John Williams, a versatile sixth man for the Cleveland Cavaliers who briefly earned more than Michael Jordan after renegotiating a contract during the summer of 1990, helping to establish the modern era of free agency and huge salaries, died on Friday in Baton Rouge, La. He was 53.
His agent, Mark Bartelstein, said the cause was colon cancer.
Williams, better known by the nickname Hot Rod, was a solid shooter and a dogged defender during his 13 seasons in the N.B.A. Listed at 6 feet 11 inches, he played power forward and center with Cleveland.
Lenny Wilkens, the Cavaliers’ coach, used Williams as a reliable substitute, and Williams did not mind the arrangement.
“All that means is that they have a player on the bench that they can count on,” he told The Columbus Dispatch in 1992. “I know that I could probably start for a lot of teams, including this team, but Coach likes for me to come off the bench, and that’s fine with me.”
Although not a Hall of Famer, Williams had a respectable career. He averaged 11 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.6 blocks per game, and his percentages were impressive: a .480 career field-goal average and a .726 free-throw average.
“Hot Rod was one of those freak-of-nature guys who was 6-10, who could shoot the basketball, could put the basketball down on the floor, a very good defensive guy,” Ron Harper, a Cavaliers teammate, told ESPN.
Williams made it to the N.B.A. playoffs nine times but never won the title, in part because of the dominance of Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. But in the summer of 1990, Williams outdid the rest of the league in compensation.
His pursuit of a big payday began when, as a restricted free agent, he rejected Cleveland’s offer of a five-year, $11.8 million deal. The Miami Heat soon offered him a seven-year, $26.5 million contract (more than $48 million in 2015 dollars). Cleveland agreed to match it.
In the 1990-91 season, Williams made $5 million with Cleveland, reportedly more than Jordan, Larry Bird of the Celtics and Patrick Ewing of the Knicks.
The deal’s impact was felt throughout the league, and it led to ever more lucrative N.B.A. contracts, higher salary caps and increased free agency, which enables players to change teams and gives them more leverage during negotiations.
“I guess just about every team in basketball is upset with Miami,” an unidentified N.B.A. executive told Sports Illustrated. Like others in the N.B.A., Williams was surprised that a player of his caliber could reap such good fortune.
“I take my hat off to Miami,” he said. “I didn’t think Cleveland would match. They didn’t think I was worth $11.8 million last November, so why should they think I’m worth this much now?”
It was not the first time that Cleveland had taken a chance on Williams. The team had drafted him when he was embroiled in a point-shaving scandal that shut down Tulane University’s basketball program for several years.
Williams was born on Aug. 9, 1962, in rural Sorrento, La., near Baton Rouge. His mother died when he was 9 months old, and his father abandoned the family afterward. His nickname came from the engine noises he made while playing with toy cars as a boy, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland reported this year.
Williams grew up impoverished in the care of a neighbor, Barbara Colar. He became a basketball phenomenon at St. Amant High School in St. Amant, La., before enrolling at Tulane.
He averaged 16 points, 7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game at Tulane, and was expected to be selected in the first round of the 1985 N.B.A. draft. But that March, he and two teammates were indicted on five counts of sports bribery, accused of holding down the score in two games in return for $13,500 and cocaine.
Williams denied shaving points but testified that he had received $100 a week from his coaches and $10,000 to enroll at the university. The indictments prompted Tulane’s president to disband the basketball team and the athletic director to resign. (The program was restored for the 1989 season.)
Cleveland nevertheless signed Williams. Unable to play in the N.B.A. before the charges had been resolved, he played in a professional summer league to help pay for his defense. After a mistrial, he was acquitted in a second trial in 1986 and started playing for the Cavaliers that season.
He left Cleveland after the 1994-95 season and played with the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks, retiring in 1999.
He lived in Gonzales, La., and ran a construction business. He is survived by his wife, Kisha; four brothers, Joseph, Leon, Cornelius and Brian; a sister, Mable; three sons, John Jr., Johnpaul and Johnfrancis; three daughters, Johnna, Sydney and Na’Tasha; and five grandchildren. His sister Lisa and his brother Robert James died before him.
In his final season, with Dallas, Williams was more a mentor than a player, helping a young Steve Nash and others adjust to the N.B.A. Donn Nelson, then an assistant coach with the team, told The Dallas Morning News that Williams was “the glue in our locker room.”
John "Hot Rod" Williams (August 9, 1962 – December 11, 2015) was an American professional basketball player who had a 13-year NBA career from 1986 to1999.
Williams was born in Sorrento, Louisiana; a small town near Baton Rouge. He got the nickname "Hot Rod" as a baby due to his habit of making engine-like noises as he scooted backwards across the floor.
A 6'11" power forward/center, he played collegiately at Tulane University, leaving as that school's second all-time leading scorer. His tenure at Tulane was somewhat checkered, however. According to a Tulane booster club president, Williams was nearly kicked off the team in his sophomore year "for missing practices and for being unreliable". Additionally, he was a marginal student at best. He barely maintained a C average in high school, and had barely passed theSAT. At Tulane, his grade point average hovered in the C-D range despite a schedule laden with "decidedly non-academic" courses such as driver's education and weight training.
On March 27, 1985, Williams was arrested for suspicion of point shaving. According to the indictment, Williams had taken at least $8,550 from Gary Kranz for influencing point spreads in games against Southern Miss, Memphis State and Virginia Tech. Williams was charged with sports bribery and conspiracy; his first trial ended with a mistrial, but during his second trial a jury found him not guilty of all five counts.
Williams was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1985 NBA draft with the 21st pick of the second round (45th overall). However, due to the trial, Williams spent the 1985–86 season playing for the United States Basketball League. Able to play for the Cavs the next year, Williams was named to the NBA all-rookie team for the 1986-87 season, along with teammates Ron Harper and Brad Daugherty. Perhaps Williams' finest season occurred in 1989, when he averaged 16.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.04 blocked shots per game while mostly serving as the team's sixth man. Prior March 22, 2009, he ranked as the Cavaliers' all time leader in blocked shots (1,200) (surpassed by Žydrūnas Ilgauskas).
He finished out his career with the Dallas Mavericks.
Williams' nephew, Toe Nash, played professional baseball. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.