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The Cavaliers squad that took the floor to start the 1986-87 season featured the greatest group of incoming freshman in the four-decade history of the franchise.
After Ted Stepien’s gross mismanagement of the team in the early 1980s, the Cavaliers were awarded bonus draft picks after George and Gordon Gund took over after the 1982-83 season. They parlayed two of those picks into Brad Daugherty and Ron Harper and dealt a second rounder for point guard Mark Price. And waiting in the wings from a ‘red-shirt’ rookie season was John “Hot Rod” Williams.
Hot Rod – given that nickname as a baby from his habit of scooting backwards across the floor while making engine-like sounds – was the 21st pick of the second round in 1985 – chosen by Cleveland 36 spots behind Charles Oakley, who was dealt to Chicago before ever suiting up for his hometown team, and 15 spots above a player – Calvin Duncan – who never suited up for any NBA team.
In that first year, Hot Rod joined Daugherty and Harper on the All-Rookie Team. And he maintained that course throughout his career in Cleveland.
Williams played nine seasons with the Cavaliers, reaching the postseason in six of t hem. He averaged double-figures in every season with Cleveland – 12.9 ppg during the regular season, 12.4 ppg in the playoffs. The former Tulane star’s best season was in 1989, when he came off the bench to average 16.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.04 blocked shots per contest.
One-third of the best frontcourt in the organization’s history, Hot Rod – famous for his flat-top – never played less than 67 games in any season with the Cavaliers. The franchise’s all-time records are filled with contributions from Williams. He’s still the second-leading shot-blocker (1,200) and third-leading rebounder (4,669) in team history. Nobody ever played more minutes (20,802) as a Cavalier.
He wrapped up his 13-year career after the 1998-99 season – playing two years with the Suns and one with Dallas.
In today’s “Where Are They Now?” Cavs.com caught up with the former Cavalier great to ask him about his incoming class as a rookie, his memories from the Richfield Coliseum and what that era’s squad was really like …
First question – as always – what are you up to these days?
Hot Rod Williams: I do landscaping. I build houses. I do a lot of drawing – I draw a lot of buildings for different people now. So that’s what I do.
Have you always done construction?
Williams: Yeah, I’ve always been building houses. Mostly, I’m just a project man. A lot of the time, I’d go out there and do the work. I still do some of the work but not that much. I did a church just recently and last Thanksgiving, they moved in. It was about 10,000 square feet. I did that for the Rev. That was the last big job I did. But most of the time, I just do a lot of drawing for people. That’s what I like.
And I fish.
That’s why I like living in Louisiana. I like the fishing down here.
What do you go after?
Williams: Speckled trout and redfish.
What part of Louisiana do you live in?
Williams: I live there in Gonzales, right near Sorrento, Gonzales – between New Orleans and Baton Rouge – about 15 minutes from LSU.
Huge game this weekend.
Williams: Hell, yeah! I’m gonna be watching, you can bet that. I’m a Tulane man, but I follow my home team, LSU – the team right by my house.
Glen Dorsey played for LSU and that’s one of my son’s best friends.
How many kids do you have?
Williams: I have three boys and two girls. Johnna is the youngest. She went to Xavier University and she graduated out of Texas A&M International. She went back to school to get her Master’s. She just graduated this year.
The Cavaliers teams you played for were always labeled “good guys.” Was that the actual personality of the team?
Williams: I think our personality as a team, we were like a family.
I played with other teams, but in Cleveland it was more family-oriented. A lot of guys liked Louisiana food and on Sundays, when we didn’t have anything to do, a lot of guys would come over to my house for dinner.
We rode to the airport together. We all did a lot of stuff together.
Was it because so many of you came into the league together at the same time?
Williams: I think the big reason was that a lot of us were married when we were young. We had our wives there and our wives got along with each other.
So we were more ‘home’ guys and we had kids, and our kids grew up together. And I think that made us more like a family team.
How much did head coach Lenny Wilkens contribute to that chemistry?
Williams: We couldn’t ask for a better coach.
When I first got there, George Karl was the coach. I loved him. He was a mean coach, but off the court he was a good guy.
But Coach Lenny Wilkens – he was a guy you had to do what he said to do. And there were no days off. But he really was particular about what he wanted to do. If you didn’t do it his way, you weren’t going to be there. And if you did it his way, you were going to play.
I played for Mike Fratello. I played for Don Nelson, one of the all-time winningest coaches. I played for Cotton Fitzsimmons, Danny Ainge. But I think out of all them, I liked Lenny’s attitude best.
He was a player’s coach. He was one of those guys: He didn’t just care about what you were doing as a basketball player, he wanted to know how you were doing with life, too.
Do you have a specific memory – an instance or a particular game – that you hold special from your time in Cleveland?
Williams: I think about one time, I missed practice for some reason. We were in the playoffs and there was some concern of whether they should play me or not. And I stole the ball for the win against New Jersey.
And the other time, we were playing Boston. We needed to win Game 6. And I was at the free throw line late in the game, and I said, “God, if you’ve ever been with me, be with me now.”
And Boston kept icing me on the free throw line. The goal was moving. The whole building was rocking. I made the first one – (I didn’t care about the second one) – and we won the game.
So that’s one moment I’ll never forget, because we came home and beat Boston in that series.
That series against Boston in 1992 was a classic.
Williams: The thing about that series: they had the big three and we had the big three.
They had the old guys: Robert Parish, Larry Bird, and Kevin McHale. And over here you had Larry Nance, me and Brad (Daugherty). It was the old against the young. And that was something really nice to be a part of.
Was that the best frontline you’ve ever been a part of?
Williams: Well I thought Daugherty, at times, he wasn’t a great defensive player. But offensively, when he got the ball, there was nobody in the league that could stop him. I thought, at times on defense, he wasn’t there for us. He could’ve blocked some shots that he didn’t.
But he had me and Larry on either side and he had a lot of stuff from other people. Price knew that if his man got by, me and Larry were gonna try to block the shot. There weren’t a lot of layups.
Me and Larry – we were power forward, small forward – and, at the time, we were both in the top five in the league in shot-blocking. Teams had to beat us from the outside with big shots. Like the shot Michael Jordan beat us with. He knew he had to hit that shot.
You had a starter’s skill-set, and certainly the numbers. But you always seemed comfortable with your role coming off the bench.
Williams: I knew what my job was every night. Coach Lenny knew that I was a guy who knew what I was in the offense. I got most of my scoring from offensive rebounds, tipped balls, fast breaks, steals, things like that. But the offense was run through everybody else.
I was a guy who did the dirty work and I had no problem with it. But the thing about it – one night I might have to guard Patrick Ewing. Brad was the center, but coach would put me on him. Next night might be David Robinson, next night might be Dominique Wilkins. Or Charles Barkley.
I knew that every night, I would have my hands full. Coach would say, ‘Hot Rod, you’ve got to guard these guys’ and just put me on them.
I knew I could’ve started. They made a big trade. I didn’t like the trade, but they made a big trade and dealt Ron Harper for Danny Ferry. And you’ve got Larry Nance and me playing forward. Where is Danny going to play with both of us there? One of us had to go to the bench.
I think that was one of the worst things we could’ve done was trade Ron Harper. The thing is, when we did play Chicago, Ron Harper maybe couldn’t stop Jordan, but Jordan couldn’t stop Harper, either. Jordan might’ve had 40, but Ron could get 30. And Jordan had to work.
It was just different when he had to guard Ehlo or Gerald Wilkins. He didn’t have to work as hard, and that made a big difference in the game.
With you guys all coming into the NBA together, how bad did the Harper trade shake the team?
Williams: I remember the morning they traded Harper. I always got to practice about an hour before everyone else. I had to do extra work because I knew I had to be in shape to guard those other guys.
I was in the gym and I saw Coach Lenny with tears in his eyes and I said ‘What’s wrong, coach?’ And he said ‘They traded Harper. Tell the guys don’t worry about coming to practice or not. We’re in the middle of a trade.’ I couldn’t believe it. So I called Harper up and said, ‘Man, you’ve been traded.’ I don’t think he knew it at the time.
That was the team. We had everything we needed. When we lost Harper, we never had that slashing guy who could draw the foul or take it on the wing in the last minute of the game. Brad could post up, but most times they’ll double-team the center. Harper could go one-on-one and create his own shot.
Did you know early on that you had something special with that rookie class in 1986?
Williams: At the time, we had some older players on the team. And we just came to play. We just outworked the older guys. Coach didn’t just give us the job. We outworked the older guys and won the job. That was just the bottom line.
I really remember (that season). I loved it. And right then, I knew we were going to be good.
I mean, I thought us four would stay together. We got Larry and I thought that was the other missing piece.
Do you still keep in touch with Larry Nance or any other former teammates?
Williams: I talk to Larry every week. Me and Larry talk all the time. He comes down here, I come up to his house. And I came to Cleveland about two or three times this year. I did an appearance with Larry. He asked me if I wanted to do it with him and I did.
He and I really close.
I really don’t talk to too many other guys from Cleveland. I talk with George McCloud, who played with me in Phoenix and I talk to Donnie (Nelson) Jr., who’s running Dallas' team. I talked with him the other day. He and I real good friends.
Anything strike you when you do return to Cleveland?
Williams: Me and Larry went to the Cavs new practice facility. That’s nice, man!
Those kids got it made now! You can go eat breakfast, stay there all day. You don’t ever have to go home. Larry said, ‘Man, you’ve got to see how they got it, Hot Rod.’ And I thought, ‘Ooohh, they spoiled!’
Makes it attractive for players who want to play in Cleveland.
Williams: You got to love the game. You got to want to play somewhere.
I remember when Cleveland tried to trade me, and I turned the trade down. I just didn’t want to go to Seattle. Everybody said, ‘You’re stupid, man! Turning down five million dollars not to go to Seattle.’ Well, I wanted to stay in Cleveland. Coach Lenny said, ‘Do what you think is best for yourself.’ And I said, ‘Coach Lenny, I’m gonna stay here and I don’t care what anybody says, I’m gonna stay and play hard for you.’
And that’s one thing he could tell you: that I came to play hard, every time.
Do you still root for the Cavaliers or consider yourself a Cavalier?
Williams: I wear Cavs stuff every day! I’m proud. That’s where I spent my career. I’ll be a Cavalier no matter what.
I had an opportunity to come back before I went to Dallas. Wayne (Embry) offered me two years, Dallas offered me three, Houston offered me three as well as San Antonio. I ended up going to Dallas because I liked Donnie Jr.
In a way, I wanted to come back and finish my career in Cleveland. But my kids wanted to go to school in Louisiana. And I wanted to be close to them and have a short flight home. That’s why I chose Dallas. But I really wanted to come back and finish my career in Cleveland.
Final question: Are you still rocking the flat-top?
Williams: Yeah. I look the same! Everybody says ‘Man, you ain’t changed a bit!’
I have exactly the same look – same size and everything.