James “Fly” Williams, whose flamboyant style and mesmerizing flair made him a basketball legend in the 70’s, finally returned to his Austin Peay campus last Thursday.
In a ceremony long overdue, Peay finally retired the No. 35 jersey of the man who put Peay on the basketball map.
Predictably, the packed house at the Winfield Dunn Center-The House The Fly Built-reprised the greatest cheer in college basketball history as Fly’s jersey floated toward the rafters:
“The Fly is open! Let’s go Peay!”
For nothing else, Fly deserves basketball immortality for inspiring that cheer. But Fly brought much more to Clarksville in the fall of 1972.
He brought a game honed on the streets of New York City. Fly grew up on the tough streets of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. “I always went where the action was,” Fly once told the Austin Peay Magazine. “I didn’t fear anyone.”
How good was Fly? The Street Basketball Association’s website ranks him as the second best playground player of all time, behind Earl “The Goat” Manigault. Here’s a point of reference: Allen Iverson is ranked 51st, Julius Erving 45th.
A first-year assistant coach named Leonard Hamilton-the current FSU head coach-lured Fly to Peay. “He’s the best basketball player I’ve recruited,” Hamilton told the Austin Peay Magazine. “He played hard and packed arenas, and really had the total game.
“We had a trophy that we gave to the player who took the most charges, and he got it both years he was there.”
But that’s not what packed the gyms. Fly was a showman, and he could fill it up. The lean, 6-foot-5 Fly defined the term “shooting guard.” He averaged 29.5 points per game his freshman year, fifth best in the nation. That stood as the NCAA freshman scoring record until 1989, when LSU’s Chris Jackson scored 30.2 per game. But Fly didn’t have the benefit of the three point shot.
“It was a worst to first scenario,” Jeff Bibb told The Leaf Chronicle last week.
Bibb was sports editor of the school newspaper when Fly arrived. “Austin Peay had been the doormat of the league, had finished in a tie for last. But when you had Fly, you talk about the straw stirring the drink!”
Jerry Albert, a freshman with Fly, recalled for The Leaf Chronicle, “The first few games Fly was here, it was just an ordinary game. You could sit anywhere in the house.
“But after he started scoring and the team started winning, you were here hours before the game. People would get in line hoping you could get into the Little Red Barn (the nickname for Peay’s old gym.)”
Bibb also recalled, “To see that transformation and the excitement of Peaymania, to see that team jell, see them knock off some of the big dogs and be able to play with anybody in America … just to be there was an incredible experience.”
“Fly filled up gyms everywhere he played, and he loved the attention!” former Middle Tennessee State coach Jimmy Earle told The Tennessean last week. “We had never seen anything like the Fly.”
One night, Earle deployed a diamond and one defense against Fly: one man guarded Fly, and the other four played a zone. Fly popped in 35.
“I should’ve put the diamond on Fly!” Earle lamented to The Tennessean.
Fly led Peay to a 22-7 record, the Ohio Valley championship, and its first NCAA Tournament appearance. He went for 26 in a first round upset of Jacksonville, and 26 more in an overtime loss to Kentucky in the second round.
As a sophomore, Fly continued to amaze. He averaged a double-double: 27.5 points and 10.9 rebounds. The Governors again won the OVC, with Fly as conference player of the year. He again scored 26 in the NCAA Tournament, but Peay lost to Notre Dame.
Fly also established a lengthy list of antics which seem to blur the line between fact and fiction. According to various accounts, Fly once dribbled off the court to get a drink of water. He would go sit in the stands when the coaches espoused strategy he disdained. He once lay down on the court after fouling out. He ended one game sitting in the student section, eating a box of popcorn. And the only thing that outran his feet was his mouth.
Then things began to unravel for Fly. A conference rule accepting ACT test scores instead of SAT scores was found to be in error, costing Fly his eligibility. He played for a year in the old American Basketball Association, averaging 9.4 points for the Spirits of St. Louis. But Fly was too free a spirit, even by ABA standards.
From there, it was a downward spiral into bad trouble back in Brownsville. Fly became a drug addict, survived a bad shooting, and served two jail terms. Now clean, he works with youth for the Brownsville Recreation Department, with himself as the prime example of how not to waste a life.
“Besides playin’ ball and the street life, I can reach out and touch these kids,” he told The Leaf Chronicle last week.
Then he looked around at the packed Dunn Center. “This is fantastic. I didn’t think that anything like this would ever happen. Not for me. It’s great.”