That John “Hot Rod” Williams was at Tulane on Friday seemed to make for an incongruous picture — especially when he was standing on the basketball court at the school’s Hertz Center practice facility.
Williams was a central figure in a point-shaving scandal that rocked the Tulane men’s basketball program, bringing it a self-imposed “death penalty.” But he was found not guilty of all five charges related to sports bribery and conspiracy and went on to a successful career in the NBA.
Since his professional career ended in 1999, Williams has been involved in youth basketball, often lending his time to camps and clinics. That’s what brought the former St. Amant High standout to Tulane on Friday as he participated in the NBA Cares Youth Basketball and Mentoring event, along with New Orleanians and fellow former NBA players Donald Royal, Eldridge Recasner and Robert Pack.
“I’ve been back to Tulane many times,” said Williams, who played for the Green Wave from 1981-85. “I don’t have anything against Tulane. Tulane was good to me. I’ve been in touch with coaches and people in the athletic department.”
Things are different from the Tulane side of things, although Williams is welcomed back whenever he chooses. He remains the school’s career leader in blocked shots (192), is fourth in points (1,841) — he was second when he left — and is sixth in rebounds (809). He was on the All-Metro Conference first team three times and was its Player of the Year in 1984.
“One thing I can’t understand is why my jersey (No. 54) still hasn’t been retired, all I did on the court here,” Williams said. “I was never found guilty of doing anything wrong.”
A Tulane spokesperson confirmed that Williams is not in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame nor has his number been retired, because of his perceived connection to a lurid era in the program’s history — whether he was guilty or not.
But there he was, teaching low-post moves to pupils who would think of 1985 as ancient times. And Williams, known for his friendly personality, was all smiles.
The event — “Full-court Press: Prep for Success” — was started by the National Basketball Retired Players Association and is in its third year. NBA Cares took it under its umbrella for the first time this season. It makes stops in 10 to 15 cities annually. New Orleans is the third stop this year, after Salt Lake City and Detroit. About 80 children were on hand.
The event had four components: sessions in mentoring, career awareness, life skills and basketball. Thirty-five minutes were spent in each area. Keith Plessy — a descendant of Homer Plessy, whose lawsuit Plessy vs. Ferguson resulted in more than a half-century of the separate but equal doctrine — mentored on history and the importance of taking advantage of rights now afforded. The Leadership Foundation’s Wil McCall then led a discussion.
After putting campers through shooting drills, Recasner addressed another group on rising above their environment.
“Getting a basketball scholarship to Washington changed my life,” said Recasner, a former Lawless High School standout who played eight years in the NBA and is now a real estate investor in the Seattle area who also runs a basketball academy. “I told them the importance of using basketball to get an education and working hard toward goals and having a dream.”
New Orleans City Council member Susan Guidry, working with the Leadership Foundation’s Robert Triggs, addressed a group in life skills on respecting authority. She said she was afraid of police officers when she was young because she thought they would to something bad to her.
“I realized that’s prejudice,” she told the youths. “No group of people are all the same.”
The former players had done many camps in the past during their NBA careers, but Royal said being 50-ish and retired provided a different perspective.
“For us to try to come out here and give these kids some life skills is something I think this city needs,” said Royal, who played on St. Augustine’s 35-0 team in 1983, graduated from Notre Dame and went on to play 11 years in the NBA.
The biggest lessons may have begun before Friday. NBRPA president and CEO Arnie Fielkow took a busload of children to Selma, Alabama, on Wednesday. There, they visited important venues in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.
“We went to the Pettus Bridge going towards Montgomery, and then we stopped the bus, and they all came out,” Fielkow said. “Some of them walked toward the bridge to take pictures, and the others took this big sign they had about Selma. It was pretty special.”