The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Street-ball legend Fly Williams accused of running massive heroin-distribution ring in Brooklyn

The district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, N.Y., announced Thursday that 1970s street-ball legend James “Fly” Williams has been charged with being the ringleader of a massive 13-person heroin operation in that borough’s Brownsville neighborhood. Williams is facing 10 felony charges for leading a group that sold 2 million packages of heroin in various Brooklyn neighborhoods over a three-month period.

Authorities in New York say they recovered $180,000 in cash and 2 kilograms of heroin.

Williams, 64, parlayed his flamboyant New York City playground fame into a scholarship at Austin Peay in Tennessee, where he averaged nearly 30 points per game over his two seasons from 1972 to 1974 and sparked so much interest in the Governors that the school was forced to build a new arena. He also sparked the infamous chant, “The fly is open, let’s go Peay!”

But Williams was declared ineligible after his sophomore season because of various academic reasons and off-court incidents. He then was drafted in the first round of the 1974 American Basketball Association draft but lasted just one season, averaging only 9.4 points per game for the Spirits of St. Louis. He then played in various other second-rate U.S. professional leagues and in Israel but never was able to catch on in the NBA and was soon back on the playgrounds of New York.

Rick Telander, who featured Williams heavily in his 1974 book “Heaven Is a Playground,” wrote about him again for Sports Illustrated in 2009, when Austin Peay invited him back to retire his No. 35:

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.

In 2013, Complex ranked Williams as the No. 6 street-ball player of all-time, but his post-basketball life was troubled even before Thursday’s announcement. There were problems with alcohol and drug abuse, Telander wrote, and Williams has been shot four times, once losing a lung and part of his stomach. He’s also served two stints in prison, for attempted robbery and drug possession.