[Yesterday, From Way Downtown ran an article from former NBA star Tom Meschery singing the praises of Lenny Wilkens, including his uncanny ability as a coach to connect with players and bring out their best. Meschery mentioned in particular guard Gus Williams, and this article threshes out a little more how Wilkens helped him along his way to NBA stardom.
The article, written by reporter Steve Kelley of the Oregonian, ran in the January 1981 issue of Basketball Digest. That was the year that Williams held out in a sticky contract dispute, and it’s mentioned at the end of the story. Williams, of course, resigned the next season and never looked better.
Kelley’s story singles out former Seattle and Golden State GM Dick Vertlieb as Williams’ biggest NBA booster. What Kelley doesn’t mention is Vertlieb and Williams are University of Southern California alums. Back in those heady days of John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins, crosstown rival USC didn’t have players of Williams’ ilk pass through the program. That likely explains a lot, and good for Vertlieb for sticking with his fellow Trojan.]
Watching Gus Williams—as he glides past all of the slower guards, as he challenges all of the behemoth centers, as he stops to shoot his net-shredding jumpers over everyone—it seems implausible that almost three years ago he was desperately searching for a job.
But respect has always come grudgingly to the Seattle SuperSonics’ super-quick guard. After a stellar college career at USC, Williams convinced almost no one that he was a bona fide pro prospect. He was bypassed in the first round of the 1975 college draft and finally chosen in the second round by the Golden State Warriors.
The list of players chosen ahead of Williams in the draft included Frank Oleynick (Seattle), Bob Bigelow (Kansas City), Eugene Short (New York), Tom Boswell (Boston), Ricky Sobers (Phoenix), Kevin Grevey (Washington), and Poodles Willoughby (Atlanta).
Even the Warriors went for Joe Bryant in the first round before deciding Williams was worth a gamble. “We got awfully lucky getting him in the second round,” said Dick Vertlieb, the Warriors’ general manager at the time. “In college, Gus never got to show off how good a player he was. He wasn’t in the right system.
“Gus Williams is a bird. He has to fly. You can’t keep him under wraps. I thought that, with Phil Smith and Gus Williams, we would have as good a pair of guards as there was in the NBA.
“When we drafted Gus, we told him and his agent [Howard Slusher] that he should never think of himself as a second-round pick. He should always consider himself a first-round choice. I thought he was as good a second-round choice as there was ever chosen, right there with Dennis Johnson, Calvin Murphy, and Willis Reed.”
Vertlieb is one of the rare ones who has been in Williams’ corner from the beginning. Most people have tended to overlook the guard. Even last season, when he averaged 22.1 points during the regular season and 23.7 in the playoffs (both team highs), he was considered only the second-best guard on his own team. He was rated behind Dennis Johnson. Now, he’s behind all-star Paul Westphal.
Williams’ problem? At 6-foot-2, 175 pounds, he looks too much like the everyday man. He is a sparrow in a league that makes heroes and millionaires out of the eagles. He doesn’t take any nicknamed dunks. Heck, he’s even losing his hair.
Now, however, Williams, 27, is evolving into one of the National Basketball Association’s most exciting, most entertaining, and most valuable players. At last, he is earning universal respect.
The road to Williams’ respectability is filled with potholes of poor judgment by many of the NBA’s supposedly brighter minds. Williams almost didn’t sign with the Warriors out of USC. St. Louis of the American Basketball Association offered him a healthy contract, but Williams wanted to play in the NBA. Finally, after much debate, he signed a two-year, no-cut contract with the Warriors for approximately $200,000 a year.
He had a fine rookie season, averaging 11.7 points per game, and was considered in the voting for the Rookie-of-the-Year honors won by Phoenix’s Alvan Adams. That was the last good thing that happened to Williams at Golden State. Vertlieb was fired the next season and replaced by Scotty Stirling. Williams’ scoring average the next year slipped to 9.3, and he wasn’t considered one of Coach Al Attles’ favorites.
The handwriting was on the wall the next season when the Warriors chose Michigan guard Rickey Green as their first pick in the 1977 collegiate draft and championed him as their point guard of the future, signing him to a two-year, no-cut contract.
The Warriors, thinking that with Green, Charles Dudley, and Charles Johnson they didn’t need Williams, refused to give him a guaranteed contract before the 1977 season. The Warriors further claimed they owned an option year on Williams’ contract. The two sides went to court, and the court ruled in Williams’ favor, stating that the option clause wasn’t “specifically negotiated.”
So, Williams decided to test the free-agent waters. He found those waters filled with skeptics.
Ironically, Slusher’s first phone call was to his old grade school buddy, Lenny Wilkens, who was the Sonics’ director of player personnel. Wilkens wasn’t interested. You already had Fred Brown, Slick Watts, and Dennis Johnson.
Wilkens would get a second chance at Williams only because San Antonio Spurs owner Angelo Drossos had a heart attack, Boston general manager Red Auerbach showed some monumental bad judgment, and Los Angeles coach Jerry West was uninterested.
A deal was agreed upon with the Spurs, contingent upon the approval of Drossos. Before Slusher and Williams could get that approval, however, Drossos suffered a heart attack. Drossos went to intensive care, and Williams’ career was on the critical list.
The Celtics came close to making an offer to Williams, but Auerbach decided instead to sign veteran guard Dave Bing. “Once you sign a Dave Bing, you don’t need a Gus Williams,” Auerbach said at the time.
The season was about to begin, and Williams’ career remained in limbo. There were conversations with the Lakers, but West, who was desperate for quick guards, figured he wasn’t that desperate. It was West’s feeling, according to several sources, that Williams wouldn’t even be in the league in two more years.
“Gus has blinding speed, but most systems are not geared for that kind of speed,” Vertlieb said. “Most teams just run a different style.”
Down to just a few unanswered calls, Slusher decided to try Wilkens one more time. Two days before the season started, on the advice of soon-to-be-fired coach Bob Hopkins, the Sonics signed free-agent Williams to a three-year contract at about $200,000 a year. The Sonics had to pay only $238,000 to the Warriors as compensation for Williams.
Wilkens took a gamble and came out looking as lucky as Amarillo Slim. All Williams has done in three seasons is twice help the Sonics to the NBA finals. He averaged 18.1 and 19.2 points per game in his first two seasons, and averaged 26.6 points and 17 playoff games two years ago.
“Lenny is such a bright guy, and he realized what you have to do with Gus,” Verlieb said. “He understood that you have to let him [Williams] go. Lenny saw the talent. He watched and saw something that others didn’t see.”
“The only guy that was in Gus’ corner from beginning to end was Dick Vertlieb,” Slusher said. “He saw that you have to play with the guy, give him the ball, and let him run. Even Lenny said he thought Gus was a player, but he wasn’t sure. Dick said he saw a champion in Gus. He never wavered.”
Many may still consider Williams only the second-best guard in Seattle, but several teams were curious about Williams when he became a free agent again at the end of last year’s playoffs. New York was interested in him. The Portland Trail Blazers needed a quick guard, but then drafted Ronnie Lester and traded him for Kelvin Ransey from Ohio State, who is also represented by Slusher. Compensation will be due the Sonics if Williams decided to sign with another team, and that might scare off some teams.
The start of the 1980-81 season, Williams was still unsigned. He did not take part in the Sonics’ training camp and was at his home in New York. The Sonics remained confident he’d eventually accept their final financial offer. Team management optimistically pointed out that several of Slusher’s players had been holding out for more cash.
“I don’t know what [Sonics owner] Sam [Schulman] is thinking, but it is my opinion that they will try very hard to keep him,” Vertlieb said. “They know what they’ll have to pay for him, but I doubt if they’ll let him get away. He’s as good a guard as you’re going to find.”