Two weeks ago, as Ray Williams was slipping toward death from colon cancer, his former Gophers teammates sent him a highlight reel from his 1976-77 senior season.
“His wife and mom said he watched that thing 24-7 from the time he got it to the time he went into a coma,” former Gophers teammate Flip Saunders said.
Williams, who played two years with the Gophers and 10 seasons in the NBA, fell into a coma midweek and passed away Friday in his home state of New York at age 58. His former Gophers coach, Jim Dutcher, and his teammates believe the 6-3 Williams was the greatest athlete to call Williams Arena home.
The 6-3 wing, said Mychal Thompson, was the “most dynamic player” on a 1976-77 Minnesota team that is generally considered the most talented in school history. Williams earned All-America honors that season, averaging 18 points, 7.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists for a team that finished 24-3, with one overtime loss.
“Ray was as talented as any player who ever came through the University of Minnesota,” Thompson said. “He seemed so ahead of his time, with his physical abilities. He was a 6-3 guard who played like he was 6-9. He had the ball-handling ability of a Derrick Rose and the scoring ability of a Dwyane Wade.”
His athleticism often left people in disbelief of what they’d seen. Osborne Lockhart remembered a dunk at the University of Detroit in which Williams appeared to jump over the head of future NBA player Terry Duerod’s head. Saunders recalled a blocked shot against Marquette in which Williams appeared as if “his whole head was above the rim.”
Williams was recruited for the Gophers by Bill Musselman out of San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, but Musselman left after the 1974-75 season. Jim Dutcher became Williams’ coach, and said he agreed with all those who rank Williams as the best athlete in Gophers basketball history.
“Physically, he was just really strong, he had great jumping ability and excellent vision on the court,” Dutcher said. “There just wasn’t anything Ray could not do physically on a basketball court.”
Or off it, apparently. Lockhart said he introduced Williams to golf, and a year later he was a scratch golfer who once shot a 64.
The 1976-77 team was not allowed to play in the NCAA tournament because of sanctions from penalties incurred under Musselman. That season’s lineup included a pair of ball-handling guards — Lockhart and Saunders — and three superstars: center Thompson, the first overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft; Kevin McHale, the No. 3 overall pick in 1980 and Williams, the No 10 overall pick by the New York Knicks in 1977.
The roster would have had two other longtime NBA frontcourt players, but Mark Olberding left the university in 1975 to play in the ABA and Mark Landsberger transferred that same year to Arizona State.
“Had Olberding stayed, we would have had four No. 1 draft picks on that [1976-77] team,” Dutcher said.
Landsberger was a 1977 second-round pick who played on two NBA championship teams with the Lakers.
Williams averaged 18.9 points as a Gopher — the seventh-highest career average in school history — and a school-record 5.7 assists. During his 10-year NBA career spent with six different teams, Williams averaged 15.5 points and 5.8 assists.
Williams encountered financial problems after his NBA career was over. He declared bankruptcy and for a period was homeless, sleeping in old vehicles in Pompano Beach, Fla., for more than a year.
Dutcher and several former Gophers said part of Williams’ financial problems was that he gave away large sums of his money to family members and friends.
“If you asked him for something, he’d give it to you,” Lockhart said.
The mayor of Mount Vernon, N.Y., Williams’ hometown, hired him as an assistant after media reports of Williams’ homelessness. Dutcher said he lost contact with Williams during the guard’s NBA career, but the two rekindled their relationship in recent years. The coach said he last talked to Williams on Tuesday night.
“Ray knew what his condition was,” Dutcher said. “But Ray was a tough, tough guy.”
And a basketball player who teammates say might not have been fully appreciated for his array of talents.
“He was as good as any guard I played with,” Thompson said. “And I played with Magic Johnson and Clyde Drexler.”