Ray Williams Rumors

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On the day Ray Williams passed away, was it karma or coincidence Micheal Ray Richardson was on the Knicks’ scene Friday night at Air Canada Centre? The Knicks drafted Williams with the 10th pick in 1977 to be Walt Frazier’s successor. Williams and backcourt mate Richardson were supposed to lead the Knicks back to the promised land. Last night, the Garden held a moment of silence for Williams and original Knick, Bud Palmer. Never worked out that way. “I’m real sad,’’ Richardson told The Post Friday night while watching the Knicks beat the Raptors. “He and I were like brothers.’’ Williams died yesterday after battling colon cancer at Sloane Kettering Hospital at age 58. Richardson is living in Canada, coaching the nearby London Lightning of the NBL, and had stopped by to visit his former teammates, Knicks coach Mike Woodson and assistant Darrell Walker.
But of the many friends the likable Williams had, he was inextricably tied to Richardson more than any other player, despite their relatively short time as the Knicks’ starting backcourt under Coach Red Holzman. “Talent-wise, pound for pound, we were considered one of the best 1-2 punches in the league,” Richardson said in a telephone interview from London, Ontario, where he is coaching the London Lightning of the National Basketball League of Canada.
Out of Mount Vernon, N.Y., the younger brother of the N.B.A. star Gus Williams, Ray Williams played for six N.B.A. teams over 10 years, including two stints each with the Knicks and the Nets. His later life was turbulent. A trail of bad financial decisions left him destitute at times, and living in his car in Florida as recently as 2010. Benefactors like his former Celtics teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale helped Williams get back on his feet, and the Knicks’ management team — including Coach Mike Woodson, who played alongside Williams during the 1982-83 season for the Kansas City Kings — arranged for treatment at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.
Former Knicks and Nets guard Ray Williams passed away today at the age of just 58 years old. The Mount Vernon, NY native had been battling colon cancer at Manhattan’s Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. After an impressive career with the Maryland Terrapins, Williams was selected by the Knicks with the 10th overall pick of the 1977 NBA Draft ahead of Forrest Hills native and one-time Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld, Celtics legend Cedric Maxwell, Hawks center Tree Rollins and Lakers guard Norm Nixon.
“Once a Knick, Always a Knick” is more than just a marketing slogan stitched inside the uniforms of each player who wears orange and blue. For Ray Williams, it is a matter of life and death. The ailing former Knicks guard, who has fallen on hard times, was transported by the Knicks last week from Florida to New York to receive treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan for an undisclosed illness. Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan paid for the medical plane that allowed Williams, 58, to receive world-class care and to be near his mother.
Former Lakers great James Worthy, who has been tapped by the NBRPA to recruit players to participate in the program, will host the press conference with Ray Lucas, the former Jets quarterback who says PAST saved his life by helping him overcome his painkiller addiction. Worthy said he’ll have to convince needy retirees to put aside their pride and accept assistance. “A lot of guys don’t like to talk about the issues you encounter when you retire,” Worthy said. “You played at the top level, but you might only be one medical problem from losing everything.”
Ray Williams hasn’t caught many breaks since he retired from the NBA in 1987, but the former Knicks and Nets guard is lucky that a New Jersey medical group is providing colon cancer screening and treatment to retired NBA players. Williams, the first NBA retiree to take advantage of the colon cancer program offered by the PAST Retired Players Medical Group and the National Basketball Retired Players Association, received a colonoscopy Thursday and learned he has a large tumor in his colon. “The good thing is I haven’t felt any pain from it,” Williams said as he recovered after the procedure at the Endo Clinic in Clifton, N.J. “Hopefully, they will remove it soon and it won’t be that bad.”
Welcome home, Ray Williams. It’s time to start over. After 13 years of mostly bouncing anonymously through Florida from dead-end to dead-end — the last 13 months sleeping in old faded vehicles in Pompano Beach — Williams has returned to the town where he was born and raised and is still revered. “We needed Ray back — for a lot of reasons,” said Mt. Vernon Mayor Clinton Young (pictured above, left, with Williams). “He’s still respected and very much admired here. He can help us get things done. And he’s a tremendous lesson on success, falling down — then getting back up again. It was time for Ray to come home.”
Williams has been offered a job back home in Mount Vernon, New York, working for the city’s Recreation Department. It was arranged by old friends who have been trying to help him in recent months. He is, after all, one of the finest to ever play in that city. It would mean leaving behind the nomadic life he has lived in Florida the past 13 years, a period that included a downward spiral from which once looked unstoppable. “I still need two new tires, and a starter for my truck, and then I’ll be pulling out of Dodge,” he said. “It won’t be hard to leave here, and I’ll probably just disappear. The way I’ve been living, there’s no reason to say goodbye.”
“I used to give people the shirt off my back, and now when I need help, I can’t even get people to return my phone calls,” Williams said. “It used to make me bitter — people are strange — but I don’t look at it as a bad break anymore. It seems like everyone is going through hard times now, so why cry on anyone’s shoulder? I’ve learned that the best way to forget about your problems is to help someone else.” In the last year, Williams has become something of a fishing pied piper at the Hillboro Inlet Park in Pompano Beach, where he spends most days fishing. He arrives as early as 5 a.m. — that’s when the fishing is the best — and often stays until the park close at 11 p.m. It’s his home-away-from-homeless.
“I’m not going to starve because I can catch fish 98 percent of the time, but this is the toughest thing I’ve ever gone through,” said Williams, who turns 56 on Thursday. “The last four or five years have been tough, but I learned you can go a couple days without food, and you won’t starve to death. Your stomach just growls.” At times, Williams looks like any other recreational fishermen, maybe just another retiree, except he isn’t fishing for fun. He fishes to survive, to feed himself, and to feed those around him. A friend bought him a portable grill that he keeps in the truck, and that often becomes his stove. In the last few days, he has stayed in the soon-to-foreclosed home of another fisherman he met two months ago on the pier. “It’s not like I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life, but I never found anything outside of basketball that I really liked,” he said. “I used to think that life was unfair, but I realize now things happen for a reason.”
Williams, now 55, was once the toast of the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, where he captained the team that won 50 games during the 1980-81 season, more than any other Knicks team in a 15-year span. He earned his nickname because of his laid-back manner and his sweet style of play, averaging 20.9 and 19.7 points in back-to-back seasons. A year later, he helped the cross-river New Jersey Nets open a new arena, leading them in scoring, through a 20-win improvement and into the playoffs. In the final game of the regular season, he scored 52 points against Isiah Thomas’s and Bill Laimbeer’s Detroit Pistons, setting a franchise scoring record that still stands today. “I was killing them that night,” he recalled with a chuckle. He grew up in nearby Mount Vernon, New York, and he loved going home every night, playing with both the Knicks and the Nets.
Former New York Knicks captain Ray Williams was driving away last week in his faded, 1998 Chevy Tahoe, finally regaining possession again after it sat in the transmission repair shop for almost a year, waiting for him to scrape together $2,900 to pay the repair bill. He was beaming. It was one proud moment for a homeless man. He did it by selling the fish he caught one by one off the pier or the seawall every day. He did it by sweeping some floors, by emptying trash cans, by asking both acquaintances and strangers for $10 here and $5 there.
In 2005, he filed again for bankruptcy. Transient since then, Williams has bounced from one friend’s house to another’s, from one shelter to another. He finally ran out of friends to stay with, soured on the shelter life, and settled a couple of months ago in his car. He also owns a ’97 Chevy Tahoe but needs to pay a repair shop $550 to release it. He has no health insurance or car insurance. And he already has tapped his NBA pension, he said. “I’m desperate, man,’’ said Williams, who as captain of the 1980-81 Knicks was at times the toast of Broadway. “I’m selling everything I have left just to survive.’’
Every night at bedtime, former Celtic Ray Williams locks the doors of his home: a broken-down 1992 Buick, rusting on a back street where he ran out of everything. The 10-year NBA veteran formerly known as “Sugar Ray’’ leans back in the driver’s seat, drapes his legs over the center console, and rests his head on a pillow of tattered towels. He tunes his boom box to gospel music, closes his eyes, and wonders. Williams, a generation removed from staying in first-class hotels with Larry Bird and Co. in their drive to the 1985 NBA Finals, mostly wonders how much more he can bear. He is not new to poverty, illness, homelessness. Or quiet desperation.
One thing Williams especially wants them to know: Unlike many troubled ex-players, he has never fallen prey to drugs, alcohol, or gambling. “When I played the game, they always talked about loyalty to the team,’’ Williams said. “Well, where’s the loyalty and compassion for ex-players who are hurting? We opened the door for these guys whose salaries are through the roof.’’ Unfortunately for Williams, the NBA-related organizations best suited to help him have closed their checkbooks to him. The NBA Legends Foundation, which awarded him grants totaling more than $10,000 in 1996 and 2004, denied his recent request for help. So did the NBA Retired Players Association, which in the past year gave him two grants totaling $2,000.
When the Celtics signed Williams in February 1985 to back up guards Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, Knicks general manager Dave DeBusschere was quoted as saying, “Ray Williams will help Boston as long as they keep the ball out of his hands at the end of games. Otherwise, he’ll try taking the last shot instead of Larry Bird, and [Celtics president] Red [Auerbach] will be out there with a gun.’’ But Williams fared relatively well playing with four future Hall of Famers — Bird, McHale, Johnson, and Robert Parish. He said his best memories involved playing one-on-one in practice against Bird and harassing Ainge on defense in scrimmages. “I enjoyed my time in Boston,’’ he said. “I got along well with all the guys.’’ He appeared in every playoff game that year for the Celtics, averaging 6.3 points and 3.2 assists, until he was ejected in Game 4 of the Finals for scuffling with LA’s Kurt Rambis. Williams did not play again (coach’s decision) as the Lakers went on to win the series in six games.