Born in Mount Vernon, New York on October 14, 1954, Thomas Ray Williams, younger brother of Gus Williams was drafted 10th overall by the Knicks in 1977. He averaged 16.4 points in five seasons in New York and went on to play for New Jersey, Kansas City, Boston, Atlanta, and San Antonio.
“Ray was probably my favorite college teammate,” McHale, now the coach of the Houston Rockets, said after his team’s victory over Cleveland on Friday night. “I came in as a rookie and Ray took me under his wing. We played ball all the time. We were two guys that just loved to play.
“I went to the University of Minnesota the day after I graduated from high school. I went to Williams Arena and I went to work and the coach said everybody was going to play at like 3:30, or 4, after work. I got there early and Ray and I started playing one on one. We ended up fouling the hell out of each other and we almost ended up in a fight my first day because I wouldn’t give him game point. He kept on saying, ‘I got fouled,’ and I said, ‘No, you didn’t.’ He and I played one on one, and from that day on, we became really good friends.”
McHale also teamed with Williams briefly with the Boston Celtics.
“I was a skinny little kid, man, and Ray was a big ol’ kid from New York City,” McHale said. “He would always tell me about New York City. I’d never been to New York City. I didn’t know what it was.
“A couple of times, we played and some guys tried roughing me up. I’ll never forget, Ray went up and grabbed one of these guys. Back then, they had jewelry and he grabbed the guy by his neck. Ray said he twisted it really hard and said, ‘Before you mess with him, you’ve got to mess with me. And here’s Ray, 6-3, and I’m 6-10. I said, ‘Thank you, Ray….’ I really liked Ray as a teammate. He was a teammate in Boston, too. Those days in Minnesota, 1976, going down there in the summer playing with him and stuff. We were 24-3 that year and Ray was our point guard and we just had a group of guys that played.”
After his NBA career, Williams ran into difficult financial times. Like many professional athletes, he was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1994. By 2010, Williams was homeless, living out of his car in Florida. But thanks to an article in the Boston Globe, some of his former teammates helped him get back on his feet financially. And Williams got a job in his hometown, at the city parks and recreation department, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the Boston Globe reported.
Williams is one of many professional athletes who fell on hard times after leaving the game. Among NBA retirees alone, dozens have turned to the courts for bankruptcy protection, including Williams and his brother, Gus, a former All-Star and NBA champion.
“Everything can fall apart pretty quickly,’’ McHale said. “Life has a way of sneaking up on you.’’
Soon after the Globe reported Williams’s crisis last year, offers of help poured in, with Bird the first NBA alumnus to reach out. As teammates during Boston’s drive to the ’85 NBA Finals, Bird and Williams occasionally played one-on-one after practice.
“Larry was a good guy to me back then, very down-to-earth,’’ Williams said. “We got along real good.’’
They lost touch through the years, but Bird wasted no time opening his checkbook and mobilizing his financial advisers to help his former teammate. Bird insisted to Williams that he wanted no publicity for his generosity, and he declined an interview request for this story.
Within days of Bird contacting Williams, McHale stepped up, too. McHale and Williams first met in 1976 as teammates at the University of Minnesota, McHale joining the Golden Gophers as the state’s Mr. Basketball from Hibbing High School, Williams having arrived earlier from the streets of Mount Vernon, a basketball hotbed abutting the Bronx.
“Ray was three years older than me, but he took me under his wing,’’ recalled McHale, who was 18 at the time. “He’s a wonderful man. On the court, Ray was a great teammate, a us-vs.-them kind of guy. I was a simple kid from a mining town in northern Minnesota. I didn’t understand a lot at that age, but I understood the us-vs.-them mentality.”
Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton Young Jr. learned of his plight and offered him a job. Williams and his brother Gus were among seven players from Mount Vernon High School in the 1970s who reached the NBA (others included Rodney and Scooter McCray).
“Basketball is a way of life in Mount Vernon,” said Bob Cimmino, the high school basketball coach. “It has permeated every little nook of the community since Gus and Ray’s generation. Ray is a very important part of this city’s history and we couldn’t be happier to have him back.”
Williams helped lead Mount Vernon High School to two New York State basketball championships. Williams embraced Young’s challenge to improve Mount Vernon’s recreational activities and use his NBA experience to guide the city’s youth.
Conquering hopelessness has restored his self-esteem and fueled his determination.
“I believe this has all happened for a reason, that I’m here to fulfill a purpose,’’ Williams said. “It’s more about the mission than the money because all the money in the world isn’t going to matter if I don’t follow through on the mission. I’m going to make it work.’’
He’s competing in a new realm now, applying his us-vs.-them credo to the game of life.
“It’s never about the fall, it’s about the getting up,’’ McHale said. “Believe me, Ray’s a fighter. He just needed a little hand. He’ll fight the rest of way himself.’’
Williams died March 22, 2013, at Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in New York City after suffering from colon cancer. Williams was 58. He may be gone but he will never be forgotten to millions including Kevin McHale and will always be a hero to his hometown Mount Vernon.
There was no shortage of people who cared about Williams. More than 350 were present at the Mount Vernon basketball legend and former Knicks player’s funeral. Former NBA players in attendance included Gus Williams, Ray’s older brother; Earl Monroe, Allan Houston,Earl Tatum,; and John Starks, among others. Former Knicks coach Mike Woodson also was present.
“When Ray was drafted it never dawned on me he would take my job,” joked Monroe, a Knicks teammate for four seasons, in his tribute to Williams at the ceremony.
Mount Vernon Mayor Ernest D. Davis also was on hand. Davis spoke about the influence Williams had on so many peoples’ lives and how many people he touched in his 58 years of life.
“Some candles are designed to burn a long time,” Davis said. “Some are designed to burn brightly for a short time.”
Ray’s light shined brightly. He is Black Westchester history and we will forever remember him.