Ray Williams, the former New York Knicks guard who averaged 15.5 points and 5.8 assists in 10 seasons in the National Basketball Association, died Friday. He was 58.
The Knicks confirmed Williams's death, but didn't provide a cause. Coach Mike Woodson said he spoke to Williams's wife and brother to offer his condolences.
"It's a major loss. He's a part of our Knicks family," Woodson said in Toronto before the Knicks' victory over the Raptors. "Our organization has been fantastic through this. I tip my hat to the Knicks and the fact they stood in Ray's corner. He'll be missed. Ain't no doubt about that. He was well liked in the community."
Like many professional athletes, Williams struggled financially after his NBA career was over.
Born in Mount Vernon on Oct. 14, 1954, Williams was drafted 10th overall by the Knicks in 1977. He averaged 16.4 points in five seasons in New York and went on to play for New Jersey, Kansas City, Boston, Atlanta, and San Antonio.
Williams averaged 18.9 points in two seasons at the University of Minnesota, where he teamed with Kevin McHale, Mychal Thompson, and longtime NBA coach Flip Saunders.
"Ray was probably my favorite college teammate," McHale, now the coach of the Houston Rockets, said after his team's victory over Cleveland on Friday night. "I came in as a rookie and Ray took me under his wing. We played ball all the time. We were two guys that just loved to play.
"I went to the University of Minnesota the day after I graduated from high school. I went to Williams Arena and I went to work and the coach said everybody was going to play at like 3:30, or 4, after work. I got there early and Ray and I started playing one on one. We ended up fouling the hell out of each other and we almost ended up in a fight my first day because I wouldn't give him game point. He kept on saying, 'I got fouled,' and I said, 'No, you didn't.' He and I played one on one, and from that day on, we became really good friends."
McHale also teamed with Williams briefly with the Boston Celtics.
"I was a skinny little kid, man, and Ray was a big ol' kid from New York City," McHale said. "He would always tell me about New York City. I'd never been to New York City. I didn't know what it was.
"A couple of times, we played and some guys tried roughing me up. I'll never forget, Ray went up and grabbed one of these guys. Back then, they had jewelry and he grabbed the guy by his neck. Ray said he twisted it really hard and said, 'Before you mess with him, you've got to mess with me. And here's Ray, 6-3, and I'm 6-10. I said, 'Thank you, Ray....' I really liked Ray as a teammate. He was a teammate in Boston, too. Those days in Minnesota, 1976, going down there in the summer playing with him and stuff. We were 24-3 that year and Ray was our point guard and we just had a group of guys that played."
After his NBA career, Williams ran into difficult financial times. Like many professional athletes, he was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1994. By 2010, Williams was homeless, living out of his car in Florida. But thanks to an article in the Boston Globe, some of his former teammates helped him get back on his feet financially. And Williams got a job in his hometown, at the city parks and recreation department, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., the Boston Globe reported:
"After months of sleeping in a broken-down 1992 Buick on a back road in Florida, former Celtics guard Ray Williams — once a marquee NBA player — has a roof over his head, a reason to get up in the morning, a chance to do for the needy what others did for him when he was down to his last dime.
Thanks in part to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, his teammates with the ’85 Celtics, Williams is out of poverty — an existence all too common among former NBA players who outlived their basketball earnings."