JUNE 11, 1979
As a child, Howard Graves often returned home to find the furniture knocked over and his father in a rage. Howard slept in fear, not knowing when he might awaken to a flurry of fists. Graves escaped this terror in 1975 when he left his hometown of Plainfield, N.J., for college, but he kept his painful childhood a secret. In the mid-'80s, he finally revealed his story to a friend, former NBA All-Star Gus Williams. "I was shocked," says Williams, who had met Graves in '78, when Graves's mother, Anita, was Williams's business manager. "People keep abuse to themselves and don't know where to seek help."
In 1997 Williams helped Graves start Champions for Families, a Deltona, Fla.-based for-profit company that provides mentoring and online resources for children and families victimized by domestic or substance abuse. Says Williams, Champions's vice president of public relations, "Abuse is still under the covers. We want to bring it all the way out." The company, which relies on corporate sponsors for most of its funding, is building a network of athletes and counselors who offer their services gratis to schools and communities. Among athletes, who speak at youth clinics and parent resource centers for Champions, Williams has already enlisted former opponents George Gervin and Moses Malone.
A couple of decades ago, during his 11-year, four-team NBA career, Williams, known as the Wizard, was driving by guys like Gervin and Malone. Williams helped lead the Seattle SuperSonics to consecutive NBA Finals, in 1978 and '79, and in the latter year earned a championship ring. Overshadowed by teammates Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma, he was perhaps the league's most underrated player, going to the All-Star Game only twice despite scoring more than 18 points per game for seven straight seasons.
Many fans remember Williams more for his stubbornness than for his play. He sat out the 1980-81 season in a dispute concerning free agency compensation for the Sonics, claiming the quarrel was about dignity, not money. "I have certain principles as a man that weren't being met," he said when he finally signed. Williams later cut the swooshes off his Nikes after his sneaker contract expired. "It's a stale story," he says of his outspoken past. "If I could change anything, it would be to win the title the first time."
Williams, 47, a lifelong bachelor who still lives in his hometown, Mount Vernon, N.Y., laces up his sneakers in a 40-and-over rec league once a week. ("I'm paying to play now," he says with a laugh.) Williams devotes the rest of his energy to Champions. "We can have an impact," he says, "and try to put a stop to this epidemic."