[Mention Super John Williamson to my blog partner, Ray Lebov, and the words flow easily. Ray assisted the boys’ basketball team at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School during the late-1960s. That’s when “Supe” was Cross’ 39-point-a-game backcourt sensation and the best prep player in New England. The two stayed in touch through the years, and I keep asking Ray to jot down his memories of Super John and his tragic trajectory through the NBA. It culminated with Supe, one of the league’s lowest-paid stars, protesting the NBA’s financial tomfoolery. Super John decided to become Super-Sized John. He ate himself right out of out the association.
Maybe one day I’ll get Ray to record his thoughts about Super John. Until then, I’ve got this article for you from the magazine All-Star Sports Basketball Issue, 1978-79. Writer Harvey Greene catches up with Super John after his return to the New York/New Jersey Nets. As Greene lays out, Super John had been banished out of spite and through no fault of his own. It turned out the Nets’ front-office loathed his agent and refused to sit down and renegotiate Supe’s expiring contract.
And so it went for one of the top pro guards of the 1970s. He was money on the court, and paid pennies on the dollar off it. Super John is also worth knowing for one of his quirks: He sometimes played with a toothpick in his mouth. With that, take it away, Mr. Greene.]
The capacity crowd at Rutgers University Athletic Center was on its feet as only one second remained in the game between the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks. The score was tied at 110-all, and the Nets desperately wanted to win the regionally televised game to salvage some pride and self-respect from what had turned into a dismal season.
The ball came to John Williamson more than 25 feet from the basket, and as the buzzer sounded, he calmly canned the shot to give the Nets a 112-110 win over their hated rivals. Pandemonium broke loose, and the Nets reacted as though they had just won the NBA championship, rushing onto the court to embrace Williamson. Super John was back.
Williamson, who had been an integral part of two Nets’ championship teams during their ABA days and was a crowd favorite when the club was based in Long Island, had been traded away to the Indiana Pacers midway through the 1976-77 season. Although the Nets were reluctant to part with their leading scorer and team leader, especially following an injury a few weeks earlier to Nate Archibald which finished him for the season, the team had little choice in the matter.
During that season, Williamson was in the option year of this contract, and his agent was Irwin Weiner, whom the Nets refused to deal with. Weiner also served as Julius Erving’s adviser, and it was under Wiener’s prodding that “Dr. J.” had initiated his holdout, which eventually culminated in his trade to the Philadelphia76ers.
Nets’ owner Roy Boe made it quite clear that he felt it was Irwin Wiener who forced the trade. “We never had any intention of letting Erving go,” said Boe, “but it was made clear to me by his agent that Dr. J. would never come back to the club under the existing terms of his contract. I feel strongly that not only would renegotiating Erving’s contract open us up to advances by other agents representing Nets’ players, but it would virtually render player contracts in all sports meaningless.
“As a result, we had little choice except a trade or waiting out his continued holdout, and the first option was the lesser of two evils. The only players who will open the season with us are those who want to play for the New York Nets.”
The Erving incident left such a bitter taste in the mouths of Boe and the entire Net front office that they vowed never to deal with Weiner again. Thus, when he came knocking a few months later to discuss a new contract for Williamson, the Nets again were forced to make an unwanted move.
“We never would have signed John,” stated Nets’ head coach Kevin Loughery. “It was a situation that developed where his agent (Weiner) was the same agent that represented Doc, and we didn’t want to get into that situation again.”
Even Williamson, who did not want to leave the club, could see the reality of the situation. “I was promised that they’d sign me before the season started,” the New Haven, Connecticut native stated. “But that was before Doc left. They still had some animosity towards Wiener for the Erving deal, and the only way to get back at him was not to give me what I wanted.”
Since the Nets were not going to sign Williamson, they had to trade him before he was able to complete his option year. At which point he could sign with any club in the NBA. Under such a very difficult circumstance, Nets’ general manager Bill Melchionni was able to pull off what amounted to a coup, dealing Super John to the Indiana Pacers for a player to be named later and the Pacers’ first round pick in the 1977 draft. The player to be named later turned out to be Darnell Hillman, and the Nets utilized the draft choice to select Bernard King, who developed into one of the outstanding rookies to enter the NBA this past season.
Thus, yet another link to New York’s glory days in the ABA was gone, as Williamson joined a growing list of players such as Erving, Brian Taylor, Larry Kenon, Billy Paultz, Ted McClain, and Jim Eakins. All played key roles in the Nets’ championship teams but have since been dealt away.
While Erving was the focal point of the Nets’ offense during their two ABA titles, Williamson served as the club’s catalyst, a role which first surfaced during his rookie season in 1973-74. The Nets were off to a terrible start, having lost nine games in a row and 10 of their first 14. At that point, Loughery decided to give Williamson his first start. And from that moment on, things turned around, as the Nets won the next nine games and posted a 51-19 record with Super John as a starter, a sizzling .728 pace.
Williamson showed unbelievable poise and cool for a rookie during the pressure days of the championship race, and excelled in playoff competition, as the Nets won their first championship, doing it in only 14 days, an ABA record.
It was a fitting climax for Williamson, especially in light of the fact that he had to fight his way onto the Nets’ roster at the beginning of the season. He had reported to the Nets’ rookie camp at the invitation of Loughery, and it was only after an outstanding series of performances during that tryout period that Williamson was asked back to the regular camp and signed to a pro contract. Thus, in the span of one season, he had gone from a virtual walk-on to a starter on an ABA championship team.
During his rookie season, Williamson had captured the fancy of the Coliseum faithful with his aggressiveness and hustle, and his offensive prowess had earned him the nickname of “Super John.” Even a subpar sophomore campaign, caused by an operation on his right knee two months before the start of the season, did not dim the relationship between Williamson and the Nets. And he rewarded their loyalty with a big season, and coupled with Erving, put the Nets into the playoffs.
It was in the postseason competition that Williamson really excelled, as the Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs in seven games in a bitterly contested semifinal round, and then captured the ABA title by defeating Denver in six games. While Erving’s heroics dominated the playoffs, it was Williamson who made the key contribution against the Nuggets in the game that clinched the playoff championship, scoring 16 of his 28 points in the hectic fourth quarter when the Nets overcame a 22-point deficit.
Thus, things looked bright for Williamson and the Nets during the summer of 1976. The club was finally admitted into the NBA. And the Nets would enter the league as the final ABA champions inconspicuously making them one of the glamorous teams in the enlarged loop. The trade for Archibald enhanced matters, as a trio of Tiny, Super John, and Dr. J. offered the promise of a season of exciting, winning basketball on Long Island.
However, it was a promise that went unfulfilled, as Erving took his game 90 miles down the New Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia following his unpleasant contract dispute with the Nets. Williamson knew that he would be next, and he was not surprised at his midseason trade to Indiana, even though at that time the Nets already knew that Archibald was through for the season.
Upon his acquisition, Williamson was immediately signed to a lucrative contract by the Pacers, and it seemed that he had a promising future ahead of him in Indianapolis. He seemed to be the take-charge leader the team so desperately needed, and the Pacer fans, well aware of Williamson’s talents from the Nets-Pacers contests when the two clubs ranked as the powers in the ABA, welcomed John with a great deal of enthusiasm.
Williamson responded to the change of scenery by averaging 20.8 points in the 30 games that he played as a Pacer in the 1976-77 season. But unfortunately for both parties, the honeymoon between John and Pacer head coach Bob Leonard was a rocky one. The two disagreed on John’s on-the-court responsibilities, and as the 1977-78 season began, a rift developed between the two.
As relations between Williamson and Leonard became more and more strained, word got around the league that Super John could be had for the right price. A number of clubs were interested, including, surprisingly enough, the Nets.
Following Williamson’s trade, the Nets had stumbled to a 22-60 record, the worst record an NBA team had posted since the Philadelphia 76ers won only nine games and lost 73 in 1972-73. Worse yet, the fans had stayed away from Nassau Coliseum in droves. And hoping for better success across the Hudson, Roy Boe moved the club to temporary shelter in Piscataway, New Jersey before the 1977-78 campaign, and the Nets settled into the Rutgers University Athletic Center, their home until the completion of the arena in the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
However, the change of location did not alter the team’s poor play, as the Nets in their initial season in the Garden State were suffering through another woeful campaign and seemed hard-pressed even to duplicate their record of a year earlier.
Towards the end of January, the club stood at 9-37, a .196 pace and additional firepower to take some of the scoring burden off their talented rookie Bernard King was desperately needed. Thus, when Williamson became available, the Nets jumped at the opportunity to acquire him.
“The fact that John had signed a long-term contract was the key factor in our decision to go after him,” said Nets’ GM Bill Melchionni at the time. “The only trouble we ever had with him was his contract, and now he has one. Therefore, with that obstacle out of the way, I would welcome his return to the Nets.”
“I’ve never had any problems with John,” stated Loughery, echoing Melchionni’s sentiments. “He helped us win two titles in the ABA, and we just understand one another. He’s a lot like me in that he’s never afraid. He likes to go to war, and he’ll never back down from anybody.”
In what appeared to be yet another steal for Melchionni and the Nets, sometime-starter Bob Carrington and second-round picks in the 1980 and 1981 drafts were dispatched to Indiana in exchange for Williamson. “Supe” had returned home, even if “home” had moved 20 miles south into another state since he had last worn a Nets’ jersey.
Williamson’s arrival immediately bolstered the Nets’ sagging offense, and in his 33 games under Loughery, he averaged almost 30 points per game, including a 50-point outburst on April 4th against, fittingly enough, his former teammates, the Indiana Pacers and Bob Leonard. In addition, King and the rest of the Nets team benefited from Williamson’s play. No longer could opposing defenses take the liberty of doubling up on King, for such a move would leave Williamson wide open.
As a result, King had the room to maneuver offensively that was denied him during the first part of the year. As a result, his overall play improved markedly.
Kevin Porter, the Nets’ field general, also profited from Williamson’s arrival. Porter’s game is one of penetration and passing, and in Super John, he had the perfect complement. Porter would drive towards the basket, and when the defense converged on him, he would lay the ball off to Williamson for an open jumper. With John as a backcourt partner, Porter went on to lead the NBA in assists and set a single-game league record in that category as well.
More important, Williamson turned a club of losers into a team with hope. The Nets’ record with Williamson was 15-21, a percentage of .417, and the club was playing cohesively at the finish. Indeed, the latter part of the year was one of optimism, and both players and coaches alike felt that had Williamson been aboard from the start, the team might have made the playoffs.
As the Nets enter the 1978-79 season, Williamson might find his role to be a changing one. During the NBA draft, the Nets selected Winford Boynes, a 6-foot-6 guard/forward from the University of San Francisco in the first round, and that pick changed the entire complexion of the team.
“Boynes is a tall guard who plays like George Gervin,” said Loughery. “He can put the ball on the floor and is a tremendous offensive talent. His addition will take some of the pressure off our guards and will allow me to rest them more frequently now that I have someone like Boynes who can come off the bench cold and immediately score some points.”
Thus, Williamson might find that his point production may dip this coming season, as the scoring burden along with playing time become more evenly distributed among the team’s members. But such a change in roles should not bother Super John, After all, he was in a similar position during the Nets’ ABA glory days, and he excelled under those circumstances as well.
In addition, while Williamson was just one of a number of sideshows to Julius Erving’s main act during those winning seasons, he was now looked upon by his teammates as the Nets’ leader, the one to go to in clutch situations, and Williamson has proven that he thrives under those conditions.
“There’s no question that John makes all the difference in the world,” remarked Nets’ captain Tim Basset, who also was a member of the 1975-76 ABA championship team. “You know why he’s called Super John? He has the ability to respond when it’s needed.”
For the first time since they joined the NBA, the Nets have a solid nucleus to build around due in large part to Williamson’s outstanding play since he rejoined the team. Super John has proven that it is possible to go home again, although the success made it seem as though he had never really been away.