Here’s our complete story — from sports editor Sean Mayer, with some reporting from me and Dan — on the passing of Ray Williams:
The last time Lowes Moore saw longtime friend and fellow Mount Vernon hoops legend Ray Williams was, perhaps fittingly, at a basketball game.
It was a wheelchair game last fall at the Westchester County Center. Williams, who gave a speech to the teams at halftime, had been riding Moore’s son, Isaiah, about shooting too much — until Isaiah hit a shot from near halfcourt to win the game.
“The first person who ran on the court was Ray,” Moore said. “ ‘Oh my God. You’re the man,’ he was yelling. He was just that kind of person.”
Williams, whose 10-season NBA career included two stints apiece with both the Knicks and Nets, died Friday in New York. He was 58.
The former guard had been battling colon cancer. Williams, who was homeless in Florida several years ago before turning his life around, learned only recently — after taking advantage of the NBA Retired Players Association’s free colon cancer screening program — that he had an advanced tumor.
Upon learning of Williams’ diagnosis, Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly paid for him to fly up from Florida to be treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
“We knew each other, and we only had good things to say to each other,” said Lincoln High coach Mike Young, Williams’ teammate at Mount Vernon. “Just knew that it was a special group. When you are a part of that group, it’s something special.
“All of us didn’t go to the (NBA), but all of us know if you were in that (Mount Vernon) fraternity, you knew each other. And you knew what each other could do, regardless of how far you went and how famous you got.”
Williams won two state titles with the Knights. He also was an all-state selection in football as a senior.
“I think Ray was one of those throwbacks. I think Ray could’ve been an all-American in basketball, football, baseball and track,” said Moore, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Mount Vernon. “He got bigger in college, but in high school, he was about 185 pounds. He was long, strong and could do anything. There wasn’t anything at the (Boys & Girls) Club he wasn’t good at. There wasn’t one thing Ray couldn’t do.”
Williams — whose older brother Gus also starred as a guard for Mount Vernon before setting off on a successful NBA career — spent two years at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas, then moved on to the University of Minnesota, where he averaged 19 points per game as a senior during the 1976-77 season.
“Gus had the better basketball IQ. Gus had a knack for knowing the game,” Young said. “Ray had the physical attributes. He could run and jump and was big and strong.”
Ray Williams was selected 10th overall by the Knicks in the 1977 NBA draft. His best pro season was 1979-80, when he averaged 20.9 points, 6.2 assists and five rebounds per game.
He scored 52 points in a game as a member of the Nets in 1982. That figure stood as the franchise’s single-game scoring record until last season, when Deron Williams scored 57 in a game.
Ray Williams also played for the Kansas City Kings, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs. He averaged 15.5 points and 5.8 assists during his career.
“From my perspective, I didn’t think that would happen,” Young said, referring to Williams’ NBA success. “He was a year behind us. Our senior year, which was our big year, he was still on the JV. Imagine that — we had pro guys on the JV. … We used to laugh at him and beat him up in practice and that sort of thing, because at the time, we were much better than them. ‘You guys are just JV guys.’ That’s how we looked at it. Obviously, as people grow up and develop — wow.”
Williams fell upon hard times after his playing days. He lost all of his money due to bad investments, and he wound up divorced and estranged from his children. Things got so bad a few years ago that he was living out of his car in Pompano Beach, Fla., eating what he caught fishing each day.
Williams returned to his hometown thanks to the prodding and assistance of Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton Young Jr., who hired him to a position in the city’s recreation department. Williams got to be near his mother and four brothers, all of whom were in the area, and he reconnected with his children.
According to a report, he married Linda Crawford, a nurse he had met during his playing career, in 2011 and returned to Florida to live.
Williams’ generosity despite his many struggles — which included a battle with diabetes — left an impression on Moore.
“He donated resources to the Boys & Girls Club,” Moore said. “When some people were struggling financially, Ray didn’t know how to say no. He bent over backward to help a lot of people.”