BACK PEDAL: GUS WILLIAMS
Over the years New York City has produced many great basketball players.
You often hear about guys from Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx and Manhattan; some when they are as young as ten.
There are legendary stories out there about guys snatching quarters off the top of the backboard, scoring 70 points in a summer league game and of course the story about one player who played for two teams in one game and dropped 40 points in each half.
The city of Mount Vernon (four square miles) borders the Bronx, has their own legends and their own personal stories too.
Dick Clark, P-Diddy, Heavy D, Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington are popular entertainers from Mount Vernon and they have brought a lot of excitement to the music and film industry but the best basketball player from “The Vern” is Gus Williams; A.K.A., “The Wizard”.
“The Wizard played on the great 1971 Mount Vernon High School team with Earl Tatum, Mike Young, Rudy Hackett, and Ivo Holland. They only lost one game that year to DeMatha with Adrian Dantley,” said Basketball writer Dick “Hoops” Weiss.
(Update: Aug. 13, 2013: I received a comment below from Mike Tripoli: “The 1971 Mount Vernon Knights lost only one game, the championship game of the Knights of Columbus Basketball tournament, to McKinley of Washington D.C. The above is in error as they never played DeMatha H.S.)
I came across this article from the NY Times that says their only loss came to McKinley.
Gus was cut from the team his junior year but in his senior season, he was voted New York State Player of the Year!
The first time I ever watched the free-wheeling guard was when he played for the Seattle Supersonics. He was part of one of the best backcourts in the history of the game (Dennis Johnson). Gus led the team to the 1979 NBA championship over the Washington Bullets. In the finals, he dropped 28.6 points per game.
Watching Gus glide up and down the floor with the ball he made it look so easy. It was like his feet were barely touching the ground. The ball was on a yo-yo when Gus went off the dribble. When he shot a jump-shot, it looked a bit weird. It definitely wasn’t a form that a coach would teach a young player but nevertheless, it went in so who cares what it looks like.
After graduating from Mount Vernon high school Gus packed his bags and headed out West where he enrolled at U.S.C.; he led the Trojans to three straight post-season births. (The NCAA did not allow freshmen to play varsity)
As a senior in 1975 Gus led the Pac-8 in scoring and was named All American 1st team. But around LA, Williams and the Trojans played second fiddle to Bill Walton and UCLA.
Gus was drafted in the second round (25th overall) of the 1975 Draft by the Golden State Warriors. Now to me, that’s incredible that so many teams passed on him in the first round. Here are a few guys that were picked ahead of him:
Bob Bigelow. Frank Oleynick. Eugene Short (bother of Purivs). Tom Boswell. A “Who’s Who”, right?
I mean Gus was a first team all-american!
The Spirits of St. Louis drafted him and offered a ton of money but his dream was to play in the NBA.
During his first year in the league the six-foot-two, 175 pound guard made the all-rookie team. Gus played 22 minutes per game and scored 11 PPG. After his second year in the bay he became a free-agent and signed with the Seattle Supersonics.
“I wanted to stay with the Warriors,” Gus told Basketball Digest (Feb. 1980) but they didn’t seem interested in keeping me.”
Gus was almost a member of the Boston Celtics during his free-agency but Red Auerbach signed Dave Bing instead.
“Once you sign a Dave Bing, you don’t need a Gus Williams.” Auerbach said.
Bing played 80 games for Boston that season and scored 11 PPG. That was his last season in the league.
In 1978, his first season with Seattle Gus led the Sonics to their first N.B.A. finals. In 79 games during the regular season he led the team in scoring at 18 PPG. The Sonics lost a heartbreaking seventh game at home in the Kingdome. Williams also led Seattle in scoring during the playoffs.
The first season didn’t start out very well in Seattle as they got out to an awful 5-17 start under head coach Bob Hopkins. Lenny Wilkins took over and things changed. The Sonics went 47-13 the rest of the way. In the playoffs they beat the Lakers, Nuggets and Blazers. During the finals the Sonics were up 3-2 only to lose game 6 and 7.
Browsing an old copy of Basketball Digest (Nov. 1977), the bible back in the 70’s and 80’s, the experts picked Seattle to finish 5th in the Pacific division. What was probably the most glaring omission during that season was not one Sonics player being in contention for the Player of the Year. There was not one Sonics player in the top 20 voting!
The following season the Sonics won it all. It was their “play-off baptismal”. Gus, who was 25 years old scored 28 points per game in the finals after scoring 19 PPG during the regular season. The East Coast guard was one of the most explosive players in the league.
In Seattle Gus formed a three-guard rotation with Dennis Johnson and Freddie Brown. The three guards complemented each other so well; sort of like the Detroit Piston three-guards of Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Vinnie Johnson. Let it be noted that the Sonics led the league in attendance that year. They were a team that played the right way. They defended, shared the ball and rebounded. A team fans can embrace.
The following season Seattle won 56 games but could not get past the Lakers in the playoffs. Gus, the man with the “green-light” led the team in scoring at 22 PPG.
But like I always say, basketball is a great game but a bad business. Unhappy with the Sonics’ new contract offer — Williams was at the end of a three-year deal that paid him $175,000 a year — he sat out the entire 1980-81 season.
What was considered the best backcourt in the league was now over. Johnson was traded to the Phoenix Suns for Paul Westphal (former USC Trojan) and Gus sat out the year. With Gus out, the Sonics failed to make the playoffs.
At USC Gus was a freshman when Westphal was a senior; the two never played on the same team in college but now it looked like they would team up. Westphal held out and ended up in New York. Gus returned and had his best N.B.A. statistical season, averaging more than 23 points per game. The Sonics also returned to the playoffs. In fact, every season Williams played in the N.B.A., his team made the playoffs.
“Gus understands ‘win’.” Said Gene Shue
I recall watching Gus play at the Xavier Summer League in the early 80’s. Gus would show up with his brother Ray and other Mt. Vernon guys. The battles against the NYC players was intense.
Gus had so much confidence with the ball. I never saw a defender take it from him. When he pushed the ball on the break he looked like he was flying. He had blinding speed, could play either guard position; he’d score in transition, knock down jumpers and hit the open man. With the ball he was a blur. Scoring looked so easy to him. Effortless. He was an exciting, explosive player.
Former NBA coach Jack Ramsay called Gus, “the best open court player in the league.”
Another area of player development that is so important in the game of basketball – Gus never brought attention to himself. When guys today are trash-talking, Gus was a quiet assassin. He let his game do the talking.
In June of 1984, after a six-year tenure with the Sonics Gus moved closer to home and was traded to the Washington Bullets where he played two seasons and shared the backcourt with sharp-shooter Jeff Malone. In his first season Gus led the Bullets in scoring at 20 PPG. One night at Madison Square Garden I recall looking down at his laces on his sneakers during a game against the Knicks. Gus had his strings wrapped around and tied in the back of his shoes; we thought it looked cool and tried it the next day.
Gus signed as a free-agent with the Atlanta Hawks in 1987. He laced up his grips for 33 games. His career was over at the age of 33.
The Wizard played a total of eleven years in the N.B.A., scoring 14,093 points (17 PPG) and dishing out 4,597 assists (5.6).
Gus was a two-time NBA all-star. He also was named first team all-NBA in 1982.
The best thing that ever happened to Gus was leaving Golden State and playing for Lenny Wilkins in Seattle. It was there Wilkins just let the playmaker go.
Mount Vernon High School has produced eight NBA players; Gus Williams has had the best pro career of them all.
On his website it says that currently Gus is an entrepreneur building his relationships in different facets in the corporate world. From commodities, to real estate he is that constantly matching up the perfect investment with the ideal investor. In addition Gus is involved with two of his favorite charities, the boys and girls of America and Champions for Families which provides mentoring for children and families victimized by domestic or substance abuse.