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Fly Williams knows he is becoming a folk hero in New York City because he has seen the writing on the wall. On the handball courts and playground walls and backboards of his native Brooklyn. On the red-brick projects of the Brownsville district. On the sidewalks and telephone poles. "Man, I saw FLY WILLIAMS, STONE AVENUE, painted on a brand new subway car the other day," he says. "I couldn't believe it. These kids write my name everywhere."
They paint his name because Fly is their link with the world of fame, the man with all the moves, the person they'd like to be. Some of the magic stems from the transformation of the mundane name " James Williams" to "Fly" or "The Fly," a brilliant stroke of ghetto simplicity and flash. The rest comes from Fly's unique style, his double twists and tomahawk stuff shots. "Fly communicates," said a spectator at one of Fly's recent games in Brooklyn. "He talks to us through his game, and we dig that."
But it is not enough to talk to just a few people. A real folk hero needs to reach the masses—and for a variety of reasons this summer Fly has been flirting with the edge of a dark shadow, the tarnished realm of city street players who never quite made it out of their own neighborhoods: Earl Manigault, Jumpin' Jackie Jackson, Herman the Helicopter, Joe Hammond, PeeWee Kirkland, Ralph Hall—all New York street players of great promise who got mired down somewhere, names that flashed, and then faded like old Day-Glo paint.
The problems for Fly consist of unfortunate scholastic troubles coupled with personal malfunctions. Would he stay at Austin Peay State University, where as a sophomore he was the nation's third leading scorer last year with a 27.5-points-per-game average? Would they let him? Would he turn pro? Would any team take him?
To begin with, someone in the Ohio Valley Conference made a serious mistake two years ago by admitting Fly and two dozen other athletes on the basis of SAT rather than ACT college entrance exams, an NCAA violation making the players ineligible at OVC schools. The infraction was discovered this spring. Before that, Fly had quit going to classes and put his name in the NBA hardship draft, deciding to turn pro and forget about college. But on the very day of the draft he removed his name from the list and announced that he was going to stay for his junior year at "the P."
This move confused people because Fly's relationship with Coach Lake Kelly had been stormy at best and because the SAT-ACT test mini-scandal had made him ineligible anyway. Then when Fly didn't appear at summer school to make up classes he had missed, it was certain that even if the entrance test ruling was reversed by the NCAA, Fly would not have enough credits to qualify as a junior and thus could not play for that reason. If there was need for a cork in the bottle, Fly found it by playing in several summer leagues on the East Coast, in itself an action barring him from any further NCAA competition.
Amazed basketball analysts tried to figure out what Fly had done. Essentially it was this: become ineligible at Austin Peay; apparently cut himself out of the NBA for at least a year; shown the ABA (his agent has been talking with Denver and several other teams) that he had not much bargaining power. "I know I lost a whole lot of money," said Fly last week en route to Washington, D.C. for a summer league game. "I guess I just listened to the wrong people. I didn't want to go to school anywhere but the P, but then I was ineligible and then...I don't know...." He shook his head.
Talk has bounced around that certain pro teams wouldn't take Fly and his great talents even at a reduced price. "They think I'm a real, real superbad-attitude case," he admits. It is true that in some quarters the younger Fly is remembered for sitting down in the middle of high school games or dribbling off court to get a drink of water.
Pro coaches also wonder if Fly can be molded to the necessary disciplines of team play. As Danny Odums, Fly's assist man at Austin Peay and another victim of the test ruling, said, "All the guys at school like Fly, but they also could look forward to playing without him, to getting their own things together."
Fly is now finally aware of his situation and for the first time is giving very serious thought to his future as a pro. "All I've got now is basketball. I want to show people I can play with anybody, mold to fit any team. I'll take whatever they offer to let me play. I have to."