One day last week John (Hot Rod) Williams was walking across a dirt basketball court a few blocks from his home in Sorrento, La. He played on the court all the time as a kid. Now it was littered with trash, a torn balloon and a sneaker and was punctured with snake holes. The basketball hoop was attached to a slightly crooked tree trunk. The rim looked a little higher than the regulation 10 feet. Williams jumped up and drilled the weathered ball down, 'it's 10'2"," he said firmly. Williams took a couple more shots. "Playing on dirt taught me that you couldn't dribble the ball. So I had to learn to shoot without putting the ball on the ground. You bounce it in here and it goes right off this hump. Always has." And it did once again.
By honing his game under these sorry conditions, Williams ultimately became a star player at Tulane and appeared certain to be a first-round choice in the NBA draft in June. It was to be a crowning moment in the life of a young man born to a mother he never knew and a father he has a vague recollection of seeing once, perhaps as much as a decade ago.
But last month Williams, the Metro Conference Player of the Year in 1984, was one of five Tulane basketball players accused of involvement in a point-shaving scheme that, according to sources in the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office, paid them some $23,000 (SI, April 8 and 15). He was also reported to have accepted payments in violation of NCAA rules—$10,000 from a booster to attend Tulane and, after entering the school, as much as $100 a week, at times, from Green Wave coach Ned Fowler. Fowler and two assistants, Mike Richardson and Max Pfeifer, were forced by the school to resign. Tulane president Eamon Kelly also recommended to the school's Board of Administrators that the men's basketball program be dropped.
W. Kent McWilliams, 62, one of Tulane's biggest financial backers, says that Fowler confided to him. "I know I did wrong. Now I have to pay the price." SI has been told by an informed source that improper payments from alumni earmarked for Williams and other players totaled about $700 over a recent three-month period. And, McWilliams says, Fowler told him he dipped into his own pocket for more money. McWilliams also says that Fowler told him that he didn't hand out as much cash as "a lot of coaches do to one player."
That speaks volumes. For the burgeoning Tulane mess is being viewed as a bleak microcosm of what's rotten in college sports today. As though publicized allegations of point-shaving, payoffs from reputed gamblers in cash and cocaine and illicit under-the-table payments weren't enough, SI has found evidence of academic improprieties involving Tulane athletes.
Williams, the central figure in the scandal, had, unquestionably, a checkered career at Tulane. As a freshman, he was the league surprise and an all-conference selection. But as a sophomore, he had physical problems and a poor attitude. Says Jim Hart, president of a 200-member Tulane booster organization, the Tip-Off Club, and a confidant of Fowler's, "Many times Ned came close to kicking John off the team for missing practices and for being unreliable. John soured to everybody. It started his sophomore year and got worse as it went along. Why I don't know." A teammate says he thinks cocaine may have been the culprit in Williams's fall; that is vigorously denied by Williams's attorneys. Williams rebounded his junior and senior years, leading the team in scoring both seasons (19.4 as a junior, 17.8 as a senior). He ended his career just 10 points shy of the school record of 1,851.
Back home in Sorrento last week, Williams—who pleaded not guilty Monday to the charges of sports bribery that had been lodged against him—appeared almost oblivious to his predicament. Sitting in the trailer he calls home, Hot Rod was musing about his lot in life and his future. "I guess you learn from your mistakes," he said. As he sat and talked, he played and roughhoused with his son, John Jr., who was born two years ago to Rod and his girl friend, Karen Hardy. "All I want is to be happy," he says. "And so far I be happy."
On Aug. 26, 1981 Williams took the Scholastic Aptitude Tests, which are used by many universities as one of several criteria for admission. "I couldn't even read the English part," he told a Tulane assistant coach. Later, the coach told Williams, "Congratulations, you passed." SI's sources indicated that Williams-scored close to the 200 minimum on the verbal (English) portion and approximately 270, 70 points above the minimum, on the math. Anything below 250 verbal ranks in the bottom 4% of the one million high school students who take the test annually; anything below 300 math is in the lowest 6%. The national average SAT score last year was 426 verbal and 471 math; at Tulane, the average student entering the College of Arts and Sciences scored 538 verbal, 583 math.
Contacted on the subject, Williams's lawyers, Joel P. Loeffelholz and Alan B. Tusa of New Orleans and Michael J. Green of Chicago, all refused to confirm Williams's test scores. Green did fume, "This is a genuine tragedy. Tulane is a wealthy, white institution. You might just as well put him in a calculus class at Harvard. What the hell is Hot Rod Williams doing at Tulane? I blame it on the university."
Kelly was having none of that. "John Williams was recruited as a student-athlete to study and to play basketball," he said. Asked if Williams was, in fact, the kind of student Tulane wants in its self-proclaimed drive to national prominence, Kelly said, "I can't comment on individual students."