The NBA family is dealing with another untimely loss with the recent news of John “Hot Rod” Williams’ passing. He played in the NBA from 1986 through 1999 and is best known for his tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Williams was a Louisiana native whose nickname was bestowed on him as a baby due to his penchant for making car engine noises with his mouth. He grew up in extreme poverty in the town of Sorrento, living in a trailer and learning to play the game on a dirt court with a rim that was higher than the standard 10 feet.
"Playing on dirt taught me that you couldn't dribble the ball,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Douglas S. Looney in 1985. “So I had to learn to shoot without putting the ball on the ground.”
He never knew his biological mother and only recalled seeing his father once in his lifetime.
He blossomed into a star player at Tulane University and was named the Metro Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year in 1984, but his professional prospects dimmed when he was arrested along with four other teammates in the spring of 1985 and accused of sports bribery. It was alleged that he accepted close to $9,000 to influence the point spreads in three college games.
(Photo Credit: cavsnation.com)
The sordid details of his college recruitment became national news when it was learned that a booster paid him $10,000 to attend the university and that his head coach and a number of assistants supplied him with weekly cash payments during his stay there. There was also evidence of academic improprieties as well.
The affair became a flashpoint in the national debate about all that was wrong in big-time college athletics.
Facing 17 years in prison if convicted, a jury later found him not guilty on all charges.
But the trial forced him to miss the entire 1985-1986 NBA season. He was barred from the league pending the outcome of the legal proceedings. The point-shaving scandal led to Tulane shutting the doors on its hoops program for three years.
Once he was acquitted and allowed to sign a contract with the NBA team that drafted him a year earlier, Williams became part of a talented Cleveland nucleus that also included center Brad Daugherty, forward Larry Nance and guards Mark Price, Ron Harper and Craig Ehlo.
Prior to LeBron James’ arrival, those Cavaliers teams were among the league’s best and the struggling city's favorite. They won 50 or more games for three seasons, but could never conquer Michael Jordan’s great Bulls teams in the playoffs.
Williams was the sixth man and a key reserve on those squads. His best season as a pro came in the 1989—1990 season, when he averaged 17 points and 8 rebounds per game off the bench. The Cavaliers made the playoffs during seven of his years with the team.
Hot Rod was a 6-foot-11 forward who could score down low, shoot from the perimeter, create off the dribble and he was also a very good defender and shot-blocker. Defenders knew that he was going to his right whenever he put the ball on the deck, but could little to stop him anyway. He was an unselfish player whom his teammates appreciated.
“The entire Cavaliers family is deeply saddened with the news of John ‘Hot Rod’ Williams’ passing,” a statement from the Cavaliers read. “Hot Rod was, first and foremost, a great teammate, and also the kind of dependable person and player that made the Cavaliers organization proud during his almost decade-long time with the team. Hot Rod was the guy that willingly and pridefully drew the toughest defensive assignment. He was the kind of talented, unselfish and versatile player and person that earned the respect of everyone around him, including his teammates and opponents, and those who knew and worked with him off the court as well. In many respects, he was the humble embodiment and unsung hero of one of the most memorable and successful eras of Cavaliers basketball. Hot Rod will be greatly missed and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
The Phoenix Suns, who Williams played for from 1995-1998, released the following statement: “Hot Rod” was the consummate teammate and a player who took great pride in his game, especially in doing the little things to help the team win. Better yet, off the court he was a humble and gracious man, willing to share his time and fun-loving nature with anyone. Today is a tough day for those who knew John, and we send our condolences to his family during this difficult time.”
It was recently revealed that he was suffering from prostate cancer.
Williams overcame the questions about his character that surfaced after the Tulane scandal and became known in the NBA as an upstanding citizen who loved his children. He was also a member of the distinguished brotherhood of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.
Williams, one of the NBA’s best sixth men in the ‘80s and ‘90s, passed away at home in Louisiana. He was 53 years old.