Tuesday, February 10, 2009

FLY IS OPEN, LET'S GO PEAY!

He could make you laugh or he could make you cry. In a good game, or on one great jaw-dropping play either in the gym or on the street, he could make you do both.

James “Fly” Williams had game. Lots and lots of game.

Austin Peay State University recently honored their favorite son and retired Williams’ jersey on February 5 in a ceremony at the Governor’s Dunn Center.

Williams was born in Brooklyn and learned the game on the streets. He was dominant at Madison High School, but really earned his stripes on the playground with famous players the likes of World B. Free and Earl “the Goat” Manigault. By all accounts, Fly would play anywhere, anytime. He is still considered one of the bets “streetballers” of all time.

After Williams completed high school, he was recruited by APSU assistant Leonard Hamilton who is now the head coach at Florida State. When Fly, who earned his nickname for his flamboyant style of dress, arrived in Clarksville, TN sporting a floppy hat and a big afro, both he and the locals had to make a few adjustments.

"I was flamboyant; it was the style. Clyde (Walt Frazier) had Clyde, and I was Fly. I was Fly before Curtis Mayfield was Super Fly,” Williams once said.

Anxious to get on the national basketball map, Williams did not disappoint the Austin Peay faithful averaging 29.4 points per game his first season, and leading the Governors to the Big Dance. With Fly scoring 26 points, APSU defeated Jacksonville in the opening round only to lose to perennial power Kentucky in the next.

Williams popularity soared much like the Fly’s game. Fans lined up to get a seat in APSU’s "The Little Red Barn" and Williams kept scoring – 27.5 points in his second season while again leading the Governors to conference championship and the NCAA tournament. Although they were crushed by Notre Dame 108-66 in the opening round, Williams again put up 26 points on the national stage.

But it wasn’t all about offense. According to Hamilton, Fly won the team trophy awarded to the player that took the most charges both years he played at ASPU.

The Fly left college after his second season to pursue a career in pro ball with a gentle nudge from the APSU hierarchy who made certain claims regarding his “eligibility.” He was drafted by Denver in the first round of the 1974 American Basketball Association (ABA) draft and eventually sold to the Spirits of St. Louis.

Unfortunately for Fly, the ABA gig didn’t work out – His scoring was erratic (only 9.4 points per game) and he was known for his showmanship rather than his scoring proficiency. The National Basketball Association (NBA) orchestrated the ABA-NBA merger and Williams didn’t make the cut. He later played in the Continental Basketball Association and in Israel.

Williams’ off-court career can be described as checkered with words like alcohol, drugs and bad temper working their way into the mix. Addiction and prison were also on Fly’s agenda, and his basketball career was ended when he was shot (not the first or last time as bad luck would have it) in a robbery attempt.

Today, Williams, 55, works with kids in his native Brooklyn and the ceremony last week to retire his jersey was so much fun that Fly ended up in a local hospital for a few days. He is currently resting, and test regarding major illnesses have turned up negative. Doctors expect him to recover fully and return home shortly.

But the jersey ceremony wasn’t Fly’s first return to Clarkesville. During an earlier visit, he and APSU coach Dave Loos pulled up to the Dunn Center in a limousine. “They say this is the house that Fly built,” Loos told Williams. “If that’s true,” Fly said, “why is it named after somebody else?”

Good one, Fly.

But ultimately, Fly Williams will be best remembered for a very clever and funny chant that would have the NCAA higher-ups in Kansas City squirming in their starched shirts and suits had it been popular today. During Fly’s playing days, the APSU faithful would chant at length:

"Fly is open, let's go Peay!"

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