Amid the ceaseless acquisitive frenzy that is NBA free agency, the Boston Globe dropped a harrowing profile of Ray Williams, a former captain of the New York Knicks and a reserve guard on the Boston Celtics‘ 1985 NBA Finals team who played for six teams during a 10-year NBA career from the late ’70s through the mid-’80s. Williams’ name might not ring out with today’s fans, but he averaged 20 points per game in two different seasons (1979-80 and 1981-82), hung 52 on the Detroit Pistons as a member of the New Jersey Nets on April 17, 1982, and once drew (admittedly aspirational) comparisons to the great Walt Frazier.
Now, writes the Globe’s Bob Hohler, he’s homeless.
Every night at bedtime, former Celtic Ray Williams locks the doors of his home: a broken-down 1992 Buick, rusting on a back street where he ran out of everything.
The 10-year NBA veteran formerly known as “Sugar Ray” leans back in the driver’s seat, drapes his legs over the center console, and rests his head on a pillow of tattered towels. He tunes his boom box to gospel music, closes his eyes, and wonders.
Williams, a generation removed from staying in first-class hotels with Larry Bird and Co. in their drive to the 1985 NBA Finals, mostly wonders how much more he can bear.
The most sobering thing about Hohler’s piece? Williams’ decline into unemployment, poverty and homelessness appears to have just kind of … happened.
Williams, a former University of Minnesota standout who averaged 15.5 points and nearly six assists per game during his time in the league, adamantly tells Hohler that he’s “never fallen prey to drugs, alcohol, or gambling,” and he’s never been arrested, so it’s not like he’s some shiftless sociopath whom we can easily vilify. According to the feature, there wasn’t one key traumatic event that keyed Williams’ downfall, with one possible exception — already down on his luck, Williams received a grant from the NBA Legends Foundation, which provides need-based assistance to people who have been involved in the pro game. But according to court records, Hohler writes, “he lost the money … when the widow of a condominium owner who agreed to a lease-to-own contract with Williams opted out of the contract after the owner died.” Which sounds like a horrendously bad break that exacerbated an already ugly situation.
It doesn’t sound like a case of over-the-top avarice, either; while Hohler notes that Williams was “no longer able to sustain his NBA lifestyle” when he first filed for bankruptcy in 1994, he doesn’t mention any particularly conspicuous consumption or extravagant expenditures. As the story goes, Williams just hasn’t been able to hang on to any of a slew of off-court jobs over the course of the 23 years since he retired in 1987. Now, he’s got nothing except the ’92 Buick he sleeps in and a ’97 Chevy Tahoe that he can’t get out of hock.
There’s no prime mover behind the disintegration, no obvious flaw in the system against which to rage. Like any story of slipping through the cracks in American society, that makes it harder to digest, compartmentalize and set aside.
Maybe NBA players of today, who make exponentially more money than their predecessors before ever stepping on the court, do owe a fiscal debt to the players who came before; then again, maybe Williams bears the blame because he blew the roughly $2 million he made in contracts during his career. Maybe Williams’ family, former friends and associates merit some scorn for allowing him to live alone in a car in Florida; then again, maybe they’ve all had to distance themselves from Williams after 20-plus years of never getting his stuff together and failing to repay repeated loans, favors and kindnesses.
Maybe agencies like the Legends Foundation and the NBA Retired Players Association need to do more to help people like Williams; then again, maybe they’ve already done enough, having given him grants totaling more than $12,000. Maybe his coaches, teachers and mentors failed him, setting him to serve as one more awful example of how, when it comes to young basketball players, the only training and skill development that anybody really cares about takes place on the hardwood. Then again, maybe “Society’s to blame” is a red herring that divests the downtrodden of personal responsibility.
Whichever way your sympathies run, the story of how Ray Williams’ life fell apart should serve as a cautionary tale for athletes of the imperative to prepare for life after the game — and, frankly, a jarring reminder to all of us that we should appreciate what we’re lucky enough to have while we’re lucky enough to have it.