A Q + A with Fly Williams.
by Matt Caputo
Last week, Austin Peay University paid tribute to its greatest basketball icon, James “Fly” Williams, by retiring his No. 35. Although the NYC streetball icon never graduated, Austin Peay honored their hoops hero on Feb. 5 after never really acknowledging his significance to Governors basketball in the past. Thirty-five-plus years after arriving at APU, Williams finally made the school’s honor roll.
SLAM spoke to Williams the morning after he was honored by his almost alma mater.
SLAM: How was last night?
Fly Williams: Fantastic, man. Unbelievable. Awe, man. Overwhelming, man. It’s hard to put it in words. I mean, when I seen the shrine that they built inside the lobby of the gym it was just unbelievable, man. I mean—I could of cried.
SLAM: When was the last time you were there?
FW: Oh man, really 35 years. Before I came out, I was out here for the 25th anniversary we had. I think that was in about maybe 10 years ago. And then it’s been 35 years now. So, you might as well say I was here for a minute 10 years ago.
SLAM: What exactly did they do for you that night?
FW: Well, they retired my jersey. They showed a video of Bob Costas because he was invited—you know, he was in St. Louis with me. He was a host in Hank Aaron’s 75th birthday so, he couldn’t make it here but they showed a video of him. And, my book, they sold like all the books that we had there. I believe like 2,000 copies that were sold—I signed every last one of them. The book is called Fly 35. You can order it off my website fly35.com.
SLAM: How do you feel about the book now that it’s complete and available?
FW: Well, the book is my life: The good parts, the tragedy and what I’m doing today. You know, it’s pretty complete. There is a whole lot more that could have been added to it, so maybe we might have a Fly 2. Who knows (Laughs). But to put it in one book, it couldn’t be done. You know, my life and the things I’ve been through. But the basic things are there and what I’m doing today is there. It’s just fantastic. The book is fantastic.
SLAM: What was your experience like when you were playing at Austin Peay in the ‘70s?
FW: It was unbelievable. You know, it was like when I came here from New York City it was like I was coming to a town like Green Acres. You know, really. When I first came here and I told everybody I was gonna sign here and play here—of course I was supposed to go to a big time school, I wasn’t supposed to come to a small school like this. Everybody thought I was going to go to a big school, they actually thought they did something to me out here when I signed (Laughs). Put something in the water, you know? So, when I came here they were just so loving, so sweet. I don’t regret coming here it was a fantastic ride man. I mean—it’s like I’m on a roller coaster now. It’s just awesome.
SLAM: How was it that you were able to score over 1,500 points in two years?
FW: When I came here, they had all the pieces. They had a great team. They had good players; they were just missing a piece, and I was the missing piece to the puzzle. They needed somebody that could really score, you know, put up them points. You got remember, I didn’t have 3-pointers. I didn’t have dunking. So like they said last night, my record still stands even though someone broke it, but it still has an asterisk next to the guy that broke the record because what I put up in two years, it took them four years to do it. So, if I had the 3-point goal, it might have been untouchable. You know, but it’s just fantastic.
SLAM: What do you remember about the two trips you made to the NCAA Tournament while you were at Austin Peay?
FW: Oh, I remember a whole about ‘em. I remember when we went to the Sweet 16 and we actually got robbed. I mean we were up almost 30 points on Kentucky. You know that, right?
SLAM: Yes, I’d heard that.
FW: And the second half they just took the game from us, took us right out the game. I mean, fouls, fouls, it was unbelievable. I mean, you don’t come back from 30 and beat us. It was unheard of. When we got up 30, it was unheard of any team coming back to beat us. And when we lost that game, it was just a heart breaker. I think they just weren’t ready for a little school and the things we did back then. You know, they just didn’t believe that we came out of nowhere and went that far.
SLAM: How did it feel when you had to leave Austin Peay? I guess it was 1974?
FW: Well, the reason why I left was, at first I had my name in the hardship—I was going to leave. I think a day or so before, I took my name out the hardship and I was going to stay. They came up with this here little ACT test I didn’t take. It was really nothing. Matter fact, the test, was just you took your SAT. The test was for your name to be on record, basically. You could have scored a zero on it; it didn’t make a difference. It just so happened that a couple of us didn’t take it and they asked to sit-out or transfer. If we transferred, we could have played. We could have went to another school in the OVC and played! But what sense did that make. You kind of just transfer and go to another school where you can play, but we couldn’t be at Austin Peay and play. So it really didn’t make any sense at that time. You know, so I chose just to take my chances at going in the League and Denver drafted me No. 1. Denver—I was the first player picked by the Denver Nuggets.
SLAM: You played in the ABA the next year though, right?
FW: That’s right. I went to St. Louis. Oh that worked out fine. I met Bob Costas there. He was there just starting out. Myself. Marvin Barnes. Moses Malone. Freddie Lewis. [John Adams]. Joe Carwell. Big John Adams. Gus Girard. I mean it was fantastic on paper, but we had a bomb. We couldn’t win a game (Laughs). We needed two balls (Laughs). You know, but it was fantastic.
SLAM: What happened after you left St. Louis?
FW: After I left St. Louis, I bummed around a little bit, played in the CBA, I played up in Rochester for a while, I played up in Lancaster. The Rochester team was called Rochester Zeniths. I played for Lancaster Red Roses. I played for Anchorage Northern Knights. I bummed around the CBA for a while and then I ended up playing in the Eastern League. I played in Allentown. I played in Jersey Shore. Matter of fact, Jersey Shore was the CBA, too.
SLAM: You played in White Plains, too, right?
FW: Right. I played up there as well. I bummed around there a little bit. Then I also went overseas. I played in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and when we were in Tel-Aviv the war was going on. They were bombing maybe a 100 miles from where I was at and it was time to go home (Laughs). After that, that’s when all the other stuff started. I ended up in the streets, and got messed up—I was 30 something years old before I was introduced to bad habits of that nature. I ended up getting shot, going to prison. When I came home, I came up with guys there; I tried to reach out to the youth. I’ve been doing it ever since. Then Nike came into the picture, helped me out, and thank God for Nike. I really bless them for helping me out over the past—I’ve believed I’ve been with them six, seven years now. Everything’s just been working out. Everything is just fine. At this point, my program is based on teaching the kid how to play the game. I’ll take a kid who never picked a ball up and teach him how to play.
SLAM: You said you played in all those spots. How close were you ever in getting back into the League or getting to the NBA?
FW: Oh, well when the expansion draft came, I was drafted by Philadelphia in the eighth, ninth round. And I went into Philly and did well. I mean I did out a million guys. And Gene Shue was the coach at the time, and he said I’ve never seen a kid shoot the ball like this kid shoots the ball. But at that time, Bill Cunningham had hurt his knee. If you remember that—I don’t know if you was even around. Bill Cunningham had hurt his knee and they didn’t know he was coming back, and I was on the team—I had my jersey—I was ready, I was happy, I made it back into the NBA. It was hard work, and he came back and they had to let me go. Unfortunately, he hurt his leg the first game—the first game he hurt his knee again. By that time, I was with Seattle, and then the same thing happened up in Seattle. [Snake White or Bruce Seals], one of them guys they was hurt and they had to let me go. And then, after that, I went over seas for a while to Jerusalem and all that and I just got frustrated and just gave it up.
SLAM: Tell me, what’s the best advice you could give to a young cat has got some skill but is also coming into their formative years?
FW: The best thing I can tell them is use to your education first. Okay, that’s the first thing. Have respect for your parents—you know what I’m saying. Your parents are everything. So, I would say education and parents as things one and two. Some times I put it one some times it put it two, depends on how I’m talking to the kid. Sports will take care of it self but you cant play sports unless you’re going to school. You can’t make it in life unless you listen to your parents, you know. And I try to tell them about peer pressure. Like being a leader, not being a follower. You know, and stay away from drugs and bad things. A beer lead to a joint, a joint lead to a next thing, and the next thing lead to the next thing, and before you know it you [also try it].
SLAM: Tell me, what do you have planned for the next years? How old are you?
FW: I’ll be 56 the 18th of February.
SLAM: What do you have planned for the next few years?
FW: Just to continue the work that I’m doing, know what I mean? When I got shot, God had a plan for me because I shouldn’t be here. I got shot with a shotgun, and 97.9 percent of people get hit with a shotgun die. I love what I’m doing. I will go anywhere, anyplace, to talk to any kid. We just have to shape the future that’s it.
SLAM: That’s the truth. That’s the truth.
FW: You know this generation here we have to get a grasp on, I don’t know where you’re living at, but New York is very rough.
SLAM: I’m from Elmhurst/Corona, Queens, so I know.
FW: Oh wow.
SLAM: So, I understand.
FW: So, you know the job that I’m trying to do.
SLAM: I know what you have up against you.
FW: Yeah, I mean it’s a task but I enjoy doing it because I’ve lived on both sides of the street, and I’ve been in both parts of the world. And I’ve been to places they will wind up if they don’t get they act together.