By Clifton Barnes
(NOTE: Barnes is a Rocky Mount Senior High classmate and former junior high football/basketball teammate of Buck Williams.)
Brash. Trash talker. Controversial. Showy. A jerk. Ah, no.
Competitive. Hard worker. Consistent. Team player. A winner. Yeah, that’s more like it.
That’s Rocky Mount native Buck Williams.
You could also say he’s overlooked, underappreciated, forgotten even.
Known through much of his childhood as Charles, the Buck that came to be led the Rocky Mount Gryphons to the 1978 4A state basketball title. He took his game to the University of Maryland, where he helped lead the Terrapins to a 64-28 record over three years. He was ACC rookie of the year in 1979 and earned all-conference honors in 1980 and 1981.
He was the third player picked in the 1981 NBA draft, going to the New Jersey Nets where he was selected to the NBA All-Star team three times. He was traded to the Portland Trailblazers, where he made the NBA All-Defensive first or second team four times and helped lead the Blazers to two NBA finals. He finished his 17-year career with the New York Knicks in 1998. His number 52 was retired by the Nets.
Williams, who served a term as president of the NBA Players Association, has been eligible for consideration for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame since 2004 but was never nominated until 2020.
Why not? Some might say probably because he wasn’t all those things listed in the first paragraph. In addition to not being flashy, he also never won an NBA title, through no fault of his own. He’s also never been a self-promoter.
But there has been a concerted effort this time to finally get Buck Williams into the Hall of Fame, helped along by a high school analytics club in New York.
A group of students, 14-18 years old, at Fordham Prep in the Bronx took on the task of comparing Williams’ stats to other players already in the Hall of Fame. None of the students were born when Williams retired and none of them knew who he was until watching a video titled, “Portland Trail Blazers: Return to Rip City.”
The Sports Analytics Club Program CEO Robert Clayton, a sports attorney in Washington, D.C. who had known Williams for years, suggested the Fordham group take a look at Williams’ numbers.
“We went into this blindly,” Dr. Raymond Gonzalez, coordinator for the Fordham club, told me. “When the students uncovered the truth, we were blown away. Our stats show an unsung hero that should be in the Hall.”
He said the club compared Williams’ stats to those of seven players already in the Hall of Fame – Walt Bellamy, Vlade Divac, Bob Lanier, Ralph Sampson, Jack Sikma, Nate Thurmond and Chris Webber. “When you lined them up side by side, in almost every category he was No. 1,” Gonzalez said, pointing particularly to his lead in field goal percentage and rebounding.
Williams, at a relatively short 6-foot-8 and a playing weight of only 225 pounds, ranks third all time in offensive rebounds and 16th in total rebounds. As for scoring, when playing in the ACC at Maryland, Williams learned an effective jump hook in order to score over his taller, bigger opponents like Virginia’s Ralph Sampson and Duke’s Mike Gminski. It served him well in the NBA where he averaged a double-double in scoring (12.8 points) and rebounding (10) for his entire career, a rare feat.
The Fordham Prep club compared a relatively obscure statistic that really shows Williams’ worth to his team – win shares and defensive win shares. In short it uses combined player, team and league-wide stats, including points allowed, to show how much players contribute to wins. The results showed that Williams ranks 50th all time.
The unassuming Williams said that he never thought about the Hall of Fame when he was playing and didn’t really think he could be inducted until he heard how he compared with others already in the Hall of Fame.
“These kids that put together this project convinced me that I should be in the Hall of Fame based on the numbers,” Williams said. “It kinda got my juices going. It would be a crowning moment.”
He told me he has a good life as a realtor in Potomac, Md. with his cherished wife of 37 years, Mimi, so he’ll be fine if he doesn’t get in. But he really wants it for his former teammates, his friends and his family, which includes two grown sons.
Dr. Gonzalez said he and his students feel as if Williams has become part of their family. They are looking forward to meeting Williams in person one day as they have heard he is “an exceptional human being.”
The folks in his hometown of Rocky Mount know what a genuinely good person he is. And many believe that should also be taken into account when deciding whether or not he should be in the basketball Hall of Fame.
On social media, several people shared comments and anecdotes with me about Buck Williams. Most of the memories revolved around Buck as a person. Among the descriptions were “gentle giant,” “a good sport,” “humble,” “polite,” “well-mannered,” “respectful,” “friendly,” and “kind.”
His basketball prowess is certainly remembered and appreciated too, especially among those who remember how hard he worked to get better and better.
Buck was skinny, a bit lanky and perhaps even a little clumsy as an eighth grader. While he would have been the tallest player on the team, he didn’t play that year. Within a year or so, Buck’s hard work (and the fact that he physically matured and grew into his body, so to speak) turned him into a good ball player. He got stronger and better each year throughout high school, not only becoming the best player on the team but perhaps the best player in the state.
By his senior year, the usually quiet, never cocky Buck Williams had become more confident in himself. Two of Rocky Mount’s best players, Reggie Barrett and Jeffrey Battle, who ended up going to Memphis State on a scholarship, got in foul trouble in the first half of the state championship game in 1978. Rocky Mount coach Reggie Henderson, after the game, said, “Buck came up to me at the halftime break and told me not to worry. He said we had come too far to lose and he would see to it that we didn’t lose.”
Buck scored 28 points – hitting 10 of 13 shots along with eight free throws – and hauled down nine rebounds, earning tournament MVP honors, and leading his team to the state title, 91-83, over Greensboro Grimsley.
Buck likes to point out that he was a country boy that came from humble beginnings. Williams, who is the youngest of six children, learned his work ethic from his parents, Moses and Betty Louise, who grew up sharecropping on farms. Moses even built the house that the family lived in for more than 20 years.
Having someone of Williams’ caliber in the Hall of Fame can do nothing but help the image of the NBA and the Hall itself. It would have a much-needed positive effect on the psyche of Rocky Mount as well. In addition, Buck wants to help start a Sports Analytics Club at Rocky Mount High School as a result of this process.
To bolster his case for induction into the Hall of Fame, there is a bit of a letter-writing campaign among Rocky Mount natives, classmates, teammates and citizens. Anyone can join in. If you’d like to see Buck Williams in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, please send a respectful note to John Doleva, President & CEO, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, 1000 Hall of Fame Ave, Springfield, MA 01105.
Ask Doleva to share it with the 24 voters, who are unknown to the public. Ten finalists will be named on Feb. 18 so please don’t hold back. Buck Williams never did.