Desperate Times

Bob Hohler, Boston Globe, July 2, 2010

Every night at bedtime, former Celtic Ray Williams locks the doors of his home: a broken-down 1992 Buick, rusting on a back street where he ran out of everything.

The 10-year NBA veteran formerly known as “Sugar Ray” leans back in the driver’s seat, drapes his legs over the center console, and rests his head on a pillow of tattered towels. He tunes his boom box to gospel music, closes his eyes, and wonders.

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In recent weeks, he has lived on bread and water.

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A former top-10 NBA draft pick who once scored 52 points in a game, Williams is a face of big-time basketball’s underclass. As the NBA employs players whose average annual salaries top $5 million, Williams is among scores of retired players for whom the good life vanished not long after the final whistle.

Dozens of NBA retirees, including Williams and his brother, Gus, a two-time All-Star, have sought bankruptcy protection.

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Williams, 55 and diabetic, wants the titans of today’s NBA to help take care of him and other retirees who have plenty of time to watch games but no televisions to do so. He needs food, shelter, cash for car repairs, and a job, and he believes the multibillion-dollar league and its players should treat him as if he were a teammate in distress.

One thing Williams especially wants them to know: Unlike many troubled ex-players, he has never fallen prey to drugs, alcohol, or gambling.

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Unfortunately for Williams, the NBA-related organizations best suited to help him have closed their checkbooks to him. The NBA Legends Foundation, which awarded him grants totaling more than $10,000 in 1996 and 2004, denied his recent request for help. So did the NBA Retired Players Association, which in the past year gave him two grants totaling $2,000.

Charles D. Smith, an NBA veteran who heads the retired players association, said Williams has not taken advantage of efforts to help him find work.

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Problems in transition

Hall of Famer Bob Cousy, who helped create the Legends Foundation and serves as a director, understands the financial pressures squeezing many NBA retirees. Cousy himself auctioned his NBA memorabilia in 2003 to help support his daughters and grandchildren. As for Williams, Cousy said, the Legends Foundation generally limits former players to two financial grants.

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The rejections angered Williams. He said he wants to work but needs transportation to reach a workplace.

“I’m in the middle of an emergency, and they’re going to turn their backs on me?” he said. “How about all these [NBA] guys with big contracts? Are they going to help?”

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Williams has needed help since he went from owning fine cars and comfortable homes–one for his mother in his hometown of Mount Vernon, N.Y., another for his family in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.–to seeking bankruptcy protection in 1994. No longer able to sustain his NBA lifestyle, he worked for a couple of years as a substitute teacher. He also delivered mail and tended bar, but he had trouble holding the jobs partly because he had spent his life training for little else but playing basketball.

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He [Williams] appeared in every playoff game that year for the Celtics, averaging 6.3 points and 3.2 assists, until he was ejected in Game 4 of the Finals for scuffling with LA’s Kurt Rambis. Williams did not play again (coach’s decision) as the Lakers went on to win the series in six games.

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Two years later, Williams was out of the NBA and hurtling toward financial ruin. By 1994, he was in a New Jersey bankruptcy court, having lost his home, his marriage, and nearly his life.

“I was so stressed out that I thought about suicide,” he said.

Instead, he set out for Florida. Trying to start over, Williams secured a grant from the Legends Foundation. But he lost the money, court records indicate, when the widow of a condominium owner who agreed to a lease-to-own contract with Williams opted out of the contract after the owner died.

Broke again, Williams repeatedly tried in vain to hold jobs. Hindered by his diabetes, which was diagnosed three years ago, he lost or walked away from jobs as a cleaner, handyman, high school girls’ basketball coach, bakery worker, and golf course groundskeeper. In 2005, he filed again for bankruptcy.

Transient since then, Williams has bounced from one friend’s house to another’s, from one shelter to another. He finally ran out of friends to stay with, soured on the shelter life, and settled a couple of months ago in his car. He also owns a ’97 Chevy Tahoe but needs to pay a repair shop $550 to release it.

He has no health insurance or car insurance. And he already has tapped his NBA pension, he said.

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An avid fisherman, he has sold or pawned his best rods and reels. His golf clubs are for sale. But most of the rest of his belongings were auctioned off after he fell behind on a storage bill.

Williams also is running out of friends and relatives to ask for help. {snip}

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Nor can he turn to his former agent, Fred Slaughter, who once loaned him money.

“Ray was always a good person, a good player, and a good client,” Slaughter said. “But was the loan repaid? No. So I just raised my eyebrows and moved on down the road.”

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williams

Ray Williams.

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