Ray Williams Goes From Homeless to Home With a Job for Holidays
MT. VERNON, N.Y -- When Ray Williams steps into the old gym at Mt. Vernon High School, or walks into the Dole Recreation Center a couple of blocks away, or opens the door down the street for lunch at King's Pizzeria, or even stops in front of the abandoned house in which he grew up, the reaction around him is pretty much the same.
Eyes light. Heads turn. Faces brighten. Chins nod.
"It's good to see you, Ray,'' comes the warm and common refrain.
It makes this unlikely marriage -- a South Florida homeless man becomes the Mayor's assistant -- look like a natural fit.
Welcome home, Ray Williams. It's time to start over.
After 13 years of mostly bouncing anonymously through Florida from dead-end to dead-end -- the last 13 months sleeping in old faded vehicles in Pompano Beach -- Williams has returned to the town where he was born and raised and is still revered.
"We needed Ray back -- for a lot of reasons,'' said Mt. Vernon Mayor Clinton Young (pictured above, left, with Williams). "He's still respected and very much admired here. He can help us get things done. And he's a tremendous lesson on success, falling down -- then getting back up again. It was time for Ray to come home.''
Williams, 56, played 10 seasons in the NBA (1977-87). He was captain and point guard of the adored New York Knicks, the toast of nearby Madison Square Garden when he led them to their only 50-victory season in a 15-year span. Just a year later for the cross-river New Jersey Nets, he scored 52 points -- set a one-game franchise record that still stands -- against the Detroit Pistons.
Those memories never died, even if a part of him did.
When his playing career ended, he started a gradual, downward slide, spiraling through a series of bad choices, bad investments, bad advice. Life after basketball was like quicksand. He kept sinking.
He had no plan, no steady job, no real skills. He lost his home, his marriage, his health and his children, eventually leaving him broke, leaving him to fish off a Florida pier every morning just so he had something to eat every night.
That's where Mayor Young found him, after reading about his plight. Williams virtually had dropped out of sight, fighting through both physical and emotional issues. Convincing him to return wasn't easy.
"I always wanted to come back and help the community where I grew up, but not unless I had a good job, where I didn't have to depend on my mother, or anyone else,'' Williams said. "So I think this is going to work. It just feels right. I'll make it right.''
Although Williams was hired with the title of "Recreation Specialist,'' Mayor Young wants him as a spark to revitalize the town's sports and recreation facilities, using his past fame to raise money, and open doors with contractors and developers that might otherwise be closed.
"Are you kidding?'' said Mt. Vernon High football coach Ric Wright, when asked if people in Mt. Vernon still remember Williams. "Maybe if you're not from here, you don't know, but Ray is a New York icon. I heard someone say that our town is helping Ray. But in the long run, Ray is going to help us all in ways he doesn't even realize yet. This is the perfect situation for everyone.''
Mt. Vernon is a city of 60,000 people in New York's West Chester County, bordering The Bronx, with a proud history of producing great young basketball players, college and professional.
Ray and older brother Gus Williams both have their jerseys hanging on the wall at the High School gym, alongside those of Rodney and Scooter McCray, Earl Tatum, Rudy Hackett -- all former NBA players -- and current NBA star Ben Gordon. That's a lot of players from one high school.
Ray's picture is displayed most prominently in the school's trophy case, along with the banners in the gym and the trophies from the two state high school championships that he helped win.
"Darn right, it's great having him back,'' said Mike Reaux, longtime director of the Dole Recreation Center, who knew Williams when he played as a teenager on the 4th Street Playground courts nearby. "He's rooted in this community. I didn't always know where he was all these years, but you never completely lose track of someone like Ray. When he walked back through those doors, it was like he never left. He just commanded everyone's attention.''
He has been on the job for a month, but the honeymoon didn't last long. He arrived with little to his name but his faded 1999 Chevy Tahoe. He found an apartment, but he still sleeps on an air mattress. He can't afford any new furniture yet, and he's scared to buy used furniture because he was attacked by New York-style bed bugs shortly after he arrived.
"Man, I never even heard of bed bugs -- I never got them sleeping in my truck -- and then I end up with bites all over my body here,'' he said. "It wasn't pretty. I know I'll get used to the weather again, but when I left the last time, I hated the cold so badly, I wouldn't even put ice in the water I drank.''
Already this month, he spoke to the Mt. Vernon High boys basketball team. The football coach is using him -- and the picture of him in a Mt. Vernon football uniform -- as a way to interest today's basketball players in becoming two-sport athletes like Williams once was. He has spoken with the Mt. Vernon Boys & Girls Club. He is drawing up plans for much-needed renovations for a few different parks in the city, used by the different entities. The Mayor believes that Williams -- with his cache -- can pull all these different factions together.
No one asks him here about living in his car.
"People that I went to school with, so many of them are gone. The drugs and alcohol just chewed them up, sucked the life right out of them,'' he said during a ride through town. "But there still are some good people around. I want to be an asset to this town now, and to the next generation, to make the legacy continue.''
Yet it's more than the job that lured back Williams. His mother, 86, lives in a seniors home a block away from the office, and he visits her daily. His four brothers still live in the Mt. Vernon area. When he played for the Knicks, Williams never lived in New York City. He lived with his mother in Mt. Vernon.
All seemed thrilled that he has returned. He always was the glue that held the family together. His daughters, 18 and 29, live with their mother not far away in New Jersey. He has reconnected with both.
"Dad, can we go shopping?'' is the call he often gets.
Williams may have lost everything he once had, but he came back from Florida with a folder of pictures and memories that he has had for many years, the good times and the bad.
There is Ray in the backyard with his brothers, Ray with his daughters, Ray in high school, Ray with the Knicks dunking on Sidney Moncrief, Ray with a few different girlfriends, Ray during happier times.
He pours over the pictures, explaining each one, letting the memories come flooding back. He smiles. He laughs. He talks about the good times in Mt. Vernon like they were yesterday. It's easy to see why people here like him.
"I had hoped to have everybody to my place for Christmas, but that's not going to happen now. I need a couple more paychecks,'' he said. "We'll probably all just meet at my mom's. It will be a Christmas like I haven't had in quite awhile.''