THERE WAS never a better cheer in college hoops than the one that would echo through the Little Red Barn, the old and tiny and rollicking home court of Austin Peay (rhymes with sea) State back when James (Fly) Williams was lighting up the night: "The Fly is open—let's go Peay!" Folks in Clarksville, Tenn., had never seen anyone quite like Fly, who arrived from Brooklyn but might as well have alit from another planet. A playground star from the Brownsville neighborhood, the skinny, 6'5" Williams was wild and undisciplined and theatrical and so crazily talented that he twice scored 51 points in a game during his freshman season, 1972--73. He scored 1,541 points in his two years at the Pea, averaging 28.5 a game—when dunking wasn't allowed and there was no three-point line—and leading the Governors to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances.
And then, Fly was gone. Due to an entrance exam screwup and missed classes and a few other silly and/or immature events, he was declared ineligible for his junior season. He left Austin Peay and played a year in the American Basketball Association, for the Spirits of St. Louis (whose announcer was a kid named Bob Costas). His shenanigans didn't, um, fly in the pros. Williams had brief gigs in the CBA, the Eastern League and with a team in Israel but never landed in the NBA—too wild, too temperamental, too street. By the end of the decade he was back on the New York City playgrounds, on the asphalt courts of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem and Coney Island and Brownsville, where the Fly was an urban legend. The Street Basketball Association ranks Fly as the No. 2 playground player of all time, behind only the late Earl (the Goat) Manigault.
Now, 35 years after he departed Austin Peay and two weeks shy of his 56th birthday, Williams is back. The school, which for decades was ambivalent about the most famous player in its 80-year hoops history, will honor Fly by retiring his number 35 jersey at halftime of the Govs' game against Tennessee-Martin this Thursday. It used to be that players who failed to graduate couldn't be immortalized by the school. Not anymore. "This was overdue," says sports information director Brad Kirtley. "We have a different president now, Timothy Hall. He has a different interpretation of the graduation policy here for jersey retirement. Time has passed. Fly was a handful. But he was never malicious."
That this parody of inner-city lunacy had even attended a school in the hills of Tennessee was amazing in itself. Fly, with his giant Afro and missing teeth and plaid bell-bottoms and ever-running mouth was to the rural South as a beagle is to a possum nest. The first time I met Fly was in the summer of 1973, when I was a young reporter for Sports Illustrated, and he was strutting about at Foster Park in Flatbush, carrying on like a bennied-up comedian. He was wearing sandals and a sleeveless shirt on which was printed a red tongue beneath the words, i ate the whole thing. That meeting was brief, but I returned the following summer and described his antic court presence in my 1976 book Heaven Is a Playground:
Puckering his mouth, shooting his tongue out where his teeth should be, using his hands in great dramatic sweeps, Fly talks about players with "unbelievable s[---]," players who can stuff from half court. He plays three different characters at once. He grabs his crotch, doubles up, puts a leaf in his mouth, talks like a homosexual. The world he describes is bigger, uglier, more vivid than the one around us. He sits down, then sprints out twenty feet to demonstrate somebody pigeon-toed bringing the ball up court.... "Skinny? You think I'm skinny? I weigh 135 pounds soaking wet!" He sucks in his stomach and shows his ribs. The routine is nonstop, pulsating, frantic—as though silence would be unbearable.
But that was then, and much has happened in the decades since. For one thing, Fly has slowed down. Maybe not mellowed, but lost some wind. He still lives in Brownsville and has a job working with kids in the Brooklyn recreation department talking to them about basketball and life and how not to squander opportunities, using himself as Exhibit A. He's had his problems with drink and with drugs and has been shot four times—once, in 1987, with a shotgun that blew away one of his lungs and part of his stomach. He has been to prison twice, once for attempted robbery and once for drug possession. That he is still alive is a marvel of luck and survival skills. Mostly luck.
"Shot four times," he says, halfway chuckling. "From a .22 to a shotgun. Why? Acting crazy. Acting a damn fool."
Longtime Tennessee sportswriter Dave Link has written a book with Williams, Fly 35, to be published this week, and he is amazed at the tales he heard from others and from his subject. Such as that Fly once scored 100 points in an outdoor all-star game—45 in the first half for his team, then 55 in the second half for the other team. "He wore his trunks backward; he dribbled off the court to get a drink of water once in a game; he lay down on the floor when he fouled out one time," says Link. "All kinds of crazy stuff. Who knows what's true? We're calling the book a fictionalized biography."
I know a few things that are true. Austin Peay has a large gym, constructed a year after Fly left school. It's official name is the Dunn Center, but it has been called the House That Fly Built, and it will be rocking on Thursday night. I know that Fly Williams has a son, Fly Williams Jr., who is an actor and a rapper and a comedian. And I know that Fly once dunked in a Washington, D.C., summer game over Len Elmore and Moses Malone. I saw that. Yet Fly amazes me for much more.
"If I said I'd change anything," he tells me on the phone, "I'd be lying. That's just me. I had a ball. Fly is Fly."
I can almost see him winking.
"Come on down to the Pea, man," he says. "We're gonna have some fun."
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Williams was wild and theatrical and crazily talented at Austin Peay. AND THEN, FLY WAS GONE.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER