Fly Williams: Alive and Well
By Dave Link
Exclusive to TheFly35.com
Yes, James “Fly” Williams is alive and well.
Fly is sitting at the end of the bleachers inside the gym at Brownsville Recreation Center deep in the heart of Brooklyn, N.Y.
It is the summer of 2008, more than three decades after Fly left the Brownsville ghetto and became a basketball legend.
There are dozens of young black children at the rec center on this hot summer day. The center is within walking distance from where Fly grew up. It is the same place Fly played ball as a youngster.
Fly works at the rec center. He advises children to make the right decisions in life, not the wrong decisions that he often made in his younger years.
“Mr. Fly, I like that dimple on your cheek,” a young girl tells Fly.
“Thanks, I’ve had that for years,” Fly says. “You take care of yourself. Be a good girl.”
The young girl walks away.
“That’s not a dimple,” Fly says, smiling. “It’s where I got shot one time. Still got a piece of the bullet in my cheek.”
It wasn’t the shot that almost killed Fly.
That happened in the winter of 1987 when a shotgun blast in his back left him recovering for months in a prison hospital. He spent most of the next nine years in prison.
It gave him plenty of time to reflect.
“Let me tell you something,” Fly says. “If I had it to do over, I’d never change anything, even the tragic part. If I had it to do over again, I’d do it the same way.”
Fly was born Feb. 18, 1953, in North Carolina. His name is James Williams Jr. His father moved the family to Brownsville when Fly was a youngster. Not long after that, James Sr. left Brownsville, and soon Fly’s two older brothers left too. Fly was raised by his mother, Annie Ruth, along with two sisters, Loretta and Naomi.
Fly played baseball as a youngster and picked up basketball in his early teens. He quickly became a star at Madison High School, which was being integrated from a predominantly white school. Fly was part of the integration process.
After two years at Madison High, Fly left the city to play ball for Glen Springs Academy in upstate New York. His move came at the advice of the late Rodney Parker. Parker was almost 20 years older than Fly and helped young players get out of the city and into prep schools and colleges.
Fly was recruited from Glen Springs by Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. Leonard Hamilton, currently the head coach at Florida State University, was a graduate assistant at Austin Peay and played a big role in recruiting Fly.
Clarksville also played a role. When Fly visited on his recruiting trip, an airplane flew overhead with a banner welcoming him to town. He signed a scholarship before he left town and began playing for the Governors in the fall of 1972.
He led the nation in scoring early in the season, and his on-court antics drew local and national attention. He was wild and unpredictable and incredibly talented.
Off the court, Fly was just the same. He chased girls and partied and was the talk of the town.
“It was fantastic, you kidding me?” Fly recalls. “I was living the college life.”
Fly averaged almost 30 points per game as a freshman and led the Govs to the Mideast Regional of the NCAA tournament where they lost to Kentucky in overtime.
His second season was just as impressive – 27.5 points per game – while leading Austin Peay to a 17-10 record and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
By that time, however, Fly knew his career at Austin Peay was over. Rumors began circulating during the season that Fly and several other athletes in the Ohio Valley Conference would be ruled ineligible because they took the wrong college entrance exams.
It ended a great ride for Fly.
“I really enjoyed it,” Fly says. “The people in Clarksville were wonderful. They took me in like I was family. I sit back today and realize how wonderful it was. If there’s an after-effect now (at Austin Peay) from what I did in my life, it’s because people don’t understand what you go through up here in the city.”
Fly quit going to classes in the spring of 1974 and in the summer signed to play with the Spirits of St. Louis of the American Basketball Association.
One of his teammates on the Spirits was former Providence star Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. Fly and Barnes had played against each other in college, and became good friends while playing for the Spirits. Their off-the-court lifestyles of that season were on the wild side.
Fly played only one season with the Spirits before starting a career in the pro leagues. When he wasn’t playing, Fly was in the fast lane. He started snorting cocaine and later freebased cocaine and became an addict.
It became a life of crime for Fly, chasing money to feed his cocaine habit.
“Cops had a going bet,” Fly says. “When’s Fly gonna get killed?”
It almost happened in mid-February, 1987.
Fly was shot in the back during an altercation. He almost died in Booth Memorial Hospital in Queens, N.Y. He had a near-death experience.
“I saw the devil,” he says.
Fly was charged with attempted robbery, unlawful imprisonment, weapons possession and menacing for the altercation that almost got him killed. He recovered in a prison hospital and spent the next couple of years in the New York prison system.
Fly was released on probation, but it didn’t last long. Fly failed to adhere to his work-release program and went back to prison. He was released in 1996 and started the first of his several programs working with children at the Brownsville Recreation Center.
He says he has been clean from drugs and alcohol since he was released from prison.
“I feel fantastic,” Fly says. “The kids are the ones that keep me going. I’m having fun.”
Copyright 2008 Dave Link and TheFly35.com