There has always been something about the city of New York and point guards. Not only is the Big Apple the center of the U.S. economy, it is also something of a fertile breeding ground for points who hone their skills on the city's multitude of hardtop courts. Those point guards have always had a style all their own, a certain flair with which they play they game, a certain shoot-first attitude which was relatively unique to the position before scoring point guards became the norm during the 1990s.
It was just that attitude that Gus Williams brought to the Seattle SuperSonics during their late-1970s, early 1980s heyday. Williams' frenetic style of play was a perfect complement to the laid-back Midwestern attitude of Fred Brown, John Johnson and Jack Sikma and the California cool of Dennis Johnson.
Williams paved the way for today's scoring point guards.
Williams' Seattle career almost never came to be. After teaming with Paul Westphal in the backcourt at USC, Williams was taken in the second round of the 1975 Draft with the 20th pick by the Golden State Warriors. Williams developed more quickly than the Warriors could have hoped, averaging 11.7 points off the bench as a rookie. The following season, Williams became a starter, though his scoring average dropped to 9.2 points per game. Still, his future looked bright.
After his second season, Williams became a free agent. He wanted to stay in California, but also wanted the security of a three-year contract. The Warriors were only willing to offer two years guaranteed. Enter the Sonics, who wanted to add depth at guard, and decided to give Williams the contract he wanted. With that, Williams joined the Sonics.
"Several people were interested," Williams said after signing. "It was just a matter of time until the right offer came along. This is a business and you have to do what's best for you in the long run."
"Williams gives us that experienced guard, gives us the depth, and at least I won't get scared if someone gets hurt," said Bob Hopkins, then coaching the Sonics.
He would give them so much more.
Williams opened the 1977-78 season in the bench role Hopkins envisioned. Things would change, as they would for so many others, when Lenny Wilkens replaced Hopkins 22 games into the season. Williams moved into the starting lineup to team with another second-round pick from a California college, Johnson, in the backcourt. Quickly, Williams went from providing depth to leading scorer on the Finals-bound Sonics.
Simply, Williams' gifted offensive talents could not be held down. One of the fastest players in the NBA, Williams has been described as a "one-man fast break". He was also one of the league's quickest players, a trait that made him devastating on the break but also difficult to keep from penetrating in the halfcourt offense.
"I like to run and I like to run the fast break, but I don't object to any type of game as long as there is a 24-second clock," Williams said, describing his game, when he signed with the Sonics. "With that, you can't really slow things down too much."
As far as his speed and quickness were concerned, Williams said, "If youíve got those attributes, you can fit it anywhere."
Forget fitting in. Williams molded his teammates around him, becoming one of the league's first great scoring point guards. During his early days, Williams was not a great distributor, not cracking the five mark in assist average during his first five seasons. That worked for the Sonics, who had a pair of Johnsons, Dennis and John, capable of handling the ball in the starting five.
After leading the Sonics with 18.1 points per game during his first season in Seattle, Williams continued to take his game to new heights. During the 1978-79 season, as the Sonics won the Pacific Division, Williams again led the team in scoring with 19.2 points per game while also ranking in the league's top ten with better than two steals a night.
Williams truly shined during the 1979 playoffs, leading the Sonics to the championship. Over 17 playoff games, he averaged a team-best 26.6 points per game, and only one Sonics regular topped Williams' 47.4% shooting from the field.
Williams particularly picked it up during the NBA Finals. He led the Sonics in scoring in each of the five games of their 4-1 series win over the Washington Bullets (having already done the same in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Los Angeles Lakers), averaging 28.6 points per game. While Dennis Johnson would win Finals MVP, it was fitting that Williams found the ball in his hands at the end of Game 5, tossing it high into the air in celebration as the Sonics clinched their Finals victory.
During the following season, Williams continued to refine his game, topping 20 points per game for the first time in his career with a 22.1 average, good for 11th in the NBA. Williams earned second-team All-NBA honors, and while the Sonics fell short in the playoffs against the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, Williams was not to blame. He again upped his scoring average to 23.7 points during the postseason.
Williams led the Sonics 1978-79 championship run with 19.2 points per game.
Then Williams' contract expired. Again, supported by agent Howard Slusher, Williams was unwilling to back down from his demands, but this time, neither was Sonics president Sam Schulman. The two sides reached an impasse and were unable to come to terms on a new deal, causing Williams to sit out the season in his prime. With Williams out and Lonnie Shelton and newcomer Westphal battered by injuries, the Sonics slipped out of the playoffs and to a 34-48 record.
If the terrible season had a positive, it did convince Schulman and Sonics management of Williams' value. He signed a new long-term deal to stay in Seattle on Jun. 18, 1981.
"The market is different now and I didn't foresee the conditions we have today," Schulman said while announcing the contract, undoubtedly thinking of the team's struggles.
"I think they will," Williams said about Sonics fans accepting him back. "But that's probably my main concern right now.
"I know there will be some controversy. I'm not looking forward to it."
On the court, Williams was as great as ever after returning, though his game changed and matured during his time away. With the Johnsons no longer major factors - Dennis had been traded to Phoenix for Westphal, while John played just 14 games because of injuries - Williams took on a greater role initiating the Sonics offense and creating for his teammates. He averaged a career-high 6.9 assists during the 1981-82 season, then proceeded to break it each of the next years by averaging 8.0 and 8.4 assists, respectively.
The newfound ability to create did not detract from Williams' scoring. His 23.4 points per game in 81-82 were also a career high, and Williams was recognized with his long-overdue first appearance in the All-Star Game (as a starter) and a selection to the All-NBA first team. As a team, the Sonics picked up essentially where they left off before Williams' holdout, winning 52 games and advancing to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Williams' career peaked after the 1981-82 season, though he remained a 20-point-per-game scorer while adding the eight assists the following year, earning his second All-Star berth. Although the Sonics lost a two-game sweep to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, Williams did his share, averaging 32.5 points in the series - better than a third of the team's 96.5 scoring average.
During the 1983-84 season, Williams slipped below 20 points per game for the first time in four seasons, and Sikma passed him up as the Sonics leading scorer. The team continued to slide, winning only 42 games and going out in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season.
By that point, it was evident the Sonics needed a change, and management decided that meant dealing Williams, who would turn 31 before the following season. On the night of the 1984 Draft, Williams was sent to the Bullets for Ricky Sobers, the rights to first-round pick Tim McCormick and a future first-round pick.
It was evident the move was not Wilkens' first choice from his comments at the press conference announcing the deal.
"I'm a Gus Williams fan," Wilkens said. "I always have been and always will be."
While Williams had one more star-caliber season in him, hitting the 20-point plateau again during his first season in Washington, the move proved savvy. When his speed and quickness began to desert him, Williams' performance quickly dropped off. He averaged 13.5 points during the 1985-86 season before moving to Atlanta, where Williams was a shell of his All-Star self during his final season, averaging a meager 4.2 points in 33 games before retiring.
Williams was not highly decorated during his playing career, making just two All-Star appearances and earning only two All-NBA selections. Perhaps Williams' game was just too far ahead of its time to be recognized by league-wide experts, thought it certainly did not escape the notice of fans, who loved the player nicknamed "Wizard".
Williams' statistical case for greatness is a strong one. He ranks fifth in Sonics history in points, sixth in scoring average, fourth in field goals, assists and steals, seventh in games played and sixth in minutes. Williams' playoff numbers are much more impressive. He is second only to Payton in career playoff points with the Sonics (1,602) and leads the team in scoring average at 23.2 points per game. He ranks third in assists, second in steals, field goals and free throws. Williams also briefly held the NBA's all-time record for steals during the 1984-85 season.
As a result, the Sonics will make Williams the fifth player in franchise history to have his jersey number, #1, retired this Friday as a part of their celebration of the 25th anniversary of the 1979 Championship.
With more than two dozen family members and friends in attendance, it will be yet another opportunity for Williams to bring his New York style to the West Coast.
Also see: NBA.com: Gus Williams
guswilliams.com - Gus' official Web site