James “Fly” Williams – New York City Playground Legend

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James “Fly” Williams – New York City Playground Legend

By Neil Beldock

When it comes to James “Fly” Williams, where do you start? Do you start by talking about a true New York City playground legend from the late 1960’s to early 1970’s? Do you start by talking about a career wasted by drugs and alcohol? Do you start with his toothless but infectious smile? Do you start with his Rucker Park (Harlem, N.Y.) exploits? Or do you start by identifying Fly from a way-be-gone era when there wasn’t a basketball court he didn’t visit or a classroom he did?

Let’s start with the fact that James “Fly” Williams was the subject/object of what many would call the absolute, undeniably coolest cheer in any sport ever which occurred at Austin Peay University in Tennessee.

To understand the cheer you have to first recognize the correct pronunciation of Austin Peay University.

Spoken literally it is “Austin PEE University”…….The cheer, if you haven’t figured it out on your own as of yet is as follows:

“THE FLY’S OPEN……..LET’S GO PEAY!!!!!!            THE FLY’S OPEN……..LET’S GO PEAY!!!!!!  

Now, great cheers are not heaped upon those without great character, or in the case of James “Fly” Williams, those who are NOT characters. Many may question the character of Fly (flawed as many would attest it to be), but nobody would question whether or not Fly WAS a character.

                                                       “THE FLY’S OPEN……..LET’S GO PEAY!!!!!!!

The story of James “Fly” Williams starts in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York where he was born on February 18, 1953. He attended Madison High School in Brooklyn where he was a dominant basketball player from an early age having honed his skills on the numerous playground courts of New York and Brooklyn playing against other legendary New York playground performers such as World B. Free and Earl “The Goat” Manigault. He is still considered one of the greatest New York City playground players ever. 

By his freshman year in high school he had already grown to 6 feet 5 inches tall and possessed amazing moves, a deft shot, great leaping ability and a unique instinct to “play-to-the crowd”. At a very early age he was already a showman.

However, due to his shall we say lax importance placed upon attending some, no correct that, all classes he was facing expulsion from Madison High. As Fly himself said, “I always chased the girls so I never went (to class)”. As a result it was arranged through basketball circles and contacts that he would transfer to Glen Springs Academy in Watkins Glen, New York from where he was somehow able to graduate and accept a scholarship to Austin Peay University in Tennessee.

So anticipated was his enrollment at Austin Peay that upon his arrival he was greeted with a sky-writing display spelling out his name. He showed up on campus wearing a floppy hat housed upon a huge afro, a look not so typical to those in Clarksville, Tennessee.

But Fly did not disappoint at all. As a freshman he averaged 29.4 points per game (5th best in the nation), scored 51 points twice and led Austin Peay to the NCAA tournament for the very first time. Fly scored 26 points in leading the Governors to a first round victory over Jacksonville before scoring 26 points again in a second round loss to Kentucky.

                                                       “THE FLY’S OPEN………LET’S GO PEAY!!!!!!

Come his sophomore season, once again Fly did not disappoint averaging 27.5 points per game and leading the Governors to their second ever NCAA tournament appearance. He scored 26 points in a first round loss to Notre Dame.

After two years at Austin Peay where he posted a career average of 28.5 points per game and led the Governors to back to back NCAA tournament appearances , Fly decided to turn pro.

Fly was drafted in the first round of the 1974 draft by the Denver Nuggets of the then American Basketball Association (ABA). His contract was then sold to the Spirits of St. Louis, another ABA team. Fly played one disappointing year for the Spirits, a team widely regarded as the “wackiest team” in the history of sports. He averaged only 9.4 pointe per game and seemed to be much more interested in putting on a show on the court than playing effective basketball. This is also the time period when drugs entered Fly’s life in a big way.

Fly did not play the following season although he spent much time with the team as there supposed and reported drug delivery man. The next year the Spirits of St. Louis were one of two teams which were not accepted into the NBA when the ABA merged with the NBA. The Philadelphia 76ers did draft him in 1976 as part of the ABA dispersal draft but never signed him thus ending Fly’s brief major professional career. 

He did play in the Continental Basketball Association and the Eastern League, two minor professional leagues and also played in Israel. Ultimately, his basketball career came to a complete end when he was shot during an attempted robbery and was left with a damaged lung (this would not be the last time that Fly would take a bullet).

It has been said that Fly Williams wasn’t just one of the greatest players to ever play at Rucker Park, but that he was one of the greatest players to play anywhere. That he was a force of nature in the open court. He could jump to the moon. He had an unstoppable jump shot. Nobody could guard him and he had no physical weakness on the court. He had the talent to be one of the great NBA players of all time. But it is also said of him that he was nuts, crazy, off the hook.

Fly’s off court existence is described by using words such as alcohol, drugs, bad temper, addiction and prison.

NBA legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who played against Fly in summer league games, had this to say about Fly: “He could shoot it, do all the things necessary to be a big time player, and he was. He could always score. A real flashy guy who could back it up. I guess some things went wrong along the way.”  

Said Ronald Jones, a long time friend of Fly’s: “I think he never made it for the simple reason he was undisciplined. He always had problems with authority on teams, coaches and things. And he got involved with the street life at the same time…..Once he wasn’t playing the street life just took over. Trouble, it always found Fly. It got bad to the point where you knew something was going to happen and it wasn’t going to be good.

Fly would not disagree and said recently: “Why didn’t I ever make it? Attitude. I needed a serious attitude adjustment.”

In a recent interview Fly said: “I’ve been blessed talent wise. And I know what they mean now about a second life because I’m in my second life. I could have died any day. The drugs, when I got shot, the environment out here. I’m putting the negatives behind me now. I’m trying to give something positive to the kids, maybe tell my story. Maybe they can learn from it.”

Today, Fly spends as much time as possible talking to kids about the evils of drug use and trying to impart the errors of his ways to help others avoid the same pitfalls that befell him.

To truly understand the uniqueness of James “Fly” Williams I want to direct you to a book written by Rick Telander. The book is “Heaven Is A Playground” in which Fly is prominently written about. This book is one of our Recommended Reading choices. For a review and to purchase please go to the Amazon link within this website.      

                                                             THE FLY’S OPEN……..LET’S GO PEAY

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