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Mountain Home Magazine

The Legend of Fly Williams

Mar 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By David Higgins

The bus ride from NYC back in 1971 was a long and grueling one. Liberty, Roscoe, Binghamton, Elmira. Then a place called “Horseheads”—Horseheads! And a little north of that, a glimpse of a waterfall. A waterfall! The brothers back in the projects were not gonna believe this. And here, finally, was Jimmie’s destination—a place called Watkins Glen, specifically, Glen Springs Academy, a school in need of basketball players. He uncoiled his lanky frame—the seats were designed for midgets—and stared hard out the window. It looked like Mayberry RFD. Some nice homes, some not-so-nice homes, a gas station. Something called Curly’s. And then some teenage girls with bell-bottoms and clouds of blonde hair. Maybe this would be okay after all.

James Williams Jr. was born into poverty in 1953 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the youngest of six. His father bailed when he was just a toddler. His mother worked long hours for low pay, and his babysitter was essentially the street. Young Jimmie was gangly and mischievous, a natural entertainer and class clown: “I was a troubled kid. I stayed in trouble. My middle name was trouble!”

Yet Jimmie also happened to possess unearthly basketball talent. That mattered a lot, for Brownsville, despite (or perhaps because of) its poverty and decay, was the breeding ground for some of the best basketball players on the planet. All you needed was a ball, a basket, and (often) a broom to sweep the glass and syringes off the court.

Over the years Jimmie has given different origin stories for his nickname, Fly. According to one, “I got my name from the way I dress, the ladies that travel with me, and then my game got fly…Clyde (Walt Frazier) had Clyde, and I was Fly. I was Fly before Curtis Mayfield was Super Fly.”

“Even in childhood, we knew he’d be good,” says Ronald Jones, a boyhood friend. Fly was tall (eventually six-five), he could shoot, he could slash to the hoop, and he had the hyper-competitive instinct that is the requisite for greatness. He was especially suited for rugged, freewheeling “streetball”—fouls are never called, losers sit, and dunking is not only legal but celebrated. From age thirteen onward, his reputation grew for his whirlybird slams, fancy dribbling, quicksilver fakes, and hilarious trash-talking. “Fly” graffiti started to appear in Brownsville and spread across the borough. He honed his skills at Rucker and The Hole; he played against all-city playground legends like Earl “the Goat” Manigault, future NBA All-Star World B. Free, and even Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving. He eventually was listed as the number two athlete on the “50 Greatest Streetballers of All Time” (behind only Manigault) by the Street Basketball Association.

Yet as his cockiness ripened into overconfidence, he was floundering. Fly starred on the basketball team at James Madison High School, but was notorious for childish antics and sudden rages. Eventually, he flunked out—he simply stopped attending. He found himself getting pulled into the life on the street, and he was shaping up to be a sad yet familiar story in the projects: a superior talent destined to disappoint.

Hang On, Help Is On Its Way

Then, in autumn 1971, a talent scout and family friend saw a small ad in the New York Times for a new boarding school, way upstate, with a philosophy that could help transform an immature know-it-all. It was called Glen Springs Academy. It could relocate Fly away from temptation and he could dream of a college scholarship if he applied himself. It had a small gym where he could maintain his skills, and perhaps other talented kids might even follow him up from the city and form a team. Fly’s mom footed the tuition. Even to this day, he is deeply thankful for what came next.

Glen Springs was a magnificent 300-acre property in Watkins Glen, high on the western ridge above Seneca Lake, just a half mile from the famous rock formations and waterfalls that lure over a million tourists every year. The sprawling, colonnaded mansion was three stories tall, and its adjacent springs contained some of the purest water on earth. Described as “the Saratoga Springs of the Finger Lakes,” it originally opened as a health resort, and attracted the A-listers of the day—Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt—but closed after World War II. In the 1950s it became an esteemed Catholic high school, St. Anthony of Padua, but that, too, fell victim to changing priorities.

In the early 1970s, reflecting the post-Woodstock spirit of the times, a reformist educator—founder Marcell Rosno—created a new type of high school on the property. The brochure promised: “Glen Springs Academy. A new, exciting venture in secondary education. Small classes, seminars, stimulating faculty. Students work as well as study. Sports program.”

And GSA delivered. Says basketball scholarship student Fred Lee, “In New York, teaching is just a job, nobody cares about how you’re doing or whether you even come to class. It’s different up here. The teachers are real friendly and we know we can go to them with our problems…in New York I had a D average but here I get Bs.” Though some sneered that the prep school was merely an “academic rehab clinic,” schoolwork always came first. A trawl through Facebook proves that many GSA grads, including student-athletes, did indeed go on to have prosperous and fruitful lives.

Fly and his compatriots loved the small-town vibe and the beauty of the Finger Lakes countryside; it was exotic for street kids who had never even seen the Milky Way due to the smog and light pollution in the projects. And many of the people (including the local “honeys”) loved those tall, alien-looking black kids right back. “It was a great experience living in Watkins Glen,” said Fly’s roommate Craig Smoak, now a Mercedes dealer in San Antonio; “the people were always very warm and friendly to us.” Assistant Coach John Pulos remembers, “the gym was open every night, and the local boys would come up and play pick-up games with Fly, Craig, Fred, and the rest. We played EFA [Elmira Free Academy] and Southside—and buried both of them—yet many of their players remain friends to this day.”

Headmaster Rosno justified the school’s laid-back, progressive philosophy to the New York Times: “One thing about kids from Brooklyn, they’re more aware. Why should they waste time fighting the establishment? When it’s time to study, they know it’s time to study.” Yet Fly was ever irrepressible; once he risked a dangerous fall to lasso a six-pack of beer that was cooling on a window ledge outside a teacher’s dorm room. “He denied doing it,” remembers John. “But we didn’t even have to ask. We knew nobody else could have done it!”

The Glen Springs team proved to be even better than coaches Dan Rosenfield and John had hoped. They quickly gained a name for their high-octane, street-savvy type of ball, described in a local paper as “Globetrotterish.” Fly was the star—he was named first team all-state, averaging thirty-four points and nineteen rebounds—but his supporting cast was also top-notch. Home games were often moved from the little hilltop gym to larger venues.

Local hoop fans will never forget an epic clash at EFA in January 1972. EFA, too, had a powerful team—and a number fifteen statewide ranking. The crowd was large, rowdy, and expecting a show. They got one: two minutes in, a brawl was on. According to Fly’s teammate, Horseheads native Jon Keagle, “Fly pump-faked one of the opposing players so far out of his jock that his buddies sitting on the bench thought that he had hit him in the face with the ball. Fly didn’t; he was just having fun, but the bench cleared and the gym turned into a riot.”

Fly vaulted onto the scorer’s table, swinging a folding chair around his head and doing his crazy-man schtick, but was restrained by his coaches and teammates. Order was restored, and Glen Springs won 118-90 behind his thirty-two points. When the GSA squad emerged to catch the bus home, there was a small group of kids waiting patiently in the cold for Fly’s autograph.

Another memorable game came weeks later against top rival St. Thomas More School of Connecticut, generally considered to be the best prep team in the whole nation. They’d beaten GSA by fifteen points a month earlier. It was a de facto championship game, held at Corning Community College in order to accommodate the expected crowd. “Both bleachers were filled to capacity and then some,” recalls CCC Athletic Director Neil Bulkley. “The gym held standing room only—all told, a minimum of 2,800 to 3,000 spectators. Thankfully, the fire department was none the wiser, or they would have shut us down!” GSA beat STM 78-72 in double overtime, featuring what a local paper called “some of the most fantastically accurate shooting you’ll ever see in high school basketball.” It was sweet revenge for GSA, and the tiny academy was crowned the Northeastern Prep School Champion, no mean feat for a school in its infancy.

Graduation, College, and Back to Brooklyn

Fly was ignored by all college recruiters—save one. Leonard Hamilton was a young assistant at a little-known Tennessee university named for a former governor—Austin Peay (rhymes with “pee”). Leonard, who as a black coach was a rarity in 1972, made many trips to Watkins to recruit Fly. They would always go to Chef’s Diner (a beloved eatery, still there on Route 14), and Leonard’s patience and obvious basketball acumen won out. (He would one day ascend to the elite college and professional coaching ranks, where he is well known to this day.)

Later that spring, Fly graduated; he did surprisingly well, and never missed a class. He had kept his end of the bargain. He left Norman Rockwell country and went home to the rubble-strewn Brooklyn playgrounds to play hoops, party, and dream of college glory in Tennessee.

In a twist of fate, a young Sports Illustrated photojournalist named Rick Telander showed up in the Brownsville projects that summer to document the street game, and Fly emerged as the main character in Heaven Is a Playground, published in 1976. It was described by no less than Barack Obama as “the best basketball book I’ve ever read.” (It’s available on Amazon and definitely lives up to the hype.)

“(Fly Williams) was out on the edge,” Rick now says. “He was missing a bunch of teeth, had a gigantic afro with a pick in it, and he was so skinny. He was manic, hilarious, and over the top. At the same time, you could tell there was a lot of pain there.” Fly was generous and funny one moment, and an obnoxious jerk the next. Yet the younger kids followed him around like puppies, imitating his swagger and his style.

Fly was a surprise sensation in sleepy little Clarksville, home of Austin Peay. Fans would line up for hours to get tickets. He lit up the Ohio Valley Conference for two seasons with his pedal to the metal approach, but often frustrated his coaches and teammates alike with his antics, which ranged from harmless to borderline destructive. The only time his mother came to see him play, he was ejected from the game for a flagrant foul. Still, he averaged a freshman national-record 29.4 points and led unheralded Peay to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament. He also inspired the nuttiest crowd chant in basketball history: “The Fly is open, let’s go Peay!”

As a sophomore, Williams had another excellent year in which he made third team All-American. Meanwhile, APU began building a state-of-the-art gym to showcase their wunderkind for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, due to a harshly enforced quirk in conference eligibility rules, Fly lost his scholarship and went back to Brownsville, flustered and confused. Worse still, he received some shady advice from a minor Brooklyn politico and subsequently screwed up a shot at the NBA hardship draft and the riches it portended. It didn’t help that he had gained a reputation as a “head case”—a selfish and moody player who was a coach’s worst nightmare.

On to St. Louis

Still, he was too good a talent to be ignored, and was signed in 1974 by the Spirits of St. Louis of the American Basketball Association, a rival league of the NBA known for its wild-west atmosphere, its three-point goals, and its distinctive red, white, and blue ball. (And, unlike the plodding and regimented NBA, dunking was legal!) Fly was promised $250,000, but through management tactics he effectively earned only $35,000. However, for a kid who grew up so poor that he had lost half his teeth due to bad nutrition, that was a fortune. Alas, that cash eventually funded some very bad habits.

The Spirits were a cluster of young misfits with amazing talent yet no idea of teamwork. Fly became a sidekick for the team’s infamous mega-star, the aptly-monikered Marvin “Bad News” Barnes. Unfortunately, Fly’s moral compass was underdeveloped, and Marvin was the worst possible influence. These were the days of funky music, shady ladies, and cocaine, and the two roommates indulged to the fullest.

On the court, Fly showed flashes of brilliance for the Spirits. “I think the first game, Fly came off the bench and scored twenty-four points. We didn’t draw huge crowds, but the 5,000 people that were there went nuts,” says now-legendary sportscaster Bob Costas, who was just beginning his career as the Spirits’ play-by-play man. “He was an immediate crowd favorite.” Fly, always up for a laugh, chaffed Bob mercilessly, calling him “little Bob.” Fly says, “I teased Bob, but I loved Bob. I’d love to see him today. He was a riot in those days.”

With “FLY” lettered on the back of his jersey, he buried acrobatic bombs and dunked from the foul line; in his intensity and creativity, he was integrating the street ethos into the pro game. “Fly was a fantastic offensive threat. He was a warrior. He was a gladiator,” recalls Marvin. But there were too many negatives: his indifferent defense, his ball-hogging, and his hair-trigger temper. By the end of the season, he was riding the bench and had a disappointing 9.4 points-per-game scoring average. That was his first and only season in the big leagues; when the Spirits brought in a no-nonsense new coach, Rod Thorn, Fly was released. The team owner’s daughter cried when he was cut. It was a demoralizing blow for a twenty-two-year-old with an ego as big as his Afro.

He remained close to the team, but for the worst possible reason. In the ESPN documentary Free Spirits, Fly said, “I was cut by the team but I still stayed in the city. Flew back and forth from New York to St. Louis. Sometimes Marvin used to put me on the plane. You know, ’cause they needed their candy. I was their drug guy—I knew the dealers in every city. They put their orders through me.”

Fly’s waning hopes to return to the big leagues were crushed when the Spirits were left out of a merger agreement with the NBA and the team folded permanently. He had several NBA tryouts with the likes of the Buffalo Braves, but his bad reputation made him not worth the risk. He found himself back in Brooklyn, still a local legend, but now playing sporadically for a handful of semipro teams, including stops as far away as Israel and Anchorage, Alaska. With the Jersey Shore Bullets, at perhaps his lowest point, he wrestled Victor the Bear at halftime to pick up a paltry $250. “Victor was 8-feet, 11-inches,” Fly recalls. “I lost.” (Thankfully, Victor was drugged, wore a muzzle, and had been declawed.)

But Fly was incorrigibly Fly, and after he lost his temper one too many times and socked a referee, even the minor leagues didn’t want him. Suddenly, his career was firmly and finally over. And there was worse to come.

The Street Takes Over

“I think [Fly] never made it for the simple reason that he was undisciplined,” says Ronald. “He always had problems with authority on teams—coaches and things. And he got involved in the street life at the same time. Once he wasn’t playing anymore, the street life just took over.” Washed up, not yet thirty, “wandering the neighborhood and getting high,” as he recalls, Fly sank into despondency. He crossed the point of no return when he segued from drug using into drug dealing.

“I got a taste of that money and I didn’t know how to live no more unless I had that type of money. So what was left for me was the streets,” he says. Old friends like World B. Free and Dr. J could not help him. Mike Tyson came by to meet his boyhood idol, but Fly was too high and too paranoid to receive him. In 1987, he almost died after being blasted with a shotgun after a deal gone wrong. The explosion set his leather jacket on fire; he lost a lung and a kidney. He still carries lead pellets in his body. After a miraculous but painful recovery (one that included a vision of a demon dragging him to hell), he served two brief stints in Attica for attempted robbery and drug possession. In prison, Fly was relieved to learn that due to his streetball fame, even the hardest convicts treated him with deference and respect.

However, in yet another twist of fate, the book Heaven Is a Playground grew greatly in stature over the years and helped to refurbish Fly’s reputation. A film of it was made in 1991, with a main character loosely based on Fly. The producers courted Michael Jordan for the role, but by the start of filming he had ascended to worldwide fame and was unaffordable. The role went to a relative unknown. An even bigger book, Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association, by Terry Pluto, devoted significant ink to the zany escapades of Fly and the Spirits, with one chapter headlined “A Brief Excursion into Fly-land.”

Fly received a bit of redemption in his fifties when he was hired in 2010 as a part-time motivational speaker, urging Brooklyn kids not to repeat his mistakes. “I’ve had a hell of an experience,” said Fly at the time. “I’m putting the negatives behind me now. I’m trying to give something positive to kids, maybe tell them my story. Maybe they can learn from it.” Austin Peay University retired his number with a moving halftime ceremony. He made a cameo appearance in LeBron James’s first Nike commercial. The Brooklyn Nets recognized Fly for his charity work with an “Ordinary People doing Extraordinary Things Award” during a game. And he even made the cover of Sports Illustrated in October 2012 in a roundabout way—as part of a background mural honoring him and three other Brooklyn legends: Jay-Z, Dr. J, and Jackie Robinson.

If life was like the Hallmark Channel, the story would end here, on a note of grace. But once again, he threw the whole thing away. In 2017 he was arrested as the kingpin of a $20 million drug bust called “Operation Flying High.” Fly had been peddling drugs (in false-bottomed Pringles cans, of all things) to the same kids that he had been mentoring just a few years earlier.

His mugshot looks like a dog chewed him up and spit him out. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten more years in the Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica. A district attorney said, “That someone with his stature with his influence on young people would run such a substantial narcotics operation is truly sad and reprehensible.”

These Days…

James Williams Jr. was paroled in January 2023 and is back living with his daughter in Brooklyn. In a recent YouTube interview (January 2024), he is alternately rueful and evasive: “I was a hustler, but never a killer.” He is seventy years old, and still incorrigibly Fly.

And what of Glen Springs Academy? It closed in the fall of 1974 due to low enrollment (never more than sixty to eighty students) and inadequate funding (some promised grants failed to materialize). Its innovative educational philosophy was too far ahead of its time. Thankfully, the former teachers all did well in other pursuits; among them, coach and math teacher John Pulos now works in the tasting room at Wagner Vineyards and is a gracious and informative host. The property gradually deteriorated, a victim of vandalism, petty arson, and insurance premiums. It was demolished in 1996. One building remains: the little art-deco gymnasium where Fly and his brothers honed their skills, knowing that basketball was their only chance to escape to a better life. Many made it. One didn’t.

On a late winter day, the view from atop the western side of Seneca Lake is—not a cliché—breathtaking. The overgrown gym still looks sturdy despite the flotsam scattered around it. The wind stirs the tall spruce trees, and it seems stranger than fiction that this, of all places, was once the home court of one of basketball’s most memorable characters.

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