Deron Williams is about to make his first trip to EnergySolutions Arena as a visitor.
Conflicting emotions might bounce around with butterflies underneath his No. 8 Nets jersey tonight, but Williams eagerly anticipates his Utah homecoming — with excitement, not edginess or resentment.
"I'm not nervous," Williams said Friday about returning to his old stomping grounds with New Jersey. "I'm excited."
Williams, one of the most respected and reviled players in Jazz franchise history, also has a hunch as to how the question du jour will be answered.
Will Jazz fans boo or cheer D-Will?
Simply put, yes.
"I'm sure there are going to be some mixed reviews — people that boo me, people that cheer for me," Williams said. "I'm not too concerned with that. I'm just excited to go play in front of those fans again."
It's been almost a year since that happened.
And he was greeted with mixed responses then, too.
On Feb. 9, 2011, Carlos Boozer received expected boos — not Booz! — from Jazz fans when the Chicago Bulls played in Utah. More importantly that night, Williams and Jerry Sloan had a well-publicized locker-room feud — one that played a part in the Hall of Fame coach resigning midway through his 23rd season the next day.
As if that wasn't shocking enough, the following night Bronx cheers were sent in the direction of Williams — the extremely popular two-time All-Star point guard — when the face of the Jazz franchise was introduced prior to tipoff. In Utah. Wearing the home team's colors.
Less than two weeks later, another surprise development occurred. Williams, entering the prime of his career, was shipped to New Jersey in exchange for Devin Harris, Derrick Favors, two first-round picks (Enes Kanter being one) and a stash of cash.
Jazz brass claimed the trade was made because they weren't sure whether Williams would stay in Utah when his max contract allowed him to search elsewhere (this summer).
Who knows where D-Will ends up — Brooklyn, Orlando or elsewhere with Dwight Howard, maybe Dallas — but it won't be back in the Beehive State.
"No," Williams said. "That chapter in my life is over."
Williams is hopeful Jazz fans will give him a warm reception and remember the good times from that era — all the wins, playoff runs, highlight plays, fun quotes, silly commercials, even the charitable acts.
But he is realistic.
He knows human nature.
He knows he's the enemy now that a different team's name is on his chest.
And Williams knows he is blamed for Sloan's stunning resignation.
"Everybody, they read one thing and that's what's ingrained in their mind," Williams said. "I would hope that (a nice ovation), but I know it's probably not going to happen with everybody. I know it's not going to happen because I read Twitter sometimes."
But that won't change his favorable opinion of Utah — the state and the team.
When thinking about his time with the Jazz, Williams' mind wanders back to beginning his NBA career with the organization that selected him out of Illinois, third overall in the 2005 draft, even ahead of Chris Paul.
He's grateful the late Jazz owner Larry H. Miller and general manager Kevin O'Connor awarded him a $70 million max contract four summers later.
Now on a struggling Nets squad, the uber-competitive and emotionally charged Williams is more thankful than ever for all of the wins the Jazz racked up when he was the team's No. 8.
If there's any leftover bitterness or regrets about his 5 1
2 seasons with Utah — more specifically how it ended — Williams isn't publicly sharing them.
"I have no hard feelings. I have nothing but great things to say about the organization," Williams said. "They gave me my first chance in the NBA. They gave me my first big contract in the NBA. ... They're a well-run organization. I just thank them for everything they've done for me."
And the fans.
He loves Utah's fans.
Heck, Williams remains a fan of those Jazz fans who used to roar when he made tricky passes that led to Kyle Korver 3-pointers and Boozer dunks, or when he tripped up a defender with his cross-over dribble or when he exploded over an opponent en route to the rim or, well, when he simply played for their team.
Asked what he misses most about being with the Jazz, Williams talked about "playing in front of the fans" — the 19,911 who filled the arena with electricity, passion and, in his opinion, a vibe unparalleled elsewhere.
Williams caught himself and chuckled after saying "we," and continued.
"They have the best fans in the NBA, I believe, game in and game out," Williams said. "They support the Jazz no matter what the record is, how we're playing, who we were going up against. They just always had our back."
Moments before stepping on the court Friday morning to prep for the Suns with four former Jazz players also sporting Nets gear — Mehmet Okur, Sundiata Gaines, Kris Humphries and DeShawn Stevenson — Williams smiled while revisiting the past.
D-Will's heart gets all warm and fuzzy when he remembers being on an up-and-coming Sloan-coached team with Boozer, Okur, Matt Harpring, Derek Fisher, Andrei Kirilenko, Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap.
His best Jazz memory?
"Winning that Game Seven in Houston and then going to the Western Conference Finals," Williams quickly answered.
Good times in 2007.
"Great times," he said, emphasizing the word "great."
There are people who will be excited for his return.
Old teammates, especially his buddies C.J. Miles and Millsap.
Fans who appreciate his immense talent and overlooked his surliness or sourness.
Parents of autistic kids and diabetic children, low-income families, families of deceased and injured military members and other beneficiaries from the massive amount of charity work he did in the state with his Point of Hope Foundation.
People who either don't blame him for Sloan's departure or who forgive him for his role in the resignation. (Williams, by the way, hasn't spoken to his old coach since leaving Utah, but said, "I would like to at some point.")
Whatever the reaction is tonight, Williams is happy his Utah reunion has finally arrived.
Unfortunately for him, the Nets won't arrive in Salt Lake City until the wee hours of the morning, and they'll depart for Los Angeles after the game, not leaving much time for relationship rekindling.
"I'd like to have the day off so I could go to a restaurant with my family, friends," Williams said. "It's not going to be hard for me to go back. I don't get fazed and affected by stuff like that. I just think it's going to be fun."
Fun is something that he hasn't been having too much of on a Nets team that only had two wins going into Friday's game at Phoenix.
Williams follows the Jazz's progress from afar — and seemed genuinely happy Utah (6-4) has turned it around after a rough start and a nosedive ending to last season.
He regularly checks on the stats of Miles and Millsap, the only remaining members of the conference finals team.
"I definitely miss those guys," Williams said, laughing about how he used to rattle off movie one-liners in the Jazz locker room and smiling about their ongoing friendship.
"I want nothing but the best for them — the coaching staff, too," Williams said. "I played under all of those guys (Tyrone Corbin, Jeff Hornacek and Scott Layden) since I came in the league."
Not being on a team that wins is hard on him.
"I just don't like losing," said Williams, who was ejected Wednesday in Denver after getting two technical fouls on a night he tweaked his ankle. "I don't sleep well when I lose. It affects everything I do. We've just got to turn it around."
After the initial shock of last February's trade, losing has been the hardest part of this whole ordeal for Williams to handle.
"Yeah, that's been the toughest adjustment," he said. "I think with the shortened season and not having training camp, no summer league, we're just behind, just trying to learn everything and nothing has really clicked for us night in and night out. ... I've never lost this much in my career this early, this consistently."
Another thing he's never done?
Played at EnergySolutions Arena wearing a visitor's uniform while somebody else sported No. 8 for Utah.
Williams laughed when asked about new Jazz forward Josh Howard wearing his old number.
"It doesn't matter to me," he said.26 comments on this story
Won't be weird at all seeing that?
"No," Williams added, chuckling. "He's a couple inches taller, a couple of shades darker than me."
For what it's worth, Howard will likely be the only No. 8 in the building who won't hear boobirds when his name is announced Saturday night, too.
Who would've ever guessed that scenario a few years ago?
Williams understands the mixed emotions.
It won't, however, change how excited he is to return to the place he used to call home.
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