Canzano: Freeman Williams is gone, but his legend will never die
Former NCAA scoring champion and Portland State great passes away.
Freeman Williams kept his word. He was sitting out front of the pink apartment complex, just like he promised. I pulled up in my rental car and found the former NBA player perched on a short retaining wall wearing a baseball cap, a black Adidas sweatsuit and a smile.
This was 2008 and we were in Inglewood, a few blocks from The Forum. The former first-round NBA draft pick had played a pile of games there against the Lakers. Now, Williams was without a job, had no driver’s license and his last permanent address was a decade old.
There was also the matter of an outstanding warrant from a drug charge eight years earlier. I’d heard Williams was homeless, destitute and down. I made two trips to South Central Los Angeles that spring to find him.
"See, I'm not on the streets,” he said, getting into the car. “I'm doing OK.”
Williams died on Tuesday. He was 65. When I heard the news my heart dropped. I spent an afternoon with the legendary Portland State star in March 2008. We talked, laughed and drove to his old high school.
The custodian at Manual Arts High School saw the 51-year old Williams standing in the doorway of the gymnasium and recognized him immediately. He invited us in, then disappeared into a storage closet and emerged with a basketball. Williams was 50 pounds overweight and hadn’t shot in years. He flipped his baseball cap backward, dribbled once and let the muscles remember.
“They used to call me ‘Silk,’” he said.
“I was born at the wrong time.”
“I didn’t make what the Kobes and Shaqs make. I got crumbs.”
Williams was the best college basketball player in the country for a while. In college at PSU, he scored 81 points in a single game. He posted 71 points and 69 in a couple of other games and did it all without the benefit of a three-point line.
He led the NCAA in scoring his junior and senior seasons and became the No. 8 pick in the the 1978 NBA Draft. During his seven-year career he made an average of $150,000-a-season suiting up for the Clippers, Hawks, Jazz and Bullets.
Later, Williams was paid $20,000 to play the role of an aging playground legend in the motion picture, “White Men Can’t Jump.”
“I blew all the money,” he said. “Every bit of it.”
A group of curious high school kids gathered around to watch him shoot that day in the gym. Williams had an aching back. His legs were stiff. But he didn’t miss. Every stroke, the same. Every shot, true. Then, one of the kids broke the rhythm and asked Williams how many points he scored in college.
Another wanted to see him dunk and said, “You say you played in the NBA, so bang one out.”
“3,249 points,” Williams answered as he continued to shoot, “and I’m too old to dunk.”
Williams still ranks second in NCAA history in career points scored, behind only Pete Maravich (3,667). He also ends up a sobering reminder of what happens after an athlete exits the spotlight without structure. We see a snapshot in time but don’t often think about sports stars as real people with real struggles.
When he retired in 1986 the only job Williams could find was stocking shelves at Safeway in McMinnville. He worked there for four months, then spiraled into the depths of drugs.
"I'm not going to lie about the drugs," he said that day. "It was cocaine. And I'm clean now. I went two or three years in a bad stretch after my parents died, but I never hit rock bottom.
“I never got to the bottom like some people."
Williams told me his last car — a Mercedes — was shot up in a beef over a drug debt. He had no savings. Also, out of desperation Williams said he turned to a payday loan company and signed away part of his NBA pension for a cash advance.
The Freeman Williams I got to know was gentle, skilled and kind. He stood and signed autographs for the kids at his old high school. Also, he beamed when talking about his three daughters. He was eager to reconnect with Portland State, too, hopeful that people still remembered him.
I told him they did.
Freeman Williams is gone now. But his legend lives on. He ranks among the greatest shooters and scorers in NCAA history. A guy so gifted with a basketball that the game never moved too fast for him. But life did, at times.
That’s the hardest part of his story.
Williams turned to me at the end of my visit in 2008 and thanked me for coming to write about him. Before I left, he pulled me close and asked if he could borrow $20. I handed a bill over, telling him there was no need to pay me back.
“Just want to get something to eat,” he explained.
I spoke with Williams a couple of times in the last 14 years. He called into my radio show once and assured me he was doing well. Later, he reached out while doing a media tour for a documentary film titled “Inner City Champions.”
The film told some of his story.
“There’s a bunch of kids who are growing up in broken homes,” Williams said, “I just want them to have peace and know they can get through it.”
Williams died this week. It’s hard not to wonder what could have been for Williams, had his transition out of the NBA been different. Also, it’s impossible to forget how amazing he was on a basketball court.
I wish life after the NBA could have been smoother for the guy with the silky outside shot. I hope his daughters understand how beloved he was in our region. I hope they know that their father’s eyes danced when he spoke of them. Most of all, I hope Freeman Williams found some peace in his final days.
He wanted it for everyone else.
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