By Anthony Bosco and Daniel Massey
Christ the King basketball coach Bob Oliva expressed shock and disbelief when he heard about the fatal shooting of a man at the house of former NBA star Jayson Williams.
Williams, the former New Jersey Nets star who played basketball for Oliva at the Middle Village school and later at St. John’s University, surrendered to authorities Monday on a reckless manslaughter charge in the Feb. 14 shooting of a limousine driver at his sprawling $3.5 million New Jersey estate.
“I was stunned,” Oliva said. “Jayson’s not a murderer. I was hoping it was an accident. The first thing you want to rule out was someone got murdered.”
Williams received the lesser of two possible manslaughter charges and faces five to 10 years in jail if convicted. Had authorities lodged aggravated manslaughter against the former Queens hoops star, Williams could have faced a 10- to 30-year prison term.
Hunterdon County Prosecutor Steven Lember said there was some indication that alcohol played a role in the shooting and left open the possibility that Williams could face the more serious aggravated manslaughter charge if a grand jury determines he showed an “extreme indifference to human life.” The grand jury could also clear Williams of criminal charges.
Williams, 34, turned in his passport and numerous weapons Monday at the State Police barracks in Kingwood, N.J. and was released on $250,000 bail. His first court date was scheduled for March 4.
“He’s a nice guy,” the coach said of his former player, whom he has kept in touch with since Williams’ graduation from Christ the King in 1986. “He was a good player. He developed into an all-league player his senior year. His junior year we were city champions.”
Oliva said he visited Williams’ New Jersey home recently with his basketball team and was awed by the sheer size and opulence of the residence.
“There’s no house in the United States bigger than this,” Oliva said. “It’s not a house, it’s a Quality Inn. It’s a Ramada.”
Lember told a news conference Monday Williams had shot his chauffeur, Costas Christofi, 55, with a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun during an impromptu late night party following a Harlem Globetrotters game in Bethlehem, Pa.,
Witnesses initially gave conflicting statements, leading the death to first be reported as a suicide. But on Monday, the prosecutor said Williams was the person who shot Christofi.
“The death of Mr. Christofi was a tragic accident, but it was an accident,” said Williams’ lawyer, Joseph Hayden. “We are very confident that after a full, fair and thorough exploration of all the facts, it will be clear that Mr. Williams is innocent of recklessness and innocent of any criminal charges.”
The Christofi shooting was not Williams’ first run-in with the law involving firearms. In 1994 he was charged with reckless endangerment and unlawful possession of a weapon after firing shots at a parked car outside the New Jersey Nets home arena in the Meadowlands. He avoided prosecution by agreeing to promote gun safety and talk to kids about the danger of drugs.
After leaving Christ the King, Williams attended St. John’s University where he played for famed basketball coach Lou Carnesecca for three season. With the then-Redmen Williams averaged 14.9 points per game, scoring a career total of 1,072.
Drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 1990, Williams played in the NBA for nine seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Nets before his career was cut short by injuries. As a pro, Williams averaged 7.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
In his 2000 autobiography, “Loose Balls,” Williams said he once almost accidentally shot New York Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet at a shooting range on his property.
“I hope everything works out for him,” Oliva said. “I hope he gets cleared of the charges.”