Up Next


James ‘Fly’ Williams, arrested in heroin ring bust, is a Brooklyn playground legend

Streetballer is featured in documentary ‘Brooklyn Basketball’

New York documentary filmmaker Duffy Higgins was relaxing on Thursday, getting his mind right for Friday’s screening of his Brooklyn Basketball documentary, when his phone rang.

Asked by a reporter for The Undefeated whether he had he heard the news about James “Fly” Williams, one of the basketball legends featured in his film, Higgins answered, “No, what happened?”

Told that Williams had been charged that day with being a drug kingpin responsible for selling heroin worth between $12 million and $20 million, Higgins was silent for about 10 seconds before replying, “Holy s—.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Williams, one of the best-known playground players in New York in the 1970s, this will bring you up to speed:

  • Williams was a main character in the book Heaven is a Playground, written by Rick Telander about players competing at Brooklyn’s Foster Park during the summers of 1973 and 1974. The book was later optioned to be a movie, with the setting shifted to Chicago and Michael Jordan agreeing to play a starring role. Jordan backed out and was eventually sued by the filmmakers. (A jury found him not liable.) Bo Kimble eventually filled the role in the 1991 release, which caught a brick.
  • Williams was a 6-foot-5, high-flying scorer at Austin Peay University, where he scored 51 points in a game twice as a freshman, finished fifth in the nation in scoring and led the Governors to their first NCAA tournament appearance. He followed that up by averaging 28.5 points as a sophomore, again leading the Governors to the tournament and inspiring one of the greatest chants in sports history: “The Fly’s open, let’s go Peay!” Thinking his game was NBA-ready after two seasons, Williams left college.
  • In 1974, Williams was a first-round pick of the Denver Nuggets in the ABA. The Spirits of St. Louis eventually purchased his contract. But Williams failed to live up to expectations, averaging 9.4 points a game during the 1974-75 season. He was released and later drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the ninth round in 1976, the year of the ABA-NBA merger. The Sixers released Williams, who then spent several years playing in the CBA and overseas.
  • His streetball legend surpassed anything he accomplished in the NBA. Williams learned the game at the famed Brownsville Recreation Center in one of Brookyn’s most violent neighborhoods. But the neighborhood abounded with stars: basketball players World B. Free and Dwayne “Pearl” Washington; boxers Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad; baseball player Willie Randolph; and actress Bern Nadette Stanis (Thelma from Good Times) all grew up there. Williams’ stardom grew from his flamboyance — he drove up to games in expensive cars wearing fur coats — and his showmanship on the court. He played with such flair that Williams reached megastar status that rivaled players like Pee Wee Kirkland and Joe Hammond.
  • Williams has confirmed many of the urban tales written about him. Like the time he scored 45 points in the first half of a pro-am and complained at halftime that his teammates weren’t passing enough. Or the time an officer screamed at him for parking his car in the middle of a street, and he screamed back, “Park it yourself!”
  • In 1987, Williams survived a shooting that stemmed from a dispute with an off-duty court officer after a pickup basketball game. He was eventually arrested for attempted robbery and spent 14 months in prison, and he has blamed drugs for many of his shortcomings. “When we interviewed him for the documentary, I was trying to get him to talk more about how he might feel a little bit more regret in not taking the correct avenues,” Higgins said. “He didn’t want to talk about that. He wanted to talk about the positive things he had done.”
  • Those positive things included working at the Brownsville Recreation Center with neighborhood youths, most of whom had no clue about his legendary status. He often spoke about the dangers of drugs. For his efforts, the Brooklyn Nets honored Williams with an Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things Award during halftime of a 2014 game during a Black History Month celebration.
  • He is listed among the “50 Greatest Streetballers of All Time,” sharing space with Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell, Lloyd Daniels and Herman “Helicopter” Knowings, among others.
  • Williams has a prominent role in the Brooklyn Basketball documentary that will be screening Friday at the New York Indie Film Festival. Higgins shared with The Undefeated a quote from Williams about Brooklyn toughness: “A guy in Kansas plays the same way as a guy playing in Brooklyn. It’s just that you come from Brooklyn, it’s a little rougher than Kansas. If I lived in Kansas, I’d be Dorothy, probably. Live in Brooklyn, I’m like John Gotti.”

Williams was arrested along with 12 other people, including his son, James Williams. The mug shot photos released had “James Williams FLY” listed as kingpin of a ring that allegedly sold 2 million vials of heroin in the area of the recreation center where he volunteered.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.