THE JOY OF SIXTH: MEET THE PISTONS’ SUPER SUB

It’s not that Corliss Williamson is patient. He hates sitting in traffic. He’ll rap on the dashboard and mutter under his breath. When his wife is taking too long to get ready, he’ll stand behind her in the bathroom, tapping his foot as loudly as he can.

“Does that work?” he is asked.

“Not really,” he says.

See? There you go. He’s not patient — but he knows the deal.

And being a great sixth man is all about knowing the deal.

“To be honest, at the start of the season, I wasn’t sure I was gonna get off the bench at all,” Williamson says, laughing. “To go from that to this is something I’m grateful for.”

The “this” he refers to is the NBA’s Sixth Man Award. They gave it to Williamson on Tuesday. It is not a trophy kids dream about. No one sees himself dribbling upcourt with the crowd chanting, “Sixth man! Sixth man!”

But it’s a noble award, nonetheless. Because while glory hounds assume a sixth man must be lacking something, they are only partially right.

The truth is, a great sixth man has to lack something: He has to lack ego. He has to lack resentment. He has to lack the demons of “Why aren’t I out there?” and “How come so-and-so is starting and not me?”

He has to lack a sense of entitlement. But then, Williamson, 28, has never had much use for that. As the grandson of an Arkansas janitor who worked 12-hour shifts in order to start his own cleaning business, Corliss was taught a simple philosophy: You work for what you get, and you get what you work for.

When he arrived in Detroit in February 2001, his second trade in one season, that equation was staring him in the face. His contract was ending. Free agency loomed. Teams were unloading him, to avoid being left holding the bag.

“You’ve got two months here to show us what you’ve got,” Joe Dumars, the Pistons’ president, told Williamson back then. “Or at the very least, to show some other team, what you’ve got. That’s the deal.”

And Corliss is good at knowing the deal.

The road to Motown

He knew the deal in college, when he decided, over a chorus of boosters, to stay at Arkansas for his junior season. “I don’t have the mental attitude right now for the life of an NBA player,” he said at the time, a remarkably candid assessment for a 20-year-old.

He knew the deal in Sacramento, when, after four years there, he was a free agent faced with leaving or taking a cut-rate, one-year contract, because the Kings were out of money. He chose the latter, delighting fans, confounding experts.

He knew the deal in Detroit, last February, when Dumars issued his challenge.

And he knows the deal now, as he counts the minutes in the first quarter, waiting for the horn, his entrance, and the Pistons’ shift to his banging, post-up presence.

“I feel like I’ve found a home here in Detroit,” says Williams, a 6-foot-7, 245-pound forward who averaged 13.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in his 21.8 minutes a game. “I’m real happy being a Piston.”

Trust me, the feeling is mutual. Dumars didn’t know what he’d landed when he acquired Williamson last year for Jerome Williams and Eric Montross. And when Rick Carlisle began coaching last fall, he wasn’t sure either.

“I don’t know if this guy can fit in with us,” Carlisle told Dumars.

Dumars grinned, said wait a few games. And sure enough, after a few of Williamson’s banging, posting, highly productive performances, Carlisle told his boss, “Oh, yeah. He can fit in.”

Plenty of folks to thank

I look at Williamson and see Adrian Dantley minus the attitude. Dantley was a back-it-up post player, much like Williamson. And if he didn’t score, he’d get to the line, same as Corliss.

But Williamson is less selfish. And when it comes to leg strength, this guy is a tree trunk. Backing him up is tough. Stopping him from backing up is tougher.

Nicknamed “Big Nasty” ever since a junior high school dunk, Williamson may be sixth man, but he’s often first option. With defenses swarming Jerry Stackhouse, Williamson becomes the man when the Pistons need crunch-time points.

“Being in at the end is more important than being in at the beginning,” he says.

Spoken like a true sixth man. Williamson, the first Piston to get that NBA award, is a truly likable fellow, with an affable Arkansas family work ethic. He thanked his whole bench in accepting the award Tuesday, on the eve of Game 2 of the playoffs. And when I ask him the last individual honor he won, he has to think for a while.

“Um, maybe the most outstanding player thing in the Final Four,” he says.

Oh, yeah. That little thing. Did it come with a trophy?

He squints. He had no idea.

Doesn’t matter. Life is not about trophies. It’s about knowing the deal and ignoring the rest. Here’s to Williamson and all that he lacks, No. 34 on your roster, sixth man in your hearts.

And when you see him on the bench tonight, just remember. He’s not being patient.

He’s counting down.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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