MOUNT VERNON — Albert King remembers that faithful night in Detroit more than 30 years ago. He remembers his New Jersey Nets’ teammate Thomas “Ray” Williams scoring 52 points against the Detroit Pistons, the highest single-game total by a player in team history at the time. He also remembers the embrace the two shared after the game.
Last month King visited the Mount Vernon native at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Williams’ body had already been destroyed by colon cancer. Death was a mere weeks away.
As he neared the room he heard laughter from Williams and his wife, Linda. King was confused at what could be so funny for a man on his deathbed.
“Hey Al,” said Williams as King entered the room. “Remember when I had 52!”
That’s when it clicked for King.
“It really hit me that it wasn’t the 52 points, it was the basketball family,” King told a packed crowd, all present for Williams’ funeral at Allen Memorial Church of God In Christ Family Life Center in Mount Vernon on Wednesday. “As basketball players, when we have people that we care about, that’s what matters.”
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. Williams died Friday in New York at the age of 58. Former NBA players in attendance included Gus Williams, Ray’s older brother; Earl Monroe; Allan Houston; Earl Tatum; and John Starks, among others. Current 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.
Williams was drafted by the Knicks out of the University of Minnesota with the 10th pick in the 1977 draft. His 10-year career included two stints with the Knicks and two with the Nets. He also played with the Kansas City Kings, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs.
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.”
At one point nearly 20 former teammates, either from high school, college or the pros, gathered on the altar. Several spoke about their experience with Williams on the hardwood. “To put it in basketball terms, this is a home game,” said Tatum, referring to the large crowd of supporters. “Ray can’t lose.”
Mount Vernon native Reverend Richard Garner gave the eulogy. Garner, who grew up as a friend of the Williams family, gave a vibrant speech reliving memories about growing up in Mount Vernon. Garner also discussed how Williams’ relationship with God affected him.
“Once (Williams) found the connection with God, nothing was going to rip that smile off his face,” Garner said.
Family and friends mingled outside the church following the funeral service as they continued to share stories with one another.
Mount Vernon native Mike Young, who played basketball with both Gus and Ray, enjoyed the chance to catch up with many of his former teammates he had lost touch with.
“It’s always good reconnecting with people,” Young said. “I could have stood there another two hours just talking to people. That’s the relationship.”
The reception was held at Mount Vernon’s Boys and Girls Club, a place Williams spent much of his childhood.
Former Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton I. Young Jr. also was present. Young was the one who reached out to Williams in 2010 to return to Mount Vernon and get involved in the community.
“(Williams) always had a reputation as a rough and tough guy, but he was a teddy bear,” Young said. “He had a big heart, and he would do for others no matter what. He loved the people here in the community.”
Kevin Gordon, a Mount Vernon native and a friend of the family, summed up what Williams’ entire family meant to the city.
“The Williams family is to Mount Vernon what the (Michael) Jackson family is to Gary, Ind.,” Gordon said.
For Jimmy Williams, Memphis’ assistant men’s basketball coach and the former Minnesota assistant who recruited Williams out of San Jacinto Junior College, the outpouring of support for Williams confirmed what he had always believed about his former player.
“I was really impressed with it because it told me that I was right about Ray,” Williams said. “You could see (Williams’) love for people. His concern about other people.”