By Ben Osborne
(Photo by Keith Dorris/Dorris Photography)
Playground royalty got its recognition from college basketball last night in Clarksville, TN, when James “Fly” Williams had his jersey retired by Austin Peay State University. The Brooklyn-bred Fly is a long- time SLAM favorite, having been featured at length in SLAM 25 back in ’98 (run in its entirety lower in this post), and mentioned prominently in Rick Telander’s excerpt of Heaven is a Playground that ran in SLAM 122 last fall.
As APSU Sports Information broke it down in a press release, “Williams starred at Austin Peay during the 1972-73 and 1973-74 seasons, literally helping put the Governors basketball program on the map. He helped lead the Governors to a 22-7 record in 1972-73 and APSU’s first-ever Division I NCAA tournament appearance that included a 77-75 win against Jacksonville and a controversial 106-100 overtime loss to Kentucky.
Williams averaged 29.5 points per game as a freshman, twice scoring a school-record 51 points along the way. His 29.5 average stood as the NCAA freshmen mark until Louisiana State’s Chris Jackson broke the record in 1988-89 with a 30.2 ppg average—Williams mark still ranks No. 1 for players without benefit of the three-point arc. Williams’ single-season 854 points are the most in APSU history and second most in OVC annals.”
Telander, one of SLAM’s best friends in the media, gave his take on Fly’s honors in this week’s Sports Illustrated, writing one of his typically fast-paced, entertaining and informative stories that you can read here.
Having taking you on an internet tour of all things Fly, I wanted to re-run the story from SLAM 25 by another SLAM friend who has done big things, Anthony McCarron of the Daily News. Before A-Mac blew up by working the Yankees beat earlier this millennium, he was SLAM’s high school and New York expert, and I vividly remember reading the following great story, which ran in one of the first SLAMs I was on the staff for.
Fly from the ’Ville
Even in the ABA, a league full of misfits, NYC legend James “Fly” Williams stood out. Twenty years later, he’s finally trying to fit in.
By Anthony McCarron
James “Fly” Williams walks along New Lots Avenue in East New York, talking about ball and how he was Brooklyn’s biggest thing back in the day. “All-city, baby,” Fly says. When he burned his man, he’d tell the guy all about it. Maybe even the guy’s coach, too. Fly has been to the places of boyhood dreams, touched basketball’s sweet life. He soared to the top of the college game in the mid-70s and kicked it as the zaniest player in the renegade ABA. Got paid to play.
Nearby, during Fly’s stroll through the ’hood, his other extreme looms. He points to a housing project as perhaps an unofficial symbol of the drug problem that consumed him once he was done with the game.
“I used to be over there, standing in doorways,” Fly says. “I didn’t even live there, I was just there.
“I was nowhere.”
Now Fly is standing in front of about 50 kids in a junior high school gym. The man who a generation ago wore white rabbit fur coats to pickup games is decked out in the Home Improvement collection—jeans and a plaid work shirt over a sweatshirt.
The kids don’t know who he once was, even though most adults around East New York and Brownsville recognize Fly as he walks down the street, shout hellos to the man who was once their guy—the guy from around the way they could follow in the papers. The kids don’t know that Fly was third in the NCAA in scoring at Austin Peay in ’74, don’t know that he once played pro, once matched up against Dr. J on the playground and in the ABA.
Fly walks slowly back and forth at center court as he talks to the kids. His message is as blue collar as his outfit.
“I was a pretty good player in my time,” he says. “But we’re not going to rely on basketball. Go to school, do the proper thing, listen to your parents. Out of all y’all, only one might make it, maybe none, so put your heart and soul in the classroom.”
Fly’s answer ain’t no shoe. It’s education. After all he’s been through, all he’s had and lost, everywhere he’s been, he’s back in his native Brooklyn, working the schools in Brownsville and East New York, talking street talk, the real stuff, with kids.
“Here I am today,” he says, “trying to show the future what to do. I’d like to get to some of the bad kids. I can relate to them. I’ve had a hell of an experience.” Fly wants to make a career out of these talks. It’s good therapy for him and he’s convinced that kids will listen. So far, no one’s hired him, though when he runs his rhyme, it works.
“Fly came to the school recently and talked for about 30 minutes.” says Jeff Meltzer, the basketball coach at Madison HS, Fly’s alma mater. “The kids thought he was great. He talked all about how he thought he was the man, but he didn’t know what being the man was. Guys used to come and talk to him and tell him the same kinds of things, but he never listened.
“He told them how he’s living proof. He told them, ‘I’ve got the gunshot wounds to show you.’”
To find out how Fly got on the business end of a shotgun, we’ve gotta run through it all. Start on the playgrounds. Fly dominated there, just like he dominated at Madison in the early ’70s. He was 6-5, with moves, a shot, a knack for the carom and courtside charm.
“Even in childhood, we knew he’d be good,” says Ronald Jones, a boyhood friend of Fly’s. “One year, he was 5-9, and then all of a sudden, he was 6-3, 6-4. He shot up. And he was good.”
The nickname came because of the way Fly dressed and the way he played, he says. “I was flamboyant; it was the style. Clyde [Walt Frazier] had Clyde, and I was Fly. I was Fly before Curtis Mayfield was Super Fly.”
Fly honed his skills in the ’hood against born players like World B. Free and looked for games in parks all over the city. “I always went where the action was,” Fly says. “I didn’t fear anyone.”
Except maybe his teachers. “I always chased the girls, so I never went to class,” Fly says. He finished high school at an upstate prep school. “Glen Springs Academy, courtesy of Rodney Parker, the guy who gets kids to schools,” Fly says. Parker was immortalized in Rick Telander’s book, Heaven is a Playground, which also featured petulant playground ace Fly Williams.
After prep school, a young assistant coach named Leonard Hamilton convinced Fly to go to Austin Peay in Clarksville, TN, instead of UCLA or Marquette.
“That was my first year out of college,” says Hamilton, now head coach at the University of Miami. “I didn’t have a credit card; I barely knew how to rent a car. I didn’t really know anybody in New York, but I had heard about this guy, and I went to his home and waited for him. We ended up hitting it off pretty well.”
Fly hit Clarksville. Hard. “When I first went there, they had my name in the sky in smoke from jets,” Fly says. He averaged 29.4 points as a freshman in ’73, fifth-best in the nation, and tiny Austin Peay made the NCAA tournament. He scored 26 in a first-round win over Jacksonville and then hit for 26 again as the Governors lost to Kentucky in overtime.
“He packed all the arenas,” Hamilton says. “He scored 51 points twice as a freshman. He’s by far the best basketball player that I’ve recruited. He played so hard and really played the total game. We had a trophy that we gave to the player who took the most charges, and he got it both years he was there.”
Fly also inspired perhaps the greatest cheer heard this side of Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium: “Fly is open, let’s go Peay.” Bumper stickers saying “Fly with the Guvs” appeared on cars in Clarksville. He didn’t need public relations—he hyped himself by yapping like Montel Williams.
As a sophomore, he averaged 27.5 points, good for third in the country. He pumped in another 26 points in an NCAA tourney game, but AP lost in the first round, and Fly did the hardship thing. In his 54-game career at AP, he scored 1,541 points, a 28.5 ppg average.
“I was a pioneer,” Fly says. “I was born too early.”
“I would have loved to see him stay in school for one more year,” Hamilton says. “Had he gone through the maturing process, it would have made all the difference.”
Denver picked Fly in the first round of the ’74 ABA draft, but after several transactions, he was sold to the Spirits of St. Louis, a team coached for a time by Rod Thorn, now the NBA’s VP of operations. Twenty-two-year-old broadcaster Bob Costas called their games, detailing the exploits of Fly and teammates such as Marvin “Bad News” Barnes.
Fly averaged 9.4 points for the Spirits during the ’74-75 season. It was the kind of year in which, on any given night, he could pour in 25 points in a half or shoot 2-for-11. He was better known for his antics and wore “Fly” on his uniform rather than “Williams.” There’s a story about him getting into a fight with a teammate during warmups, another about him bolting the dentist’s chair even though the Spirits management had said they’d pay to get him new teeth. He hated needles and figured he was better off without new choppers, even though he didn’t have very many of his own.
“Man, I wouldn’t be the Fly if I had teeth,” he said.
Fly loved to needle Costas. “I remember once, Costas asked me and Marvin to bring a tape box off of the plane,” Fly recalled. “We both were like, ‘We ain’t doing that.’ Two o’clock in the morning comes, and there’s a knock at our hotel room door.
“Who is it?”
“It’s Bob, Fly. Where’s the tape box?”
“Where’d you last see it, little Bob?”
“On the plane.”
“Well, that’s probably where it is, little Bob.”
“I teased Bob, but I loved Bob,” Fly says. “I’d love to see him today. He was a riot in those days.”
NBA teams showed some interest in Fly before the merger with the ABA eliminated the Spirits, but he didn’t stick. He used to think he had been blackballed, but he’s mellowed. “Why didn’t I ever make it?” Fly says. “Attitude. I needed a serious attitude adjustment. I had a short temper, [I was] a hot head.”
Fly tried to get back into basketball’s promised land by playing his way through the CBA and the Eastern League. He even played overseas. “In Tel Aviv, we used to hear bombs at night,” he says. “We were a stone’s throw from Lebanon.”
But his shot at the NBA was past. He kept playing, though, and tacked on a few more stories to the Fly legend. There was the time he wrestled Victor the Bear as halftime entertainment in one pro league. “He was 8-feet, 11-inches,” Fly says, laughing. “I lost.”
Another story goes that Fly scored 50 in the first half of a rec league game and then blasted his team at the half: “You guys ain’t passin’!”
Once, a reporter wanted to know how popular Fly was around the way. “Look up,” Fly said. A subway passing through Brownsville had graffiti on it: “Fly from the ’Ville.”
He also met up with Earl “The Pearl” Monroe in Philadelphia’s Baker League one night and got to woofing.
“Fly was laughing, joking, taunting Earl, and scored about 30 in the first half,” says Ronald Jones, a childhood friend of Fly’s. “We kept saying, ‘Leave Earl alone.’ He wouldn’t. Earl went out and scored 40 on him in the second half and won.”
“I don’t think I scored another point,” Fly says, laughing.
“He had a ‘fly’ game,” says Monroe, the ex-Knicks great. “He could shoot it, do all the things necessary to be a big-time player, and he was. Fly could always score. He was a real flashy guy who could back it up. I guess some things went wrong along the way.”
Said Jones: “I think he never made it for the simple reason that he was undisciplined. He always had problems with authority on teams—coaches and things. And he got involved in the street life at the same time. Once he wasn’t playing anymore, the street life just took over.”
In his doorway days, Fly was freebasing cocaine and drinking whatever he could. Ten years ago, his athletic frame had shrunk to a skeletal 6-5 and 106 pounds.
“I was as big as a broom handle back then,” Fly says. “That’s the wild times. A lot of that, I don’t even remember. When you’re zonked out of your mind, you don’t remember. It’s a part of life I wish I was never introduced to.”
Fly said his first experience with drugs happened at a party one night in ’82, when he did a little experimenting. “We used to get strung out on them drugs,” he says. “I was messed up.”
Like most Brownsville kids back then, Mike Tyson had heard of Fly and the way he drove past opponents, lips flapping. But when Tyson came around to chill, Fly was too ashamed of himself to come out to talk. He would only talk to Iron Mike through the window. Still, his habit lingered.
“Sometimes,” Fly says, “I didn’t even have to pay for it, because everybody knew me. It was there in games in the street. I never had to really purchase it.”
But sometimes he did. And with his basketball skills eroded, he needed to find some way to pay the man. How do you survive when the craving hits? “Hustling in the streets, man,” Fly says. “I sold some, sometimes. I did a lot of things to survive and support. I got money from guys I knew in the league.
“It went on until I got into trouble.”
“It got to the point where you knew something was going to happen and it wasn’t going to be good,” Jones says. “His name was synonymous with drugs, hooliganism, trouble. But that came years after he was out of the limelight with basketball. I guess he had to have something to hold onto. There were positives he could have held onto, but he went that route. He was always our friend, though. We tried to get him to see the light. You know how people get involved in things you know they shouldn’t, but they’re basically a good person? That was his case.”
Though Fly is now as popular as ever in Brownsville, there are people on the New York basketball scene who think he’s dead. That doesn’t suprise the man.
“I did die,” he says. “I did. My heart had stopped, but they brought me back. I’ve seen life and death. After I was shot, I saw light shining above me, and I saw fire below me. There was a tail curling around my leg. I’m serious. The priest in the hospital said it was the devil.”
After a pickup game in Brooklyn in ’87, Fly argued with a friend over money. “Some other guys got involved, another friend of ours went home and got a shotgun,” Fly says. “They said I tried to rob my friend. I had a job then, working at Coney Island Hospital. It was just a misunderstanding. They said I came at the guy with a knife. A knife against a shotgun?”
Fly was shot by the man with the shotgun, an off-duty court officer. “The blood filled up in my sneakers so fast,” Fly says. “I had this leather jacket with a coyote on it and the coyote was on fire.”
Buckshot took one of Fly’s lungs, part of a kidney and part of his stomach. He almost died. He was charged with attempted robbery, unlawful imprisonment, weapons possession and menacing, and spent 14 months in Attica and two other prisons. “I ran basketball tournaments inside,” he says. Basketball helped in other ways, too; Fly was a mini-celebrity inside—guards and fellow inmates asked for his autograph.
Unfortunately, Fly’s troubles with the law didn’t end there. He also served two years from ’93-95 on a drug possession rap. His parole recently ended, and his parole officers said he completed a drug program and has been clean.
Fly knows he’s made a lot of mistakes and he doesn’t want to make any more. He hopes his story can help kids, but some people don’t understand why he’s willing to reveal his past. “You have to take the bad with the good,” Fly explains. “I know that. Some of my friends, my family, they don’t understand it. Maybe I can help someone. All this stuff happened. All of this is part of the story. Now I’m trying to add to it. I try to talk to some of the neighborhood kids, get them doing good.
“I’m putting the negatives behind me now. I’m trying to give something positive to kids, maybe tell them my story. Maybe they can learn from it.”
Even after all he’s been through, all he’s seen and done, Fly remains unbroken.
“I’ll be 45 on Feb. 18, heh, heh,” Fly says. “I’m getting there, huh?
“No one would have believed it.”