BACK PEDAL: BILL WILLOUGHBY
Last week Anthony Davis, a freshman from the University of Kentucky was the first overall pick in the NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets. You can search ‘Google’ for “One and Done” and come up with thousands of stories all across the internet.
Decisions for basketball players is nothing new; in high school you are recruited and need to make a choice as to where you will play your college ball. If you are as good as Davis, after one year of college ball you are faced with a decision to stay in school or go pro.
Thirty-seven years ago a high school senior had a tough decision to make. Go to the University of Kentucky or declare “hardship.”
At the start of the 1974-75 college basketball season basketball writers tabbed Ron Lee, David Thompson, Marvin Webster, Alvin Adams, and John Lucas as the best college basketball players in the nation.
In high school basketball there was three players that were head and shoulders above the rest. Darryl Dawkins, Bill Willoughby and Bill Cartwright. Only one player of the trio, Cartwright, attended college.
Fast forward to today’s culture and it’s a lot different from it was for young players. Today, kids have to go to college for at least one year before they declare for the draft (Or, unless you are like Brandon Jennings and Jeremy Tyler, you can go overseas and play ball for a year).
Recruiting is followed by more people today than ever; you have websites, recruiting services, message boards, Twitter, analysts and of course ESPN is involved. Make no mistake, back in the day recruiting was a big business but nothing like it is today.
Reggie Harding out of Detroit Eastern High School got the ball rolling in 1962. Moses Malone skipped college in 1973 and signed with the Utah Stars of the ABA. The following year Dawkins signed with the Philadelphia 76ers. Dawkins, out of Orlando, Florida was picked in the first round, 5th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers.
First team all-american Bill Willoughby was supposed to be the next big superstar along with Dawkins. The man they called “Poodle” skipped college and went straight to the NBA where he was chosen in the 1975 draft with the 19th pick by the Atlanta Hawks. (first pick of the second round)
An ex- college coach told me, “He was Magic Johnson before Magic Johnson.”
Kentucky, with assistant coach Leonard Hamilton recruiting him wanted the jumping-jack forward in the worst way; Jack Givens and Rick Robey were in Lexington and had just come off a loss in the NCAA championship game to UCLA. (John Wooden’s last season coaching the Bruins) Rupp Arena was about to open its doors too. Willoughby decided to head to the NBA and the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament in what would have been Willoughby’s freshman year but three years later the Wildcats captured the National Championship.
Willoughby, born and raised in Englewood, New Jersey native played for six teams over an eight year period. His NBA career ended at the age of 27.
Cotton Fitzsimmons was Willoughby’s first coach in the NBA. Willoughby arrived in the A.T.L at the age of 18 (youngest player in the league) where he joined a team that was coming off a 31-51 record. Atlanta had the third worst record in the league and to make matters worse, they had just lost Pistol Pete Maravich. The Hawks had the first and third picks of the first round in the draft. They chose David Thompson and Marvin Webster; both players elected to go to the Denver Nuggets of the ABA and play for head coach Larry Brown. So with the first pick in the 2nd round the Hawks selected Willoughby.
Can you imagine if all this happened today?
Rick Majerus at the time was an assistant coach at Marquette under Al McGuire. “Al McGuire likes big, strong forwards who also are quick.” Majerus said when describing the late coach’s preference when recruiting. “Willoughby fits that description.”
The Hawks finished 29-53 in Willoughby’s rookie season which saw him play in 62 games with a scoring average of 4.7 PPG and 4.6 RPG. Willoughby’s teammates included John Drew, Connie Hawkins and Dean ‘The Dream’ Meminger. Fitzsimmons didn’t like the rookie’s playground style of play.
In his second season he was coached by Hubie Brown and played in only 39 games. Hubie didn’t think Willoughby was tough enough. The Hawks finished 31-51. At the end of the year the twenty year old was off to Buffalo.
For the 1977-78 season Willoughby was reunited with his first NBA coach, Cotton Fitzsimmons. The Braves went 27-55. Willoughby played 56 games with the Braves and scored 6.7 per game.
“I gave him two chances, but I wouldn’t give him a third.” Fitzsimmons once said.
At the end of the season the Braves moved to San Diego and on October 12, 1978 the Clippers waived Willoughby.
So after three seasons in the NBA, the 21 year-old wasn’t showing any improvement and was out of the league.
Where was ‘Willow’ for the 1978-79 season?
No one brought him in for a workout?
Finally, the following season the Cleveland Cavaliers signed him.
I first recall seeing Willoughby and his forty-seven inch vertical play with the Houston Rockets. During the 1981 NBA playoffs he blocked Kareem Abdul-Jabber’s skyhook. It was late at night and CBS was in charge; way before TNT and ESPN. Jabber had beaten Moses Malone to the middle of the lane and Willoughby came over from the weakside. Jabber extended his right hand to shoot his hook but Willoughby swatted it away.
In the playoffs that year Willoughby played 19 games and blocked 19 shots.
Coming out of high school where he scored 30 PPG they said he had the tools to develop into a great player. In one high school game Willoughby scored 36 points in one-quarter!
It’s too bad it didn’t work out the way they said; those people who love to comment about young basketball players are always right, right?
Being offered $1 million dollars as a teenager is pretty hard to turn down. Was there too much pressure on this kid?
Would he had been better off from a year or two in college?
Who was calling the shots?
How was his work ethic?
Was he coachable?
Sometimes it’s not about your height, how high you can jump, or that you can break someone’s ankles with a cross-over.
Over his career Willoughby had the chance to play with guys like Connie Hawkins, Walt Frazier, Moses Malone, Rick Barry, and in his last season in the league in New Jersey he was able to swap NBA hardship stories with Darryl Dawkins.
Stan Albeck must have liked him because he coached him at three different stops (Cleveland, San Antonio and New Jersey)
In 2002 Willoughby went back to college and received his degree from FDU in New Jersey.
In 2001 ESPN Outside the Lines did a terrific piece on players leaving school early including Willoughby.
Well, when I was 18, I didn’t have nothing. You know, most kids don’t have anything — your mother’s paying for everything for you — your clothes. So if you go to college, you’re like everybody else. You don’t turn down $1 million coming out of high school when you’re 18-years-old and you don’t have no money. You don’t do that.
Bill Willoughby was unprepared to go straight to the NBA out of high school; his career stats playing pro ball was 6 PPG and 4 RPG. The positive aspect about the whole story is Willoughby went back to school and graduated from college.