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Huge rebound

With a few assists, former Celtic pulls his life together

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By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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MOUNT VERNON, N.Y. — It’s not much for a former millionaire, a third-floor walkup apartment furnished with little more than an air mattress on a bed frame.

But it’s a home.

The heat works. There’s a bathroom with a shower, food in the refrigerator, fish to cook on the stove.

After months of sleeping in a broken-down 1992 Buick on a back road in Florida, former Celtics guard Ray Williams — once a marquee NBA player — has a roof over his head, a reason to get up in the morning, a chance to do for the needy what others did for him when he was down to his last dime.

Thanks in part to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, his teammates with the ’85 Celtics, Williams is out of poverty — an existence all too common among former NBA players who outlived their basketball earnings.

No more waking up hungry in the night for Williams, a 56-year-old diabetic fearful of slipping into insulin shock. No more wondering whether anybody, most of all the NBA executives whose seats he once helped fill, cared about his plight.

“Things are getting better and better every day,’’ said Williams, once the toast of Broadway as captain of the New York Knicks, now the newest employee of the city recreation department in his native Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Williams is one of many professional athletes who fell on hard times after leaving the game. Among NBA retirees alone, dozens have turned to the courts for bankruptcy protection, including Williams and his brother, Gus, a former All-Star and NBA champion.

“Everything can fall apart pretty quickly,’’ McHale said. “Life has a way of sneaking up on you.’’

Soon after the Globe reported Williams’s crisis last year, offers of help poured in, with Bird the first NBA alumnus to reach out. As teammates during Boston’s drive to the ’85 NBA Finals, Bird and Williams occasionally played one-on-one after practice.

“Larry was a good guy to me back then, very down-to-earth,’’ Williams said. “We got along real good.’’

They lost touch through the years, but Bird wasted no time opening his checkbook and mobilizing his financial advisers to help his former teammate. Bird insisted to Williams that he wanted no publicity for his generosity, and he declined an interview request for this story.

Within days of Bird contacting Williams, McHale stepped up, too. McHale and Williams first met in 1976 as teammates at the University of Minnesota, McHale joining the Golden Gophers as the state’s Mr. Basketball from Hibbing High School, Williams having arrived earlier from the streets of Mount Vernon, a basketball hotbed abutting the Bronx.

“Ray was three years older than me, but he took me under his wing,’’ recalled McHale, who was 18 at the time. “He’s a wonderful man.’’

Williams played two seasons for Minnesota, establishing himself as an All-Big Ten guard and future member of the school’s Hall of Fame. He was selected 10th overall by the Knicks in the 1977 draft, three years before the Celtics made McHale the third overall pick.

Williams played 10 seasons for the Knicks, Nets, Kings, Celtics, Hawks, and Spurs. He was reunited with McHale in February 1985 when the Celtics signed him to back up Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge.

Familiar struggle Known as “Sugar’’ in his playing days, Williams appeared in every postseason game that spring for the Celtics, averaging 6.3 points and 3.2 assists, until he was ejected in Game 4 of the Finals for scuffling with the Lakers’ Kurt Rambis. Los Angeles won in six games, and Williams never played again for the Celtics, but his friendship with McHale endured.

McHale, like Bird, said he wanted no public attention for reaching out to Williams. He spoke with the Globe only about their friendship and the financial difficulties in general of NBA players.

“On the court, Ray was a great teammate, an us-vs.-them kind of guy,’’ McHale said. “I was a simple kid from a mining town in northern Minnesota. I didn’t understand a lot at that age, but I understood the us-vs.-them mentality.’’

The financial struggles of Williams and other professional athletes reminded McHale of his father, Paul, who worked in Minnesota’s iron mines and had difficulty managing his money. McHale himself said he was not immune from poor financial decisions.

“We can all look back and say, ‘Why did I make that investment?’ ’’ he said. “I know I’ve done it. You end up losing your shorts. It can happen, man.’’

Williams spent his NBA earnings — more than $2 million — on a lifestyle he was unable to sustain once the checks stopped coming. The bulk of his expenses included buying a home for his mother and helping support three other siblings as well as his former wife, their two daughters, now 31 and 19, and friends.

“He’s a guy who would give anybody the shirt off his back,’’ said Ric Wright, the Mount Vernon High football coach, who works with Williams in the rec department. “He gave so much that when he looked up, he had but one shirt left.’’

Without a college degree, Williams struggled for years as a letter carrier, bartender, commercial cleaner, handyman, girls high school basketball coach, bakery worker, and golf course groundskeeper. He filed twice for bankruptcy, in 1994 and 2005, then became transient, eventually living out of his car.

Enter Bird and McHale. With the NBA and its alumni groups no longer willing to assist — they had given Williams about $20,000 through the years — the Celtics Hall of Famers helped him build a nest egg that lifted him out of homelessness. A former Nets teammate, Albert King, also chipped in.

“It was like winning a championship,’’ Williams said. “My mind was spinning so fast, it’s almost impossible to put into words. The only one I can think of is ‘amazing.’ ’’

Another big break came when Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton Young Jr. learned of his plight and offered him a job. Williams and his brother Gus were among seven players from Mount Vernon High School in the 1970s who reached the NBA (others included Rodney and Scooter McCray).

“Basketball is a way of life in Mount Vernon,’’ said Bob Cimmino, the high school basketball coach. “It has permeated every little nook of the community since Gus and Ray’s generation. Ray is a very important part of this city’s history and we couldn’t be happier to have him back.’’

Conquering hopelessness Williams has embraced Young’s challenge to improve Mount Vernon’s recreational activities and use his NBA experience to guide the city’s youth. He motors around town in his ’97 Chevy Tahoe, which sat in a Florida repair shop for more than a year until a stranger read about Williams and paid the $900 balance on his bill.

The stranger, David Mandell, a Florida-based financial adviser, also bought Williams a laptop and taught him how to use it. Mandell was one of many who responded to the news of Williams’s adversity. Some were old friends with whom he had lost touch. Others never knew Williams but simply wanted to help.

In Mandell’s case, he slogged with his father, Dr. Charles Mandell, through flooded streets in Pompano Beach, Fla., to first reach Williams.

“We came away impressed by Ray and his demeanor,’’ Mandell said. “He was someone who had had bad luck and just needed some help to turn things around.’’

The effort to rescue Williams was spearheaded by a longtime friend, Igalious “Ike’’ Mills, an artist in Port Arthur, Texas. Mills said Williams has benefited in several ways from the experience.

“Ray has learned a lot about himself,’’ Mills said, “and the people who care about him.’’

One of Williams’s greatest joys has been renewing a friendship from his playing days with Linda Crawford, a registered nurse who recently received her medical degree. Crawford is helping Williams adapt to life after homelessness as well as assisting him in managing his diabetes and controlling his weight.

“She’s been a real blessing,’’ he said, as she cooked dinner in his new apartment.

No longer worried about his next meal, Williams has begun to look forward, focusing in part on launching a nonprofit foundation that would help others in need, particularly retired professional athletes. He believes the NBA has done too little to help former players in poverty.

“I’m not motivated by anger or revenge,’’ Williams said. “I just believe there’s a better way. Why should guys who are hurting have to wait until they’re on their dying bed before they get the help they need?’’

Conquering hopelessness has restored his self-esteem and fueled his determination.

“I believe this has all happened for a reason, that I’m here to fulfill a purpose,’’ Williams said. “It’s more about the mission than the money, because all the money in the world isn’t going to matter if I don’t follow through on the mission. I’m going to make it work.’’

He’s competing in a new realm now, applying his us-vs.-them credo to the game of life.

“It’s never about the fall, it’s about the getting up,’’ McHale said. “Believe me, Ray’s a fighter. He just needed a little hand. He’ll fight the rest of way himself.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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