What better way to celebrate the holidays than to hear a success story? There is a good one in the San Francisco Chronicle and, no surprise, it’s about a person experiencing homelessness. The reporter is Tim Povtak, who writes for pro basketball annual magazines and has won many awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors. The story originates in Mt. Vernon, New York, a smallish city of 60,000 inhabitants, bordering on the Bronx.
Mt. Vernon is renowned for the number of excellent basketball players it has produced and supplied to college and professional teams. Their jerseys hang on the wall of the gym at the local high school. One of the athletes thus memorialized is Ray Williams, who was always remembered by his home town, even though no one had seen him for many years.
Once upon a time Williams, now 56, was a local hero and an inspiration to the young players coming up after him. From 1977 to 1987, he played for 10 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA). His professional career started with four seasons for the New York Knicks, including a year as team captain. Then he joined the New Jersey Nets, the Kansas City Kings, went back to the Knicks, and has also played for the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs.
Like many athletes, Williams didn’t manage money too well, either before or after retiring from the sport. He filed for bankruptcy in 1994, and consequently parted with his home and family. He received his NBA pension in a lump sum and then lost it speculating on real estate in Florida, where he than entered a span of 13 years as a member of the working poor, surviving on part-time, low-level jobs. As writer Povtak describes,
When his playing career ended, he started a gradual, downward slide, spiraling through a series of bad choices, bad investments, bad advice. Life after basketball was like quicksand. He kept sinking.
For many months, Williams lived a “dock of the bay” existence, fishing for his supper and sleeping in a found wreck of a vehicle. Then, in the summer of 2010, the Boston Globe published a story about him, written by Bob Hohler and titled “Desperate Times“.
Williams told the reporter that the NBA ought to make better arrangements for the players who apparently don’t understand that their careers won’t last forever. (I hate to be a negative voice here, but the NBA could protect retirees by refusing to hand out a pension as a lump sum. If it were paid out gradually, that would prevent the very situation that Williams found himself in. Of course, the players wouldn’t like it a bit, and neither would their lawyers.) Actually, two NBA-related groups had helped the retiree with “grants,” but he just couldn’t get a foothold on life. Hohler wrote,
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.
All of this came to the attention of His Honor Clinton Young, the mayor of Mt. Vernon, who set things in motion to get Ray Williams back home and living a productive life. Having returned to the land of ice and snow, Williams now holds the job title Recreation Specialist, but the expectation is that he will do so much more. Williams has already given a talk at the Boys & Girls Club, and addressed the Mt. Vernon High School boys’ basketball team. Ric Wright, the school’s football coach, calls him an icon.
Mayor Young envisions the revitalization of Mt. Vernon through its recreation and sports facilities. He is counting on the Williams’ charisma factor, presenting the former star as a kind of ambassador for the city who will relate to contractors and developers, and bring about a hoped-for alliance. Meanwhile, Williams has been reunited with his elderly mother, brother, and other family members who still live in Mt. Vernon for their first Christmas together in a long time.
Bonus Holiday Video!
Life Can Be Lonely This Holiday Season Lil Bob & the Lollipops.
Source: “Ray Williams Goes From Homeless to Home With a Job for Holidays,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12/17/10
Source: “Desperate Times,” Boston.com, 02/07/10
Image by LabyrinthX (Nicholas Bufford), used under its Creative Commons license.