Sylvester (Sly) Williams was perched serenely upon a chair in a hotel room last Friday night, looking slightly Buddha-like—except for his legs, which are of the long-stemmed variety—as he patiently, and lyrically, explained how "all the chips fell where they may, putting me where I am today." Where Williams is today is at strong forward for the University of Rhode Island Rams, for whom he averages 25.6 points, ninth-best in the nation, and 8.7 rebounds a game. His shooting and rebounding, plus skills as a passer and a defender, make him the best college player in New England and perhaps all of the East. But where he is today is also where he almost wasn't, and where he might not be in a while. And therein lies a tale.
Williams, who is lefthanded, is 6'7" and impressively square-shouldered, with a head that looks too small for the rest of him. He is a resolutely cheerful and talkative person, especially in those expansive moments when you have obligingly asked him to tell the story of his life and he is about to let you have it with both barrels. It's almost possible during those interludes to close your eyes and imagine that, instead of Williams, it is the legendary Tyrone Shoelaces talking. Shoelaces, the playground character created by the comic songwriters and singers Cheech and Chong, describes his introduction to the game in the same tones Williams uses. "Ever since I was a little baby, I always be dribblin'," wails Shoelaces. "Then one day, my Momma bought me a basketball. And I loved that basketball. I took that basketball with me everywhere I went. That basketball...was like a basketball to me. I even put that basketball underneath my pillow. Maybe that's why I can't sleep at night."
Ever since Williams took up basketball at the not-so-tender age of 13, it has been his opponents who haven't been able to sleep at night. He grew up with 12 siblings in New Haven, Conn., and it was the family custom to play sandlot baseball after school. "Sometimes we used to kick a basketball around when we played soccer," Williams says, "but I never thought about playing basketball with a basketball until I was a freshman in high school. Until then, if I did much more than shoot around for a few minutes, I got bored."
The fact of the matter is that Williams had to be talked into going out for his high school team and was sorry he had done so when he made the varsity and some of his friends did not. In order to play with them he would frequently come home from practicing at school, eat dinner and then go right back out and play all evening with his buddies.
January 22, 1979
"When I first picked up a basketball in high school, I shot the ball down low and off to the side," Williams says. "Everybody was always blocking my shot. I always tried to be the best at whatever I did, and I figured the way to learn was by watching the best. To be truthful, I never spent that much time on the playground. I learned by watching pro games on TV. I'd watch Walt Frazier, and couldn't nobody block his shot. Pretty soon I was shooting the way I am today. It was like a miracle."
Despite averaging about 35 points during his senior year in high school, Williams was not heavily recruited by major colleges. "I was shocked that nobody didn't know about me nationally when I came out of high school," Williams says. In an attempt to get himself some ink, he called his own press conference in May 1976 to announce to local reporters that he had signed a letter of intent to play at Providence, at the time New England's basketball powerhouse. What he did not announce—and what he seemed to have forgotten—was that he had earlier indicated to Ram recruiters that he would play for Rhode Island, 25 miles south of Providence in Kingston.
Acting almost completely on his own because his father had died when he was nine and his mother knew little of the pressures of recruiting, Sly had narrowed his choice of schools down to two and then he chose both of them. At the time, you understand, they both sounded pretty good. "You don't want to say no to anybody," Williams says, "because everybody's being so helpful and considerate."
Rhode Island Coach Jack Kraft had wooed Sly and then evidently lost him to Dave Gavitt of Providence. But Gavitt had only signed him to a school letter of intent, which is not as binding as a national letter, and Williams was to have yet another change of heart. When Rhode Island opened its doors for freshman registration in 1976, Williams was in Kingston trying to separate his pink cards from his orange cards with the rest of the greenhorns.
Only a lefthander could have picked the smallest state in the Union in which to pull such a stunt, and, needless to say, Providence supporters were not quick to forgive him for it. Williams explains his failure even to drop Gavitt a postcard before enrolling at Rhode Island this way, "I felt that if I went to talk to Dave, he'd have influenced me to sign with Providence. So I just went to Rhode Island and registered." Williams says he finally chose Rhode Island because Kraft promised to build a program around him. "I didn't want to let the program make me," he says, "I wanted to make the program."
Providence people still feel that what Rhode Island made Williams was an offer he couldn't refuse. If that sounds suspiciously like sour grapes, no wonder. While Providence is struggling along with a 5-10 record and no Sly, Rhode Island is fast replacing the Friars as New England's national power. Including the final 11 games of last season, the Rams have won 22 of 25. Their losses have been by one point to Duke in the '78 NCAAs, by two at Syracuse in December and by one in overtime to Detroit in early January. Last week Rhody ran its season record to 12-2 by walloping Brown, Boston College and St. Bonaventure. Williams had 77 points in those victories.
But the citizenry of Rhode Island has been so enamored of Providence for so many years that Williams' efforts to keep the state on the basketball map have not been greeted with applause. In his first game at the Providence Civic Center, in the Industrial Classic during his freshman year, Williams was introduced to a chorus of boos before the Rams' game with Michigan. "That was a difficult thing for a kid who had never been booed in his life," says Kraft. But Williams responded with 32 points, and when he was removed from the game with less than a minute to go, he got a standing ovation. Williams claims that in the intervening two years he has been the object of undue attention by police officers who happen to be Providence fans and has generally received a lot of "bad publicity" for his supposed duplicity.
Though Williams averaged 20 points in his freshman season, he was disappointed by the Rams' 13-13 record and was undoubtedly astonished that Kraft would suggest he quit shooting so much in order to fit in with the rest of the team. One result was that last season he came close to transferring, but decided against it because of the year of eligibility it would have cost him. Convinced that he had chosen the wrong school, he began to miss practices, showed up late for two games and skipped the matchups with Biscayne College and Stonehill altogether. "He was never surly or objectionable in any way," says Kraft, "but I finally had to give him an ultimatum: if he wanted to play for us, he would have to be at practice and at all the games."
There has been considerable speculation in Rhode Island that Williams will turn pro at the end of this season. Williams does not dismiss the rumors, but it is said that his mother would like to see him play for the U.S. Olympic team. Ironically, the Americans will be coached in 1980 by Dave Gavitt of Providence. Now what Gavitt has to worry about for the next 18 months is how to keep Sly from defecting to the NBA—or the U.S.S.R.