroit Pistons made Williams a first-round pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. Williams hardly saw the floor as a rookie averaging just 5.4 minutes a game and barely saw his favorite 'rasslers, either.
"You go to different cities, fly in and you've already missed a show," Williams said. "That's probably been the biggest headache."
A high point came in the summer of 1998, when former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman invited Williams to a World Championship Wrestling show held at the Pistons' home arena, the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Sporting a backstage, all-access pass, Williams watched as Hogan tutored Rodman who appeared in a match that evening as "Rodzilla" in the delicate art of folding chair combat.
"It was funny in that it took Dennis a while to figure out how he was going to hit Hulk with the chair," Williams said. "Hulk kept saying, 'No, you've got to hit me hard. It has to be real.'"
To illustrate, Hogan picked up a metal chair of his own, which he promptly smashed against Diamond Dallas Page.
"Pow!" Williams said with a laugh. "And Rodman's like, 'Oh no, I don't think I can hit you that hard.' But Hulk said it doesn't hurt. And the thing is, the chair has to make a certain sound, so that it echoes throughout the arena."

Getting in on the act
Eager to get in on the action, Williams became a regular at Palace wrestling events and in the Pistons' rotation, too. In his fourth pro campaign, he averaged a career-high 8.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game; in February of 2001, he was traded to Toronto.
Shortly after Williams' arrival, a mutual acquaintance suggested he contact WWE Canada president Carl DeMarco. A phone call led to lunch, and the two became fast friends.
"He's a real down-to-earth person, a good human being," DeMarco said. "He gives back to the community, does charity work, goes to schools, reads to kids at bookstores. I was very impressed with that. And he's a huge wrestling fan."
As a favor, DeMarco gave Williams tickets to a Monday Night Raw match at Air Canada Centre. A fan spotted the 6-foot-9 Williams walking to his seat and began chanting "JYD, JYD."
Soon enough, the entire arena was following suit. Williams couldn't believe his ears, and Carter stationed a few seats down was equally stunned.
"They didn't even chant "Vince Carter" when he came in there," Williams said. "So after the matches were over, the [WWE] was like, 'We have to get you involved. These are our fans, chanting for you, and you're not even a part of the show."
Happy to oblige, Williams "guest" managed Crash Holly to a victory over Dean Malenko in March of 2001, a prelude to his work in the Femme Fatale match and a later stint in Stratus' corner.
"Oh, yeah, managing is fun," Williams said. "With Crash, I didn't hit the referee, but I did smack the other wrestler a couple times, tripped him up, distracted him. But nothing too bad. You don't want to be too obvious."
Williams also found a fellow mathead in teammate Tracy Murray (recently traded to the Los Angeles Lakers). The duo co-hosted a late-night wrestling talk show on a Toronto sports radio station, an outgrowth of their semi-regular locker room 'rassling roundtable.
"My teammates would look at me like I was crazy," Williams said. "We'd be getting ready for a big game, and here me and Tracy are talking wrestling. But it helps you relax."
When Wrestlemania 18 came to Toronto last March, Williams and Murray had prime seats and VIP access. The WWE named Williams guest commissioner of a three-day fan jamboree leading up to the main event, while Murray refereed an exhibition match between Tommy Dreamer and Randy Orton.
Events ended in typically topsy-turvy fashion, with Murray briefly entering the ring to make a pin on Orton.
"We had to do a little finagling to get the win," Williams said with a laugh. "But that's my job as guest commissioner. Being a fan favorite, you've got to take care of the fans."
Indeed, Williams' fan-friendly attitude and community involvement have made him the Raptors' most popular player outside of Carter. Working with his older brother, Johnnie III, Williams has created a series of youth programs in Toronto and Detroit that he hopes will one day reach half a million children and adults.
As for his woofing, towel-waving, geeked-up sideline antics? While some opponents and teammates, even have been known to roll their eyes, fans at Air Canada Centre can't get enough.
Upon entering a game, Williams usually tosses his warm-up T-shirt into the stands. He has a special fan section in the arena, appropriately dubbed the "Dog Pound," and even his own mascot, a bulldog character that appears at schools and charity events.
"His charisma, his style, it came from wrestling," DeMarco said. "It's one of the reasons the fans up here love him. I went to a game as his guest, and he was on the bench, standing, whooping, hollering. The whole crowd went crazy, chanting his name. He wasn't even on the court."
When the Raptors decided in the summer of 2001 to retain the nucleus of a team that had come within a single shot of the NBA Finals, they went after Williams first, signing him to a seven-year, $40.8million deal not bad for a career reserve.
In Toronto's playoff-clinching win over Cleveland on the final day of last season, Williams made the most of a rare start, posting team-highs in points (22), rebounds (12, seven of them offensive) and minutes (40).
"We gave him a nice contract, and he's earned every cent," Zuffelato said. "He's a coaches' player. They love him for how hard he works."
As such, the team has asked Williams to steer clear of any potentially damaging in-ring action, eschewing the precedent set by Rodman, Utah forward Karl Malone, baseball's Pete Rose and football's Kevin Greene and Lawrence Taylor.
"He seems to handle all of the 'rassling stuff pretty well, but we don't want anything happening to him," Zuffelato said. "Though I'm not sure if his contract contains a clause about that. [General manager] Glenn Grunwald would have to wrestle with that one. No pun intended."
For his part, Williams insists that if the match is big enough say, against the Rock, or perhaps the mighty Hogan he may have little choice but to enter the squared circle.
"You can sign waivers," he said. "There's always a way around stuff. At some point, I'll be in the ring. I have to. I have to fulfill my destiny."
Williams paused, cupping his ear for dramatic effect.
"That's why they call me the Junkyard Dog," he said, flashing a wide, toothy grin. "Oh, yeah. It's gonna get hectic."
In other words, brother, watcha gonna do when the JYD runs wild on you?


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