Sad news out of Louisiana on Wednesday: John "Hot Rod" Williams, the 53-year-old former burly rebounder and shot-blocker who spent the bulk of his 13-year NBA career manning the middle for the Cleveland Cavaliers, is reportedly battling cancer and on life support in the intensive care ward of a hospital near Baton Rouge.
The grim report comes to us from Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"I have some bad news," [agent Mark] Bartelstein said Tuesday night.
"Hot Rod," I said.
"Cancer," said Bartelstein. "It's bad. Real bad." [...]
Bartelstein said they thought the health problems started for Williams about six months ago with prostate cancer. But then it spread and spread.
He's 53 and fighting for his life.
"His family is with him," said Bartelstein, his voice breaking. "It's a very serious situation."
The 6-foot-11 Williams starred at Tulane, averaging 16 points, seven rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game over the course of a four-year career that still places him at or near the top of multiple categories in the Green Wave record books, that earned him Metro Conference Player of the Year honors in 1984, and that had him tabbed as a surefire first-round pick in the 1985 NBA draft. In April of 1985, though, Williams and four Tulane teammates were "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," as Douglas S. Looney wrote in Sports Illustrated at the time.
Within days of Williams' indictment on charges of sports bribery and conspiracy, Tulane's entire men's basketball coaching staff and athletic director resigned; shortly thereafter, the school shut down the basketball program. The controversy cast Williams' future in jeopardy and put his professional basketball dreams on hold until June of 1986 — some 15 months after his arrest, following one mistrial and a second prosecution — he was found not guilty of all charges. (Despite school president Eamonn Kelly's stance that the not-guilty verdict changed nothing about the decision to disband Tulane basketball, the program would be revived in 1988.)
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Williams quickly signed with the Cavaliers, who had gambled on him with a second-round choice in the 1985 draft in hopes of adding a top talent at a favorable price. He moved right into the power forward slot in Cleveland's starting lineup, averaging 14.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.9 assists in 33.9 minutes per game as a rookie.
He'd move to the bench the following season after the Cavs' trade for Phoenix Suns All-Star Larry Nance, continuing to contribute as a top reserve known for energetic defending and screen-setting on a Cleveland squad that made some noise for head coach Lenny Wilkens behind stars like Nance, Mark Price, Brad Daugherty and Ron Harper, but that never quite could get past Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls for Eastern Conference supremacy.
Williams' hard-charging and unselfish presence made him the kind of player his teammates swore by, as evidenced by the public outpouring of support following the news of his illness:
Join me in Praying for my former teammate John "Hot Rod" Williams today. He is fighting for his life vs cancer. One of my Fav teammates!
— Mark Price (@Mark25Price) December 9, 2015
Please pray for former teammate and NBA legend John "Hot Rod" Williams battling cancer and on life support. 🙏🏾 pic.twitter.com/O4IOfxzDtA
— Michael Cage (@Exhoopsmc) December 9, 2015
— Ron Harper (@HARPER04_5) December 9, 2015
It also, briefly, made Williams the highest-paid player in team sports, when the Cavaliers matched the frontloaded seven-year, $26.5 million offer sheet that the Miami Heat gave Hot Rod in restricted free agency in the summer of 1990. During that season, the unassuming power forward/center made $1 million more than Jordan ... which, in its way, offered some measure of a one-up over the Cavs' perennial nemesis.
After nine seasons in Ohio, the Cavaliers shipped Williams to Phoenix in exchange for Dan Majerle, Antonio Lang and a future first-round pick. Hot Rod performed admirably enough in the desert, but he was a different player as he reached his mid-30s than he was when he entered the league; after one season with the Dallas Mavericks, he retired following the 1998-99 season. Williams' name still appears all over Cleveland's record books — he ranks second all-time among Cavaliers in blocked shots, third in rebounds, fourth in games played, sixth in steals and seventh in points.
"John loved playing in Cleveland," Bartelstein told Pluto. "He played a few years after leaving the Cavs, but he always thought of himself as a Cavalier."
We'll update this story as more information on Williams' condition becomes available.
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