From Playground Hero to Rikers Island: The Tragedy of Fly Williams

Leo SepkowitzContributorNovember 7, 2017

James
B/R

NOBODY KNOWS FOR sure why they call him Fly.

It has been said the name has aerial roots—a nod to James Williams' old knack for jumping up high and staying there awhile. Story goes that, around 1970, a teenaged Williams played against a group of park regulars at Foster Park, by his native Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. He had been giving them the business for a while when a missed shot ricocheted high off the rim and up toward the backboard's apex. As the locals went up for the rebound, Fly took off, soaring over them to snare the ball, his elbow clear above the rim, before slamming it back down.

Or maybe pop culture spawned the nickname. In 1972, Curtis Mayfield dropped a funk album called Super Fly, which served as the soundtrack to a movie of the same title. The film's protagonist is a slick drug dealer, and, to varying degrees, some who knew Fly Williams back then connect him to the music and movie. Then there's another theory: that "Fly" stems from Williams' propensity to let it fly as a confident shooter. Still, others claim that the name was born on some unknowable afternoon, in a world where, if you dazzled a crowd for long enough, somebody would nickname you something.

As a kid, Fly dominated a booming New York street basketball scene. Local competition included future NBA players, like World B. Free and Al Skinner, but Fly always stood out. He was equal parts thrilling and unpredictable, as likely to show up and score 50 as he was to not show up at all.

Away from basketball, Fly could be wildly entertaining—with his extravagant tales punctuated by a somewhat-toothless grin—but then he'd swing the other way too, often losing himself to furious rages. Williams' inconsistent behavior forced him out of basketball prematurely, and as his career faded away, so too did his charisma.

On May 3, Williams was arrested in his fourth-floor apartment in Jamaica, Queens, where he'd lived for 12 years. According to the criminal complaint, police recovered a loaded firearm and 32 glassines of heroin ($6-$10 packages) on the premises. Williams was initially arrested on six felony charges, the most serious among them being criminal sale of a controlled substance. Later filings would reveal dozens of other charges and that, following a monthslong investigation, the Brooklyn District Attorney's office believed Fly to be a heroin kingpin.

Beginning on October 24, 2016, the DA used various forms of surveillance to keep tabs on "the Williams heroin trafficking operation," per the criminal indictment. The tactics included a series of monthly undercover buys. After six such meetings, Williams and three others allegedly "agreed to and expected to sell one half kilogram of heroin" to their undercover buyer.

The deal never took place. Instead, the DA closed in on the ring. In all, 21 people were indicted, including Fly's son, James Jr., and his stepson, Jeffrey "Doobie" Britt. The DA alleges the drug ring earned more than $21 million across Brooklyn while under investigation.

On October 4, Williams, 64, appeared in Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn for a pretrial hearing. He'd spent the prior months at Rikers Island, held without bail. He wore a beige jumpsuit, his hands cuffed behind his back. He walked with a heavy limp. He looked thin, nowhere near his 200-pound playing weight, or even the 160 pounds he weighed the night of his arrest. The Afro and long sideburns featured on his old trading cards were long gone, replaced by a short haircut and gray stubble. The only connections between this James Williams and the former Brooklyn playground god were his height, of course, and a pair of orange-tinted glasses, a reminder of his old stylistic flair.

At the hearing, Williams' lawyer, Allana Alexander, requested that bail be set. She argued that, in the phone calls made by Williams and recorded by the DA, Williams did not use violent language or discuss drugs with his co-defendants. The criminal indictment references several taped conversations that contradict Alexander's argument.

Assistant DA Robert Basso read from the recordings. "They know I'll shoot that gun, too," he read aloud, quoting Williams. "You're not gonna sell dope on this corner when I'm on this corner." The request for bail was denied, sending Williams back to Rikers Island until his next hearing in December.

While B/R requested to speak with Williams, he declined to be interviewed for this story. He now faces 56 charges, including 12 Class A felonies, which each carry possible life sentences. In June, he pleaded not guilty.

   

"FLY WAS THE kind of guy that did it his way," says World B. Free, the former NBA All-Star. Free grew up around the corner from Williams in a nearby public housing project. They're roughly the same age, both born in 1953. During their childhood, New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, and Brooklyn suffered. But you'd never know it looking at Williams.

"Fly liked the honeys, you know?" Free continues. "When we were young, every time I seen him, he'd have a pretty one. He was cool, calm, collected, with a big car—he was the man. He was a bad mama jama. Brother could do it all."

Well, maybe not everything, not always. In junior high, Fly gave football a spin, once striding down the streets of Brownsville at no more than 100 pounds, wearing a helmet, cleats and shoulder pads. It took only a few team practices for Fly to absorb a big hit. It was basketball after that.

On the blacktop, he could cook with either hand and score with ease. Well before the three-pointer was widely embraced—or counted at all—Fly would consistently launch from deep. His scoring ambition made him a hero to local kids like Pete Edwards, who grew up watching Fly at the Intermediate School 8 gym in Queens, where Fly famously scored 100 points in a game. Another time, Edwards watched Fly score 30 or 35 in one half against former NBA player Al Skinner, then leave at the break.

Skinner, now 65, can only laugh at the memory. "That sounds like Fly," he says. Skinner, who played six years across the ABA and NBA, faced off against Williams a number of times growing up. "He was exceptional. Most guys can only handle, but he could shoot too. At 6'5", athletic, he had all the tools."

In 1973, Fly became a central character in what would become Rick Telander's book Heaven Is a Playground, which chronicled the lives of various Brooklyn streetballers. "This guy was out on the edge," Telander now says of Fly. "He was missing a bunch of teeth, had a gigantic Afro with a pick in it, and he was so skinny. He was manic, hilarious and over the top. At the same time, you could tell there was a lot of pain there."

James "Fly" Williams followed in the steps of other New York City playground legends in dazzling opponents on the court and fighting to stay away from the dangers that surrounded those courts.
James "Fly" Williams followed in the steps of other New York City playground legends in dazzling opponents on the court and fighting to stay away from the dangers that surrounded those courts.Photo courtesy of Rick Telander

Telander goes on, "He might be the perfect ghetto product—he's a parody of it, almost. But maybe that parody is real. 'You want to know what happens to us when we're born in poverty, the ghetto, in horrible surroundings and we're black? Here it is. Look at me.'"

   

IN 1983, THE so-called crack epidemic swept across the United States. To some people, though, the issue was nothing new. "They call it an epidemic now," Richard Pryor famously said. "That means white folks are doing it."

Nearly 35 years later, the U.S. is facing another widespread drug problem. Overdoses from opioids (which include heroin as well as prescription meds like oxycodone) killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total marked an all-time high. The New York Times estimates that the death rate from drug overdoses increased by 19 percent in 2016. It is a devastating trajectory.

In Brownsville, the worst of America's drug problem is exemplified. More than a third of the local residents live below the poverty line, according to a New York City report. The number of drug-related hospitalizations is nearly triple the average for the rest of Brooklyn or for NYC as a whole.

"[Opioids] are an epidemic now," says Edwards, who now organizes the IS8 tournament in Queens. "But, how to put it gently? It's only an epidemic because it's reached certain nationalities. ... These things have been going on in my communities for years—forever."

During Fly's youth, even some of the great local athletes were involved. Namely, two historic New York basketball players, Earl "The Goat" Manigault and Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond, had their careers wrecked by drugs. The Goat was a mythical leaper who never reached the NBA. In 1969, he was arrested and convicted on a drug possession charge.

The Destroyer was drafted by the Lakers and offered a $50,000 contract, but he turned it down. As he'd later explain, he was already sitting on $200,000, earned dealing marijuana and heroin—he didn't need the Lakers' money. The Destroyer would twice serve prison time on drug-related charges. Eventually, he returned to New York City, penniless, flipping greeting cards for dinner money.

One wonders about how Fly, the heir to the NYC hoops throne, was affected by the fates of both playground legends, and by the community at large.

"They seriously insane in my neighborhood," Fly tells Telander in Heaven Is a Playground. "I mean if you don't have a gun—maybe five or six guns—you in real trouble. The other night this dude's standing in a building yelling, 'Shoot me! Shoot me!' And this other dude was holding a gun in [his] mouth the whole time. And he shot him. The shot dude comes staggering out on the sidewalk and lays there. And the people—man, the people on the sidewalk—they just stood around and laughed."

Fly was raised in the Brownsville projects by his mother, who was born in South Carolina. Williams' father was not in the picture, and neither were some of his older brothers. He could have used their protection. Fly would often get in fights, and, thin as he was, he rarely had the advantage. Without tougher family members around, there was little chance at retaliation. Eventually, Williams developed a hot temper.

"The crime and senselessness around him seemed to affect him more than it did others," Telander says. "His response was all over the place."

   

IN 1972, FLY found some sense of salvation in college at Austin Peay. It was an odd choice on the surface—Fly had never seen a place as slow-moving as Clarksville, Tennessee, and the town was not overflowing with 6'5" African-Americans with Afros. Still, Fly quickly took to the sleepy surroundings. In his freshman season, he averaged 29.4 points per game and brought the Governors to the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Fly's sophomore season was even more impressive. He averaged 27.5 points and 10.9 rebounds per contest while shooting 46 percent from the floor—amazing for a high-volume scorer—and won Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year. The team returned to the Big Dance.

Fly was mostly beloved and embraced. The team warmed up to "Super Fly," and throughout games, crowds would chant, "The Fly is open, let's go Peay!"

He was not as beloved by the coaching staff. Fly struggled to adapt to a traditional team concept. Some coaches didn't want Williams back for his junior year.

Meanwhile, as far as Fly was concerned, he had three options: return to college for a third season; enter his name into the NBA draft; or enter his name into the ABA (American Basketball Association) draft.

Fly didn't play his cards well. He entered the NBA draft, then quickly withdrew to return to Austin Peay. However, he was ineligible thanks to a standardized test snafu, and he'd have to wait a year before reapplying for the NBA.

He was left with only one option: the ABA. In 1974, the infamous Spirits of St. Louis acquired the rights to Fly Williams.

"I'd heard of Fly as a playground legend," says Bob Costas, who called the Spirits' games from '74-'76, the last two years of the franchise. "I think the first game, Fly came off the bench and scored 24 points. We didn't draw huge crowds, but the 5,000 people that were there went nuts. He was an immediate crowd favorite."

Fly's loose playing style was a good fit for the lax ABA. (Costas remembers his talents thusly: "Lightning quick; very fast off the dribble; will make the open shot; no conscience from where he takes it; unlikely to lead the league in assists.")

And yet, despite Fly's brilliant potential, his numbers were underwhelming. In his debut season with the Spirits, he averaged shy of 10 points per game.

The same tendencies that hindered Fly at Austin Peay—tendencies that had helped to make him a legend in Brooklyn—were causing problems again. Fly often forgot or ignored designed plays, opting instead to improvise alone.

Williams led Austin Peay to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances before unsuccessfully trying to make a jump into the NBA.
Williams led Austin Peay to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances before unsuccessfully trying to make a jump into the NBA.Associated Press/Associated Press

Meanwhile, there were graver concerns off the court. Recreational drug use ran rampant across basketball in that era, and it didn't spare the ABA. The Spirits' leader, the late Marvin "Bad News" Barnes, revealed he used drugs on the bench and in the locker room during his pro career in Free Spirits, a 2013 documentary about the team.

"There was a Wild West atmosphere in the ABA to begin with, which made it entertaining," Costas says. "But let's be honest, Fly arrived as someone who was susceptible to all of that. It didn't happen to [teammates] Freddie Lewis or Steve ["Snapper"] Jones. I would think that Fly didn't have much of an anchor."

That much became clear after Fly's first season in St. Louis, when he was cut loose by incoming coach Rod Thorn. It became a transitional time for Williams, as even the flimsy structure preserved by the ABA disappeared. At age 22, Fly was free to drift, if that's what he wanted to do.

"Getting cut demoralized him," says Lewis, once a Spirits guard who mentored Fly. "It depressed him, and he didn't try to get back in the league. He just went to the streets and settled for being the playground legend. It hurt me to my heart to see him give up, because in my opinion, Fly could have played with any team in the NBA."

Instead, during the 1975-76 season, Williams hung around the Spirits as a sort of drug liaison. 

"Sometimes Marvin would put me on the plane 'cuz they needed their candy," Williams said in Free Spirits. "I was the drug guy. I couldn't leave. I knew the dealers and everybody in every city. ... They used to put their orders through me."

In 1976, Fly signed with the Lancaster Red Roses of the Eastern Basketball Association, a now-defunct semi-pro weekend league. "There was even confusion as to what the name of the league was, because nobody had kept records or kept forms or anything," says Steve Kauffman, the league's former commissioner, who later founded his own talent agency.

If the ABA was a mess, the EBA was a disaster. But Williams thrived, at least when he showed up for work. In 17 appearances with Lancaster, he averaged 27.1 points per game.

He was an All-Star in 1977 but arrived to the game late in the third quarter, blaming a flat tire.

In the years that followed, Fly bounced around the EBA (which was renamed the Continental Basketball Association). At one point, he was suspended for missing a couple of games, then returned to score 20 in a win. Another time, he was suspended for six games after he hit a referee. That marked the unofficial end to a half-baked career.

Williams "had all the tools," said longtime college coach Al Skinner, who matched up against Williams as a player back in New York in the early 1970s.
Williams "had all the tools," said longtime college coach Al Skinner, who matched up against Williams as a player back in New York in the early 1970s.Photo courtesy of Rick Telander

"Fly is a legend," says Costas, "but he's a legend to a relatively small audience."

   

HE RETURNED TO the one place that still embraced him: Brownsville. Things were just as they had been—Williams was an icon, but Brownsville was struggling. And trouble followed him there. In 1987, he got into a fight with a friend, which expanded into a larger fight, which ended in Fly getting shot by an off-duty officer.

"I saw the X-rays," Telander says. "We started counting the shotgun pellets inside him by the hundreds. It looked like a pepper shaker had spilled."

Williams was charged with, among other things, attempted robbery and weapons possession. "They said I tried to rob my friend," he told Slam magazine in '98. "... It was just a misunderstanding." Williams served 14 months in prison.

Not long after his release, Williams was back on his feet. In 1991, he participated in Old Timers' Day, a tournament hosted by Free at Foster Park. Fly showed with a healthy surprise: teeth.

"When we were small, he'd smile, and you'd only see that one tooth," Free recalls with glee. "But once he got those teeth, it was like a piano, like Magic Johnson. That's 'cause we got older. He needed them for who he was gonna be as life went on. There was young Fly, then there's the man Fly."

Fly's reinvention didn't maintain much momentum. In '93, he was convicted on a drug possession charge. He served two years in prison.

He was released in 1995. He hadn't played professional ball in nearly 20 years. Costas estimates Fly earned a one-year salary of $50,000-60,000 with the Spirits. In the EBA, Kauffman says, players were paid from game to game, usually around $75 per. Fly may have also picked up a few bucks from other semi-pro leagues or side gigs, but it's hard to calculate his total career earnings to approach $100,000.

He did find a part-time job in Brooklyn, speaking at the Brownsville Recreation Center, where he would discuss his past mistakes with local kids.

"I thought he was drifting into being a senior citizen with some regrets," Telander says. "Maybe he was not rich, he might even be poor, but he was not a bad guy."

The BRC would only say, through a Parks spokesperson, that Fly was a seasonal employee many years ago. But Edwards, who frequents the rec center, says there weren't many events that Williams would miss, even in recent years.

Perhaps for that reason, Edwards finds it hard to believe Fly is guilty of the charges against him. "I don't necessarily trust [the charges], especially with his name to sensationalize it," he says. "I wish him the best. Hopefully, he pulls through."

Free carries some compassion for Fly too. "It's a hurtful thing, but I still say the man has done a lot of good for a lot of people." He goes on, "One thing about Fly—he always, always took care of them kids around there."

It's notable that Free and Edwards, two local stalwarts, are more defensive of Fly than most. Neither excuses what Fly allegedly did, but neither jumps to condemnation. They watched Fly at his peak and during his more recent struggle to improve and survive. Free views Fly as a modern Robin Hood who steals from the rich—or at least sticks it to the man—for the good of the poor.

But a felony charge is not weighed against prior kind deeds. Fly allegedly provided heroin to locals in the neighborhood—the same people to whom he used to lend T-shirts and sneakers. His alleged actions lay the groundwork for the next Fly Williams to flame out, too, or to never emerge at all.

Said Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez in a May statement: "That someone with his stature in the community and his influence on young people would run such a substantial narcotics operation is truly sad and reprehensible."

Telander echoes those thoughts. "If you take down yourself, if you're going to die in prison, and your son and stepson are there with you, which seems likely, your life is beyond a wasted life, it's an evil life," he says.

"It makes me wonder, was he involved in some way for years and years? Or did he suddenly become desperate and get into something stupid, dangerous, evil? I would truly love to talk to him, as a guy who's known him for 40-plus years, and say, 'What the f--k happened?'"   

   

Leo Sepkowitz is a senior writer at SLAM MagazineHe can be followed on Twitter at @LeoSepkowitz.