Bill Willoughby: Before his time

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He was Magic Johnson, a cunning guard in a giant's body, duping them all, flicking passes from nowhere, behind his back, around his head. Every time, he left them flat, empty, rooted to the ground.

He was Dominique Wilkins, his game played somewhere else, on a level between the court and the troposphere, whirling, twisting, cocking the hammer and bringing the ball down like thunder on the basket below.

There is silence on the phone. "Yes," the voice of Bill Willoughby says softly. "My game would have been just like Tracy McGrady's. I just know I was ahead of my time."

Everybody was pushing that summer, thrusting him toward the money, telling him he would be wasting his time with college. He was special. He was different, something from the future, from a game yet to be played. Behind him, trailed nearly every high school basketball scoring record set in the state of New Jersey. Before him stood the Atlanta Hawks dangling a check for $650,000, the first installment on more than $1 million.

This was 1975 and a revolution was under way in professional basketball, and the newest soldiers were two teenage boys with wide eyes and wild hair. Bill Willoughby and Darryl Dawkins grabbed the bounty and became the first to go straight from high school to the NBA.

"I mean think about it," Willoughby says all these years later. "What would you do? Are you going to the (college) cafeteria, eating your little meal and then chasing girls all day, or if somebody came up to you and said `Here, you can have $650,000 to go hardship and play in the NBA?' What do you think? I said `OK, that's it, I'm gone.' It wasn't that hard a choice."

It seemed they were on the edge of something huge.

Instead, the experiment was such a disaster, it would be another 20 years before anybody else tried the same thing again.

Long before there was Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant there was Bill Willoughby. There was a sinewy forward stretched across a 6-foot-8 frame, a child really. Straight from Englewood, N.J., and high school, he was agonizingly shy.

Those who knew him then said he could disappear into a crowd if it wasn't for the fact he could soar higher than they had ever seen. That, and shoot a basketball.

But the league was not ready for a 6-8 forward who had nothing resembling an upper torso and a game imported straight from the asphalt. And maybe Willoughby, at age 18, wasn't ready to be something the NBA wanted him to be, either; a rebounder, a defender and a man grateful to have stepped into a very sweet deal.

And so nine years after he first caught a whiff of the money, he walked out of a New Jersey Nets summer league game and away from the sport forever. He was just 27. By then, he had been traded twice, released several times and missed a season because no one much seemed interested in a marked player washed up by age 21.

He had only 42 career starts in those eight seasons and never averaged more than 7.8 points a game.

"I was the guinea pig," he said. "I was looked upon a certain way. I know they just looked at me as some kid straight from the city who shunned college and made a lot of money. They never took me seriously. They never let me play my game."

In those nine years, he managed to accumulate a house in New Jersey, a condominium in Houston, a car and what he was convinced was a sizable savings that could carry him through retirement. He thought it was all he'd ever need until he discovered that the money was gone - stolen and misinvested by his agents, he says. And for the past 15 years, he has fought to collect the $1 million from those agents that a court says is rightfully his.

This week, six high-school seniors will wait behind the curtain at the NBA draft. Each will eventually stride to the podium, shake the commissioner's hand and take the cap of the team that has claimed his rights.

They too have sniffed the money and been told they can make the dream come true. They too will walk as boys into a world of men.

Willoughby has met some of them and he has told them his story. He has told them of coaches who never understood him, of the emptiness that comes with too many nights spent alone on the road and the rude discovery that he was broke.

He tells them all of these things and then he tells them something you might not expect. He says they too should go straight to the NBA, but make sure to take college classes on the side.

"If you were in business or computers or something and somebody came up to you and offered you all this money to go now, you'd be right there too," he says.

And this is the crux of his argument, an argument the NBA and college basketball does not want young players to hear.

"That's when the dollar comes in," Willoughby says. "The crazy dollar. In college you are an amateur, you don't get any money. But if someone offers you $500,000 for three years, you should take it."

Because who knows if that money is ever going to come again? Plus, he tells them, the NBA is better prepared to handle young players now than it was 26 years ago. The old guard of coaches is disappearing, replaced by younger, often African-American coaches such as New Jersey's Byron Scott and the Sonics' Nate McMillan, men who can relate more to 18-year-old kids than their predecessors.

The world Willoughby walked into was quite different. It didn't take long for him to realize he wouldn't fit right in. The first lesson came during one of those early games with the Atlanta Hawks. He drove toward the basket, dribbling the ball between his legs and rolling it around the small of his back. Then he missed the shot. Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Hawks' coach, yanked him out of the game.

"This isn't the playground," he growled.

"Coach, I can make it next time," Willoughby protested.

Only the next times didn't come often. The year before, Fitzsimmons had traded "Pistol" Pete Maravich, one of the great showmen the league has ever known. This was still well before the Showtime Lakers, before Magic and no-look passes. Willoughby, who fancied himself as the first 6-8 point guard, wasn't going to have the chance to dance on the fastbreak.

Things only got worse when Hubie Brown took over the Hawks the following season. Willoughby barely got off the bench. He was traded a year later to the Buffalo Braves, then released the season after when the team moved to San Diego.

It was a full year before Cleveland took a chance on him. A season later, he was with the Rockets, where he actually started part of the time in 1981-82. From Houston, it was on to San Antonio, then the Nets and by 1984 he'd had enough.

"I'm not bitter, just bittersweet," Willoughby says. "It was like people had put chains on me. I never really got to play my game. I did well when I had the chance. If I got 11 shots, I'd usually hit six of them. When guys in the league see you and say `You should be an All-Star,' that was a frustrating thing. I mean I blocked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's hook shot as a small forward. I mean the only people to do that were Wilt (Chamberlain) and Larry Nance."

He sighs.

"To me, I was misused, that's why I left when I did. Nobody ever drew up a play for me. I could jump higher than anybody else and yet they never threw me an alley-oop. I could have been like Michael Cooper (the Lakers' longtime guard known for flashy dunks and defense), but they didn't want me to be that."

For the men who had to coach him, he was a headache. Brown scorched him repeatedly, told people he wasn't tough. Del Harris, who coached him in Houston, thought him delusional - imagining himself a star in a role player's body.

Even Fitzsimmons, the one who drafted him and later traded for him again would eventually tell reporters: "I gave him two chances, but I wouldn't give him a third."

There is more silence on the phone. It is a lonely night out in New Jersey on Father's Day, and Willoughby's apartment on the bluff above the Hudson River is empty save for him. He has been looking for a wife, someone he can settle down with, a partner who will help him raise a family.

In a way, this too is the sad remnant of a life lived on the road.

Relationships that blossomed in the early-morning nightclubs would dissolve sometime after sunrise. The wild NBA ride of groupies and hangers-on lost its appeal somewhere on the journey from team to team. Willoughby watched as teammates continuously tangled themselves in affairs woven when one-night stands turned them into fathers.

Somehow he managed to avoid the trap that came with the promiscuous life.

But his price was solitude. And that is an awful burden when you realize you have lost your house, your condo and all the money you thought was safely squired away. That is the real emptiness.

He blames his agents Jerry Davis and Lewis Schaffel. They managed the money, made the promises and doled out the nearly $1,000 a month he needed to get by as a player. When he retired and came looking for the bank accounts, they were empty. He had nothing. The IRS began seizing assets not long after that.

Although he won a $1 million case against Davis in Superior Court in Hackensack, N.J., in 1990, appeals and bankruptcies have kept him from the money. In desperation, he turned to the NBA Retired Players Association in 1995. The association's executive director, Mel Davis, in return, suggested college.

This spring, with the Retired Players Association picking up the $40,000 tab, Willoughby graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a degree in communications.

"When he came here he was really broken," Mel Davis says. "Here he was, 38 years old, working part-time at the Police Athletic League, and he had nothing. He was still shy, he couldn't even look me in the eye. Now, he's a whole new man. He's got a degree, he's got confidence. He literally did a 360-degree turn. He's more outgoing."

Those who were there said you should have heard the speech Willoughby gave at graduation. He talked about responsibilities, about taking ownership of your life. He said he had finally done that himself and he held up his new diploma to prove it. And when he stopped, when he backed away from the podium, the crowd of graduates rose to their feet and gave Willoughby - the lost, lonely shy experiment that failed - a standing ovation.

That was a month ago, and the cheering has stopped and it's Father's Day and all the memories of the career that could have been something more are spilling out.

Willoughby, now 44, insists he still would have gone for the money way back in 1975 even as he looks back at the coaches he fought with and the agents he believes stole from him.

All he can do is warn the new players about his mistakes. Let them know when they should look out. He would love to work for the NBA's new developmental league. He would be a natural. So far, he hasn't heard from the NBA and he fears his views on players skipping college have not ingratiated him with David Stern, the commissioner who is trying to curb the flow of high-schoolers coming into the league.

For now, it is the hope he holds onto. Hope even as he knows he could have been so much more as a player had he not lost a generational lottery.

"You know, I watched Bill Willoughby play back when he was in high school," Mel Davis says. "You should have seen the things he could do. He really was a player ahead of his time."

Les Carpenter can be reached at 206-464-2280 or