Hot Rod Rose from Scandal to Put His Stamp on Cavs

Sam Amico

Editor's note: This is the first in a season-long series on the Cavaliers' first class of Wall of Honor inductees.

John "Hot Rod" Williams almost wasn't a member of the Cavaliers. He almost wasn't a member of the NBA, actually.

But then-Cavs general manager Harry Weltman took a chance.

A lot of people forget Williams was arrested as part of a point-shaving scandal at Tulane in the mid-1980s. Eventually, he was found not guilty -- or anything really even close.

Turns out, Williams was more or less an innocent bystander on a team that had some players who were working the over-under for money.

But at first, no one was sure.

All anyone knew in 1985 was Williams was headed to court to testify about a possible role. He admittedly was handed a box of cash and accepted it.

Everyone also knew Williams was 6-foot-11 with excellent athleticism and skills. Tulane wasn't considered a major basketball program at the time. As far as NBA scouts were concerned, Williams was a true diamond in the rough.

But there was that court case hanging over him.

Williams was eligible for the draft, which was being held right in the middle of the Tulane case.

He was a first-round talent. The accusations and suspicions, though, made teams wonder -- would Williams even be eligible to play? Would he spend time in jail? Was he worth the risk?

Weltman had those feelings, too.

But the Cavs needed a big man. You always need a big man. So Weltman stunned some people by selecting Williams in the second round (No. 45 overall) in 1985.

Then the wait began.

FINDING HIS GAME

Williams will be part of "Wall of Honor" ceremony Sunday, prior to the Cavs' home game vs. Philadelphia.

He missed what would have been his rookie season in 1985-86 while going through the legal process. He had already used up his college eligibility, so in order to keep playing, Williams spent time in the old United States Basketball League.

He was cleared of any wrongdoing that summer, not long after Weltman was fired as GM. Cavs owners George and Gordon Gund brought in Wayne Embry as Weltman's replacement, and Embry hired Lenny Wilkens to replace George Karl as coach.

“For people that really understand the story of what happened at Tulane, he was taken advantage of by people who were far more sophisticated," said NBA agent Mark Bartelstein, who represented Williams. “But there was a reason he was proven innocent and it’s because he was."

The focus shifted from Williams in court to what he could do on the court. He became part of a rookie class that included Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Mark Price. Those three were starters that helped to make the Cavs an up-and-coming team that no less than Magic Johnson predicted would be "the team of the 1990s."

Williams was an underrated reason why. He came off the bench, filling in behind Daugherty and other members of the frontcourt, such as Phil Hubbard. Williams didn't start but he often was in there at crunch time.

"He does everything very, very well," Wilkens said at the time. "He has a chance to be something special."

Today, Williams is among those who represent an era that is still cherished by older Cavs fans -- an era that many think would have included the franchise's first trip to the Finals, had it not been for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls' run of destiny.

Williams was with the Cavs from 1986-95. He averaged 11.0 points and 6.8 rebounds for his NBA career. During the 1989-90 season, he averaged 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds. The Cavs made the playoffs in seven of Williams’ seasons in Cleveland, advancing as far as the Eastern Conference finals in 1992, when his team again lost to Jordan and the Bulls.

HITTING THE WALL

Williams was a doting father of five. He himself was born in Sorrento, La., and a lot of people didn't know that his nickname had nothing to do with basketball.

Instead, it was the result of his habit of scooting across the floor and making engine noises as a toddler. For the rest of his life, he was known as "Hot Rod."

Along with Williams, former coach Bill Fitch, former team owner Nick Mileti, ex-forward John Johnson and Embry will be inducted into the Cavs' first Wall of Honor class Sunday. The honorees will be recognized at halftime.

Williams died Dec. 11, 2015 from prostate cancer. He was 53. His wife and all five children will be in town for the ceremony and game Sunday.

What started as a scandal in Louisiana resulted in a man who will forever be greatly admired in Cleveland. The Cavs helped to make that happen but Williams' drive, love of the game and love of people played a major role, too.

"Nobody cared about winning more than Hot Rod Williams," Bartelstein said. "I represented him his whole career. His teammates know that. If you knew the man, it’s not even fathomable he’d be involved in things he was accused of."

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