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Of hoop dreams dashed: Fly Williams' story part of Brooklyn history

2/4/2002
February 4, 2002

"If talent were enough, Fly Williams would have been the greatest basketball player you've ever seen instead of the greatest player you've never seen." So begins a two-page story on one of Austin Peay's brightest shooting stars.

In "Brooklyn: A State of Mind (125 Original Stories from America's Most Colorful City)," the young Williams is described by Roger Rubin as "the personification of Brooklyn, with creativity and expression, intelligence and motion, bravado and the physical gifts to back it up."

Williams-named Fly for his flamboyant style-was an All-American in his Brooklyn high school, with an average of 28.2 points and 21 rebounds a game, and was recognized by college coaches as one of the nation's best prospects. But he wasn't a motivated student and couldn't qualify for a college scholarship. So he enrolled at a prep school in upstate New York for a year, where he averaged 33.9 points and the team went 33-2.

After that, Williams was heavily recruited by colleges. But he ended up choosing, in Rubin's words, "little Austin Peay State University." And it was here that he seemed to hit his stride. The University benefited, too.

"Word got around about the freshman who was averaging nearly 30 points and 20 rebounds a game," Rubin says. "Austin Peay became a very hot commodity, selling out road games on the way to its first berth ever in the NCAA's annual basketball tournament."

It was in that first NCAA tournament in 1973 that Williams began to reveal "how erratic a personality he was," Rubin adds. He and Coach Lake Kelly argued, and Kelly ended up benching his young star. The team lost to Kentucky.

Williams' sophomore season brought more disagreements with the coach and culminated in a suspension. Williams quit, announcing he was going pro. He signed a contract with the St. Louis Spirit of the ABA, where he averaged 9.4 points and gained a reputation as one of the league's most colorful personalities. "Who else would come to a playground game wearing a white rabbit fur coat? Who else would leave his gold Rolls-Royce double-parked outside a game at Foster Park and, when asked by a police officer to move it, toss him the keys and reply, 'You move it'"? Rubin queries.

That year proved to be the apex of the kid from Brooklyn's basketball career. "Fly Williams did not realize his potential," Rubin says. His marketability was diluted by his inability to take direction. He was "too big a headache for coaches to tolerate."

Williams doesn't deny it. "I needed a serious attitude adjustment," he said in a "Slam" magazine interview in 1998.

With his shot at the pros gone, Williams got caught up in drugs and alcohol. In 1987 he was shot in a drug-related dispute and almost died. He spent two years, 1993 to 1995, in jail for possession.

But his doorway days are over. Today, at 48, Fly Williams is back in Brooklyn, using his story to keep kids in school and away from drugs, going into places even police officers steer clear of.

His hoop dreams are over, but his dream of keeping kids clean and sober is just taking flight.