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The pros were the same story for Gus. But this time he wasn't just fighting for recognition; he was also fighting for the ball. The Warriors were coming off a championship season in which Rick Barry had starred, and Rick Barry likes the basketball. With him, the Warriors ran one of the few offenses in basketball that were initiated in the frontcourt. That made it kind of difficult for someone like Gus Williams—who starts with the ball and penetrates through the lane to either the improbable pass or the implausible basket. As a rookie, Gus averaged 11.7 points.
The Western Conference finals that season came down to a seventh game between Phoenix and Golden State. The Warriors, emphasizing team unity, had swept the Bullets for the title in '75 as Barry, a Bay Area hero even though he had defected to and then returned from the ABA, averaged 30 points a game for the season. Now Barry had slumped to 21 a game, but the team still had the best record in the NBA, 59-23.
Barry and Williams didn't get along (something about there being only one ball) and Barry, as was his habit, pouted. So much so that in that decisive game against the Suns, at home, Barry scored only 20 points and seemed actually to avoid the ball as the Suns won, 94-86. Williams didn't play a minute in that game. So much for team unity.
Williams averaged 9.3 points a game in his second year, and, at the start of his third season, he held out for the first time. He was actually a free agent, but compensation was required then, and, according to Scotty Stirling, the Warriors' general manager at the time, no team was willing to sign Gus and give up the second-round draft choice Golden State was asking. Finally, two days before the start of the regular season, Gus signed a three-year contract with Seattle worth between $175,000 and $200,000 annually, and the club agreed to pay the $250,000 in deferred salary owed Williams by Golden State.
Twenty-three games later, Wilkens replaced Bob Hopkins as the Sonics' coach and made Williams and Dennis Johnson his starting guards. They flourished, and so did Seattle. In his first three seasons under Wilkens, Gus averaged 18.1, 19.2 and 22.1 points a game, respectively, and the Sonics won their only championship.
But, somehow, Williams still never got the recognition he deserved. Overshadowed by Johnson, Sikma and Paul Silas on his own team, and by other Western Conference guards like Magic Johnson and George Gervin, Westphal, Lloyd Free and David Thompson, Williams never made an All-Star team.
"He's like a secret weapon," John Johnson, who has been both an opponent and a teammate, says. "He's the most underrated player, probably ever, in the NBA. He's never been in an All-Star game, but he's made a living off these guys."
And he's making a very good living off these guys once again. Williams insists that he won't make this year's All-Star game. It's nonsense, of course. He's having a better season than Johnson, Gervin, Free, Phil Ford or anyone else you might care to name. And although Dennis Johnson and Gervin are ahead of him in the balloting, whoever coaches the Western Conference team in this month's All-Star game will undoubtedly choose Williams for the squad.
But in other respects, Gus Williams is still struggling for recognition. A few weeks ago, Williams and a visitor to Seattle dined at Benjamin's, a fashionable restaurant in Bellevue. No one, not the waitress, not the maître d', not the aluminum-siding salesman in from Kansas City for a convention, recognized him or asked for an autograph. Could this have happened to Jerry West in Los Angeles? Oscar Robertson in Cincinnati? Walt Frazier anywhere? No, but then Gus Williams seems to take it all in stride.
With things just as they are, the Sonics are the most improved team in the league. And should they contrive to get Westphal back, they might well be the NBA's best team.