Ray Williams Goes From Homeless to Home With a Job for Holidays By Tim Povtak
Senior NBA Writer
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.
He did it between trips to the nearby hospital emergency room, where they take those without health insurance, where he often was treated when his diabetes flared up, or his blood pressure spiked, or his depression got the best of him.
He did it when the nearby storage facility was auctioning off his possessions — the nice clothes he once wore, the good furniture he used to sit in, the bed and the bike he no longer used — because he hadn’t paid the rent there in nine months.
He did it when he had nowhere steady to sleep, moving from a park bench one night to a shelter the next, to the rusty old broken-down Buick he found, to various people who offered a spare room with a temporary stipulation.
He did it when his only showers were cold ones, outdoor and under the pier, ones designed for the tourists to wash the sand off their feet, using those little motel-room soap bars given to him by a Haitian woman who cleaned rooms nearby.
He did it because he had hit bottom.
And it was time to start the climb back.
“With the truck, now I got something a little more comfortable to sleep in,” he said happily last week. “This was a big step for me.”
The triumphs of “Sugar Ray,” Williams are dramatically different today.
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.
But the cheers didn’t last forever — and neither did the money. He spent 12 years in the NBA, later playing for the Kings, Celtics, Hawks, and Spurs, retiring in 1987, leaving with more than 10,000 points scored but no clue about life after basketball.
He may have played basketball first at San Jacinto Junior College and then at the University of Minnesota, but he was nowhere close to a degree, and had no real desire to get one, believing he could live forever off his basketball earnings. That wasn’t the case, not when his average salary was an estimated $250,000, and he was providing for various family members and too many friends.
His generous, low-key nature, which made him popular among new teammates and old friends in Mount Vernon, led to his financial downfall. He filed for bankruptcy in 1994, leading to the loss of his home, his marriage and his children.
He tapped into his NBA pension early — taking a lump-sum payment estimated at $200,000 — and left for Florida, where he quickly fell victim to a real estate scam.
Because he loved the game, he started working as a groundskeeper at a Central Florida golf course. He moved on to become an apartment complex maintenance man, a part-time girls basketball coach, a bakery worker. He delivered copiers, changed tires, moving from low-paying job to low-paying job, usually growing bored before he went looking for something else, making just enough to survive.
Twice while in Florida, he was given grants — totaling $10,000 — from the NBA Retired Players Association, which has tried to help him restart his life, but the money didn’t last. That well has run dry.
“Ray’s situation, that could have been any of us who played in that era,” said former Knicks teammate Spencer Haywood, who lives now in Detroit. “It’s more common than you realize, guys like that struggling. I wish the league did more to take care of its own.”
As part of the NBA’s next Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is being negotiated, there has been discussion about better funding for the Foundation that helps former players who have fallen on hard times. Yet that issue is not atop anyone’s priority list today.
“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.
The return of the truck also has lifted his spirits and provided hope, where once there was little for Williams, who struggled with his situation both mentally and physically. He sometimes found solace not far away at the New Destiny Church, and in the words of founder and pastor Woody Bennett, the former Miami Dolphins running back.
“I have a great fondness for Ray, but whenever I’d get a call about him, I’d immediately get nervous, figuring someone found him slumped over in his car, dead somewhere,” Bennett said. “But when you look at him today, he looks like a new person from two months ago. It’s really been a tough road for him, and maybe he’s finding his way out.”
At the park, Williams catches his own bait. He catches the snapper, grouper, tarpon, mackerel and anything else that swims through the inlet leading into the Atlantic Ocean, quickly dropping them into the well-worn cooler that has become his dinner/tool box . More impressively is the way he interacts with those around him. He gives bait to anyone who asks. He lends out his tackle, ties the proper knots and rigs the fishing line for tourists. He chuckles quietly at novice fisherman who have no clue.
He is personable, both with a young black man sporting a row of gold teeth, and an elderly white man in plaid shorts, teasing both about the way they fish.
Former teammates like Micheal Ray Richardson and Earl Monroe and Bob McAdoo are long gone, replaced by Anthony and Scott and Dezi — people don’t ask last names when you’re down and out — and others who spend their days fishing with little else to do.
“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.”
Few around him, in the park or the pier, know who he is beyond his fishing. Unless they ask him specifically, he doesn’t mention his basketball career. He was wearing a faded T-shirt with a Legends Of Basketball logo that he received during a charity golf outing several years ago.
“I never thought of myself as anything special when I played. And it seems like a long time ago,” he said. “People don’t care who you were before. Everybody has their own problems. And I’m not going to be here much longer.”
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.