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Ex-Knick Williams on the rebound

Former Knick Ray Williams, once homeless and living

Former Knick Ray Williams, once homeless and living inside a car in Florida, stands inside the place where it all began at the 4th Street Playground in Mount Vernon. (Feb. 3, 2011) Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

MOUNT VERNON, N.Y.

Life isn't perfect for Ray Williams these days, but it's pretty good.

He has his truck back, and he rents a nice, clean apartment with a new bathtub. His diabetes and blood pressure are under control, thanks in part to not having to worry about where his next meal is coming from. And he has a job that he loves, working with kids in the basketball-crazed community where he grew up.

"Except for this snow, I don't have much to complain about," said Williams, 56, once the toast of Madison Square Garden as captain of the Knicks, now the newest employee of the Mount Vernon Recreation Department.

Six months ago, that wasn't the case. Williams - who spent 10 seasons with the Knicks, Nets, Kings, Celtics, Hawks and Spurs - was homeless and sleeping in an abandoned car on a back street in Pompano Beach, Fla. Twice bankrupt, he had sold or lost most of his possessions and was spending his days fishing for food off a public pier.

After a story about his plight was published in July, several former teammates, including Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Albert King, reached out to help. So did others, among them Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton Young, who had a job opening in his recreation department.

Money disappears

Williams, who moved back to Mount Vernon in Westchester County in December, agreed to share his story again last week in the hope of helping other athletes who have fallen on hard times. He knows that a number of former players, including his brother, Gus, a former NBA All-Star who was not available to be interviewed for this story, have sought bankruptcy protection.

"Everybody looks at these guys, sees they were professional athletes and thinks they blew it. But that's not the story," said McHale, who became friends with Williams when they played together at the University of Minnesota more than 30 years ago. "Sometimes investments don't work. Things happen. Life can have a way of sneaking up on you.''

Williams never made the kind of money NBA players do today, when the average salary is $5.8 million. After the Knicks made him the No. 10 pick in the 1977 draft, he signed a four-year contract that paid him $125,000 his rookie season. Williams played point guard alongside Micheal Ray Richardson and helped lead the Knicks to a 50-win season in 1980-81. The next season, after signing with the Nets, he scored 52 points against the Pistons, a franchise record that still stands.

Williams earned a little more than $2.5 million in his career. Most went to buying a house for his mother (widowed when he was 7), helping his siblings and supporting his former wife and two daughters.

"I was a person who always gave," Williams said. "Even when I didn't have money, I would borrow money to help someone else out."

Life began to unravel financially after his playing career ended. Though he had scored 10,158 points by the time he retired in 1987, that didn't help someone who didn't have a college diploma or a firm idea of how to make a living in his post-playing days. By 1994, his marriage had unraveled, he had lost his home in Englewood, N.J., and he was in bankruptcy court.

In 1997, he decided to move to Florida to start over. He tapped into his NBA pension early, taking a lump-sum payment of close to $200,000. For the next 14 years, he held a series of jobs, working as a golf course groundskeeper, apartment complex maintenance man, warehouse worker and part-time high school girls basketball coach. Twice he secured grants totaling $10,000 from the NBA Legends Foundation, which helps struggling former players, but he again lost his money and the town house he had been living in after falling prey to a real estate scam. He filed for bankruptcy in 2005 and soon after became transient. He bounced around from friends' homes to shelters to living out of his 1997 Chevy Tahoe.

Last year, after the Tahoe broke down and he couldn't afford the $2,900 repair bill, he began sleeping in a 1992 Buick that was rusting out on the side of a back road. At night, he would lock the doors and play gospel music on his boom box, one of his few remaining possessions.

"I think for a while I just waited and hoped things would work out by themselves,'' Williams said, "but sometimes they just don't."

Help from ex-teammates

In Mount Vernon, where Williams is an icon, few had any idea of his plight. Nor did many of his friends from his NBA days; he constantly changed his phone number if he had a phone at all. One day, he called Igalious Mills, a Texas-based artist with whom he had played at San Jacinto Junior College.

"I hadn't heard from Ray in a while and I was literally almost in tears when he told me everything," Mills said. "To think that here was this professional player who ended up living out of his car."

It was Mills who convinced Williams to go public with his situation. Mills contacted The Boston Globe, which first published his story last July. Soon after, offers of help began pouring in. Bird, who played with Williams on the Celtics team that went to the 1985 Finals, set him up with a team of financial advisers who helped him straighten out his taxes, as he hadn't filed a return in four years. McHale and King also reached out with financial aid and friendship.

"Ray had a big influence on my life, and I loved being his teammate," McHale said."Life isn't about getting knocked down. It's about getting back up. And Ray is getting back up."

It wasn't only basketball players who reached out. A businessman whom he never had met sent him a check that helped him get his car back. Two policemen who read the story in Florida found him fishing on a pier and asked what they could do. The most life-changing moment came when Young, who had been looking for someone to work in Mount Vernon's recreation department and refurbish the city's Fourth Street Park basketball courts, offered him a job.

"This was no benevolent act of social service on my part," Young said. "Ray has a great story to tell our young people, not just about basketball but about life. Ray still has celebrity status here in Mount Vernon. Heck, he was captain of the New York Knicks."

Enjoying life again

Williams hasn't been back to the Garden since returning to the area in December. He is happy to lead a comparatively quiet life 20 miles north of The World's Most Famous Arena.

His days are spent working with kids and learning how to use the computer in the office he shares at the Doles Recreation Center, across the street from the court where he used to play. He visits often with his 86-year-old mother, who lives in an apartment next door to the center, and has reconnected with his two grown daughters, who live in New Jersey.

He no longer worries about where he will get his next meal. Instead, he looks to the future, talking excitedly about working with young people in Mount Vernon and one day creating a nonprofit foundation that would help former athletes who are in need.

"Right now, I feel good. Really good," he said. "If I had to start over, there was no better place to do it than in my own backyard. It's good to be back."

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