[Entering the 1975 NBA draft, the Atlanta Hawks were a mess on the court, having stumbled badly since unloading their star-attraction Pete Maravich the year before for a trove of draft choices. Worse, wealthy new owners were supposedly en route. But the new owners had second thoughts about finalizing the sale when the NBA Board of Governors hit the Hawks with a belated, but hefty, fine for illegally signing Julius Erving. The new owners rightfully didn’t want to be on the hook for the old regime’s past mistakes.
With the sale up in the air, the Hawks minority-owner and president John Wilcox stuck around a while longer, much to the detriment of the franchise. Wilcox, a tightwad and a gentleman, insisted on scrimping on the contracts of the Hawks’ top 1975 draft choices (the first, third and nineteenth picks). Wilcox believed that million-dollar rookie contracts weren’t right.
Hawks coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, the only person in the front office who knew a pick-and-roll from a picket fence, humored Wilcox but impressed upon him that the Hawks had a historic opportunity to turn around their ailing franchise in the draft. He planned to grab all-everything David Thompson at number one, followed by the promising 7-footer Marvin “the Human Eraser” Webster at number three. At 19, Fitzsimmons would snatch the 6-foot-8 high schooler Bill Willoughby from Englewood, N. J. Willoughby, nicknamed “Poodle,” would need some grooming to master the pro game. But eventually, Poodle would grow up and in the NBA and look great running with top dogs Thompson and Webster.
Fitsimmons grabbed all three in the draft to the cheers of the Hawks faithful, still smarting from the Maravich trade. But to the horror of the Atlanta faithful, Wilcox badly botched the negotiations for Thompson and Webster. Both opted for the ABA Denver Nuggets.
That left Willoughby, whom Fitzsimmons personally landed for the Hawks. Willoughby, in his rookie season with the Hawks, appeared in 62 games, logging 14 minutes per outing and scoring 4.7 points per game on 40 percent shooting from the field. The numbers were modest, but at age 19, Willoughby had the whole world ahead of him.
But the world unexpectedly closed in on him in his second season with the Hawks. Fitzsimmons departed, replaced by the hard-nosed, win-now, no-excuses Hubie Brown. He took a few long glares at Willoughby in training camp and decided the kid had problems. “When Hubie gets down on a player, he stays down on him,” explained John Y. Brown, for whom Brown coached previously with the ABA Kentucky Colonels.
Under Hubie Brown, Willoughby languished. What’s more, because Brown was highly regarded and well-networked, his NBA peers soon believed that the high school kid Willoughby was a bust. He should have gone to college.
For Willoughby, all of the above translated to Brown was a career killer. “My career stopped when Hubie Brown got there,” Willoughby later said.
“I didn’t stop his career, that’s nonsense,” Brown countered. “Does Willoughby ever think that he had anything to do with his downfall? Young people with potential who do not have the total dedication, as well as the necessary mental and physical intensity, have to be shocked before they fully realize that it’s not just athletic potential that keeps you in the league.”
In this profile of Willoughby, published on April 29, 1990 in the Hackensack, N.J. newspaper The Record, the fine reporter Steve Adamek tells the rest of the story. It’s not a fun one to remember, but it does capture well just how precarious an NBA career can be. Here’s the story.]
The glass-strewn, graffiti-scarred basketball courts of MacKay Park in Englewood, N.J. just across the river from New York, teem with activity as the late afternoon sun sets behind the trees at the time of day a young man’s thoughts turn to love. At one end of one court, a spirited three-on-three game is in progress. At the other end, a mother and father are teaching their toddler to play.
And, at center court, a group of about a dozen is playing craps when someone walks up and asks a question: Anyone know Bill Willoughby?
“Yeah,” says one player in a black sweatsuit and black ski cap, standing up and leaving the dice for someone else. “You mean the washed-up has-been?”
A television set plays in the kitchen of Bill Willoughby’s parents’ house one weekday afternoon. But no one watches it.
Instead, Willoughby—former All-American at Englewood’s Dwight Morrow High School, the third and last player to leap to professional basketball from high school, and, at 18, the youngest player in the sport’s modern history when he joined the Atlanta Hawks in 1975—sits on a couch in the living room, “playing” basketball, running a fastbreak with his words.
“If they don’t run plays for you, if they don’t get you the ball, you’re not going to be a top scorer,” he says. “[So] you’ve got to hit the offensive boards, you’ve got to get in the break, you’ve got to make your free throws.
“Del Harris [the ex-Houston coach] and Jerry West [the Lakers’ general manager] told me [that], and ever since that day, I said, ‘I can do this as good as anybody.’ I can be a Dennis Rodman, I’d be a Michael Cooper, I’ll come in and stop George Gervin for a quarter, or Larry Bird. Then I’ll get out on the break, hope somebody throws me an alley oop, and I’ll be psyched, I’ll be pumped.
“Just to get 10 [points], [no matter] how I got it, I’ll be pumped. We win the game, I don’t have to worry about the press around me, they’d be around (former Houston teammates) Moses [Malone], Robert Reid. I get my 10, I put on my clothes, I go home, I’m happy. I don’t have to say, ‘I got 30, how was this, how was that?’
“I didn’t want that. I just wanted to play 10, 12 years, go out, and people would say, ‘Yeah, nice move you made. You were a good player.’ That was fulfilling for me.”
By the time he is done, Willoughby is at the edge of the couch. He is psyched. He is pumped.
He is also behind closed doors, playing one-on-none.
Willoughby lives back home again, in his parents’ Englewood Avenue house, where he grew up. MacKay Park, where he honed his basketball skills, is a mile or so down the road.
The house he once bought in Montvale, N.J. with money from his first contract, $1.1 million over five years from the Hawks, is gone. A condominium he once shared in Houston is gone. A Mercedes-Benz sits in the driveway, but the money with which he thought he’d live the rest of his life may not be there at all.
Willoughby and his former agents, Jerry Davis and Lewis Schaffel, are embroiled in a legal dispute over the money he earned during his eight seasons in the National Basketball Association. A judge has already turn out charges Davis filed against Willoughby’s parents, for money Davis claimed they owed him, leaving just one charge pending against Willoughby. <<
Willoughby is countersuing for more than a half-million dollars, saying Davis and Schaffel, former chief operating officer of the Nets and now managing partner of the Miami Heat, spent his money without his permission and did not represent him properly.
“He’ll always have a roof over his head,” says his father Bill Sr. “He’ll always have food on the table. He’ll always have a car.”
What his son wants, though, is peace of mind. Until he gets it, he has locked himself in a self-imposed solitary confinement. “I’m just trying to stay out of sight,” he says. “I’m embarrassed by the whole situation. People used to tell me I’m not playing, not doing this . . . I’m just glad to have my mind right.”
He does not have a job, nor has he had one since he last played professional basketball, with Topeka of the Continental Basketball Association in 1986. Most of his days consist of working out at Fairleigh Dickinson University, calling or visiting friends out of town, calling other agents who he says can help him play once again, and watching as much sports as he can on television, keeping statistics as he watches.
He turns 33 on May 20. Of the 324 players who made the NBA’s 27 opening-day rosters, 26 were older than Willoughby and seven more were born in the same year he was, 1957.
Willoughby, though, has not played in the NBA since the 1983-84 season, when he was with the Nets, his sixth team. He played for seven head coaches. He never averaged as many as eight points or five rebounds per game. He even sat out a season, 1978-79, what would have been his senior season at the University of Kentucky, with which he signed before turning pro.
In 1985, he walked out of a Nets summer league game. Then in 1986, he quit the CBA after two months because he hurt his back. For all intents and purposes, he has not been heard from since.
“He’s 32 years old, and he’s been out of it for years,” says Cotton Fitzsimmons, who coached him in Atlanta and Buffalo. “Isn’t that a crime?”
Success, Willoughby says, is “having a career, and being happy, and never changing.” Based on those criteria, Bill Willoughby says he’s a failure.
You have to get in line to criticize Willoughby, and at the head of that line is almost certainly Hubie Brown. Brown, the former Fair Lawn (N.J.) High and Knicks coach who was Willoughby’s second coach in Atlanta after Fitzsimmons, declined to comment about Willoughby. “I’d rather pass on him,” he said.
You also have to get in line to get in Brown’s doghouse, but Willoughby—who calls him “the worst man I’ve ever seen in my life”—spent the balance of his season with Brown in Atlanta, his second in the NBA, at the front of that line. In one stretch, Brown did not play him for 39 straight games.
“He comes up very short from both a mental toughness and physical toughness approach,” Brown said during that season, 1976-77, when Willoughby was 19.
Little did Willoughby know he would wear that reputation like an albatross the rest of his professional career. “He had a lot of potential as a player,” says Del Harris, for whom Willoughby had his best seasons (1980-82) when both men were in Houston. “He had really good physical talents, he could shoot the ball, pass, he could really jump, and he could really run. His biggest weakness was he would not run the court. He could have been a really good player, but he would not run the court.”
“He was a disappointment to me, attitude-wise,” says Fitzsimmons. “He wanted to play right now, but he wasn’t ready to play yet. Instead of being an upbeat, positive guy, he was more of an introvert.”
Harris tells this story about a team meeting during the middle of a winning streak at which Willoughby got up to make a statement. “Bill gets up and he says, ‘I have something to say,’ so I knew this was important. He said, ‘You want me to run the court, you want me to rebound, you want me to guard the best player on the other team every night. I’m not doing that until I get 15 shots a game.’
“I knew where that came from.”
It came from Willoughby’s agent, Davis, who Harris says kept writing “letters of complaint” to Rockets general manager Ray Patterson about Willoughby’s playing time. Davis denies doing such a thing, although he did say, “Maybe it just came up once in a conversation.”
Davis, however, may be near the front of the line when it comes to criticizing Willoughby. Remember, though, he has a lawsuit pending against Willoughby. “People really disliked him—coaches, personnel guys,” Davis says. “When I called about him, I’d get a flat no. No coach he ever played for wanted him back. I used the analogy that I was trying to convince someone that cancer was good for them.”
“That’s pretty strong,” Fitzsimmons says, “but I’ll say this: I gave him two shots, I would not give him three.”
Trouble with agents, trouble with coaches, trouble with people to whom he gave his trust has accompanied Willoughby throughout his basketball career like a persistent little sister. Who caused those troubles depends on whom you talk to, but they began at Morrow High, where almost everyone knew him as “Poodle,” a nickname hung on him as a child by one of his two sisters, who thought he was hairy.
There, he became Bergen County’s second-leading all-time scorer behind East Rutherford’s Les Cason and was recruited by practically every major college program in the nation. Two people shielded him from all that attention: his coach, Bob White, and White’s friend, Chuck Kauffman, who became Willoughby’s first agent.
“I never really got to talk to college coaches,” Willoughby says. “They would just come to the gym and say, ‘We want you.’ White and Kauffman would tell me, “You just do your work and play ball,” Willoughby says.
White and Willoughby were close during their days at Morrow, and their relationship was positive at first. Eventually that changed as Kauffman became more involved in Willoughby’s future.
White and Kauffman monitored not only the college offers, but also the professional operations. Moses Malone had joined the American Basketball Association’s Utah Stars out of high school the previous season. Darryl Dawkins of Orlando, Fla., was considering making the same jump, and NBA scouts began showing up at Willoughby’s games.
His parents, meanwhile, left the decision up to him. Bill Sr. and Burnette Willoughby, say today they wanted their son to go to college, especially Burnette. White and Kauffman, though, apparently had other ideas. “There was very definitely something going on,” says Joe B. Hall, the former head coach at Kentucky, who signed Willoughby to a national letter of intent. “Of course, he was encouraged to turn professional.”
Willoughby, however, wasn’t satisfied with Kauffman. “He kept saying, ‘ABA, ABA,’” says Willoughby, who wanted to play in the NBA.
So, he checked with other agents and eventually signed with All-Pro Sports, Inc., specifically, Schaffel and Davis.
Willoughby got his NBA contract—five years, $500,000, plus a $600,000 bonus from the Hawks—but the matter of his agent also ended up in court. White, meanwhile, left Morrow the next year and also left some hard feelings behind.
“[White] was, like, doing illegal stuff, and I didn’t know nothing about it, and Willoughby didn’t know nothing about it,” says John Monroe, Willoughby’s best friend and a point guard in high school. “He would tell the coaches [they] can’t have Willoughby unless he had me, or he wanted money.”
“He was about money,” Willoughby says of White. “This man had everything. He had an El Dorado, 300 suits, he had women . . . He was just interested in me because of the money.”
White, who coached the East High School boys team in Columbus, Ohio, to a 3-16 record this season, his first at the school, failed to return several phone messages left at the school and his home.
Once in the NBA, Willoughby’s troublesome allegiances did not end. First, there was Brown in Atlanta. Traded to Buffalo after two seasons, he began hanging around Marvin Barnes, who earned the nickname “Bad News” for, among other things, hitting a college teammate with a tire iron. Nate Archibald, a teammate at the time, thought getting anywhere near Barnes was a mistake.
Willoughby now admits that alliance hurt him; he said he was only trying to help Barnes. Yet while in Buffalo, Willoughby also criticized teammate John Shumate for lack of hustle and complained about Gus Gerard getting playing time he thought he deserved.
Cut during the next season’s training camp after the Buffalo franchise moved to San Diego, Willoughby walked away from a Continental Basketball Association tryout because he didn’t think it would do any good. He spent a season in limbo in San Diego, working out.
Then came Houston—which did not resign him after two seasons—then Cleveland, and San Antonio, and the Nets. He was released by each team. Davis, Willoughby contends, did not look out for his best interests, hooking him up with coaching clients for less money, rather than seeking a better offer somewhere else.
Given one last chance with the Nets’ 1985 summer league team, he walked away before the end of a game, unhappy with his playing time. “I said, ‘I’m a man. I came here to play. I’m through with mind games’” he says.
After two months in the CBA the next season, Willoughby’s professional basketball career was over. He was 29. “Bill just got tied up with the wrong people from the giddyup,” says his father. “People who he thought were in his corner, weren’t.”
“Willoughby was one of those players who was young, naïve, and got caught in a bad shuffle,” says Archibald.
“You really had to earn his trust,” says Carroll Dawson, an assistant at Houston since Willoughby’s playing days. “I don’t think he ever really trusted people.”
Even Bruce Harper, the former [New York football] Jet who preceded Willoughby at Morrow High by two years, noticed that. He and Willoughby used to get together on occasion when both were playing professionally to discuss their common experiences, yet Harper said he never could get a read on Willoughby. “I wonder who he confided in,” Harper says. “I wonder if he confided in anybody.”
“I’m happy,” Willoughby says, “but I don’t smile a lot. Everything is myself. I don’t have nobody else to talk with. I have friends, but they’re on the outside. All they can tell you is, ‘You’re good, and as long as you feel that way, you’re OK.’”
Sometimes, Willoughby feels so good, he talks about playing again. He’s even gotten feelers from Europe, even an offer to participate in an NBA team’s camp for rookies and free agents, and may play this summer in the United States Basketball League, he says. He’s going to do it, he says. It’s going to happen.
“I’m going to play three more years,” he says. “I’m going to play three more years. As long as I know nobody else has something on me . . .”
Sometimes, though, Willoughby doesn’t feel so good, especially when he thinks someone has something on him, whrn he thinks about his legal troubles. He will not go back to play, he says, until they are all cleared up. They could be by his next court date, June 25.
“It’s the love of the game. I don’t love it right now,” he says. “It’s just all in my head. It’s clouded. When I love the game like I’m supposed to . . .”
The love of the game, the running, the jumping, the satisfaction of making a great move, that’s all Willoughby ever asked from basketball. Nine years ago, playing for Houston in game one of the 1981 playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers, he blocked a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook. Talk to almost anyone about Bill Willoughby, and they talk about that play. It remains his finest moment.
That’s all he wanted out of basketball, such moments. “The game is just a game,” he says. “Just three hours. After the game, if I scored just two points, if someone says, ‘Nice move,’ that’s what it is.”
Today, though, basketball is not a game. He thought someone would give him a fair chance in the NBA. He now sits at home believing he didn’t get that chance. He thought basketball was the means to a secure future. He now sits at home wondering what that future will bring.
He is 6-foot-8, but he says he’d just as soon give those eight inches back. He is Bill Willoughby, who played eight seasons of professional basketball and earned more than $1 million, but at times he’d rather be a guy named Jones, going to work every day and living his life.
“I want (people) to know me for me,” he says. “All they know is, ‘Bill Willoughby, he played ball out of high school, he blocked Kareem’s shot.’ I’m saying I’m a good person inside. I’ve let everybody run my life for me. I’m not bitter. I’m not a bad person.
“I’ve helped my family, but I still have what I had when I was 18. All I want is security. I’ll go out and work for whatever, as long as nobody keeps saying, ‘You could have been Magic Johnson.’”
Yet Willoughby also thinks he could have been Magic Johnson. “If they would have let me, I could have been as good as him,” he says.
“They could have said, ‘I should have done this, I should have gone to college,’ but I could have gotten hurt,” he says. “I could have scored 30 points in college, and not made it. I knew I could play pro. I was 6-foot-8. I could dribble like a guard. But they didn’t respect my ability.”
Malt liquor flows freely from 16-ounce cans as a five-on-five game breaks up at MacKay Park. Someone asked them: Anyone know Bill Willoughby?
Yeah, almost all of them say, “You mean ‘Poodle,’” says one.
“I have the ultimate respect for him,” another says. “The guy came out of high school, he signed for a million dollars, he played eight years . . . He’s bad.”
Two other players, though, not part of the game, sit on a bike rack just beyond one end of the same court, bouncing a basketball. Someone asked them: Anyone know Bill Willoughby?
“Bill Willoughby?” one asks out loud.
“Bill Willoughby?” the other asks, too.
“Bill Willoughby?” They go back and forth. “Bill Willoughby?”
From the newspaper The Record in Hackensack on July 7, 1990: “In a court of law, former Englewood High School star Bill Willoughby, Jr. has found the success that eluded him on the courts of pro basketball. After a two-week trial, a jury in Superior Court in Hackensack ruled Friday that Willoughby’s agent of 10 years mismanaged his money, and awarded him compensation and damages worth $1.1 million.
The decision was all the sweeter to Willoughby because his agent Jerry A. Davis of New York, started the lawsuit in 1986 by claiming that Willoughby had cheated Davis of $155,812 he had advanced against his salary.
It may be some time before Willoughby sees any of the money the jury says is due him. Davis’ lawyer said he will ask Superior Court Judge Sybil R. Moses, who heard the case, to overturn the verdict. If that doesn’t work, Davis will probably appeal.