With High Scoring and High Socks, Walt Williams Made Mark on Kings

Once the odd man out on a 15-man junior varsity team, “The Wizard” became an ahead-of-his-time ball-handler and outside scorer in Sacramento.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

In the winter of 1984, long before he’d score inside and out as a do-it-all King -- rising over hapless smaller defenders or slithering around bulkier ones with ease -- Walt Williams was perhaps the most overqualified student manager in the Washington metropolitan area.

Williams, a sinewy, quick-footed streetballer on the blacktops of Temple Hills, Md., fantasized he was Len Bias on the playground but never tried out for an organized team until ninth grade. Soon after that first tryout for JV, which consisted of far too many wind sprints and not enough scrimmages, he decided he wouldn’t come back the next afternoon. Had it not been for his sister, who persuaded him to pursue basketball to stay out of trouble, Williams might’ve quit for good.

By the time he returned, final cuts had already been made, but rather than head home with his head down and disappoint his sister again, Williams convinced the coach to grant him a spot on the team -- as a ball boy.

“I used to wipe up the sweat, give guys water bottles when they came out of the game and get their towels ready for when they sat down,” Williams said. “All of those things that a manager does, like setting chairs up for the start of the game.”

Midway through the year, 10 players on the roster were ruled ineligible after failing to maintain a 2.0 GPA, and Williams was promoted to the team as a substitute. The rest, as they say, is history.

Eight years after abandoning a high-school audition, Williams, the No. 7 overall pick by the Kings in 1992, arrived in the NBA with a sophisticated, scintillating game and a magical moniker.

Nicknamed “The Wizard” by a Terps assistant coach impressed by his flair and unique skill set, Williams was a night-in, night-out scoring machine at Maryland, in an era when seldom underclassmen turned pro. As a senior, the AP Second Team All-American averaged 26.8 points -- including an ACC record 29.6 in conference play -- 5.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 2.1 steals, exceeding 20 points in 19 consecutive games and 30-plus in seven straight.

“I think that playing in that environment, back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, playing in the ACC, [which] was absolutely the clear best conference in basketball, [prepared me for the NBA],” Williams said “You played against teams every night that had multiple [future] pros on their team at one time -- and not freshmen and sophomores. These guys were juniors and seniors; pro ready, but still playing in college.

“I also think that the competition level I played against my whole life was a big factor, as well. As a kid, playing in pick-up games, the skill level of players was very, very high. My public high school -- not private -- had unbelievable talent.”

Because he was used to handling the ball and beating kids off the dribble on the concrete, the 6-foot-8 wing -- nominally a small forward, but a point or shooting guard when needed -- could thread a pocket pass on one possession; on the next, change direction with a slick crossover that left his defender looking; and later, just as effortlessly sink a long-range jumper.

Williams insists, with a hearty chuckle, that he entered the league two decades ahead of his time, and had he been born in 1990 rather than 1970, would’ve been a megastar -- and he might have a point. In the early ‘90s, the NBA, dominated by traditional centers, was both bigger and slower, with post-ups prioritized over outside shooting. From 1990 through 1994, entire teams shot fewer three-pointers on a single night than Buddy Hield did by himself last season.

“I tell my mother all the time, ‘You had me 20 years too early!” he said. “The game today is tailor-made for the way I played. [I had] the size of a small forward, the handle and the vision of a point guard, a post game and [I was] a three-point shooter. In my day, the game was played inside-out; now, it’s played outside-in. So absolutely I would’ve been suited well for today’s game.”

The man who drafted Williams, Jerry Reynolds, agrees with that scouting report. Reynolds, then-Kings general manager, saw the Maryland superstar as a “can’t miss” NBA player then, and believes he’d be even better in a contemporary spread-the-floor, drive-and-kick offense.

“I thought he had major star talent, but I’d also say he came along too soon,” Reynolds said. “He’s a guy who, with his game, his size and his abilities, would’ve been much better in today’s game. Just to see a guy who was 6-foot-8, who could handle the ball in the open court, had great vision, could make plays and shoot from deep, you could always find a matchup advantage for him.”

With his versatility and positionless game, Williams was as much of a pillar of the Kings organization in his era as All-Star Mitch Richmond and the youthfully energetic Brian Grant. A fixture in the rotation since Day 1, No. 42 was selected to the All-Rookie Second Team with averages of 17.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 28.4 minutes.

Along with his play, Williams’ signature look, his socks pulled tightly to just below his knees, became somewhat of a phenomenon in Sacramento. The knee-highs were memorably trumpeted in the introduction video on Kings broadcasts and prominently featured on the team’s 1995-96 pocket schedule.

That look was born, in part, as an homage to one of his other basketball idols, Hall of Famer George Gervin, the gliding superstar in knee-high socks whom Williams watched on VHS tapes in his dorm room. One day, Williams, then a sophomore, decided to pull up his socks like “The Iceman” during practice, and played so well that he kept them raised ever since.

“I was unbelievable in that scrimmage, and I believed it was because my socks were up,” he said. “From that point on, I never pulled them down again.”

With his socks pulled high, the Kings fan favorite elevated his game as a first-year starter, averaging a smidge under 20 points in 26 games in that role, and was equally effective as an electrifying reserve. Amassing hot streaks that would light up the ARCO Arena scoreboard, he dropped 24 points in the fourth game of his career, topped the 20-point threshold 13 times in all, and scored over 30 on five occasions.

On Jan. 2, 1993, Williams scorched the 76ers for a career-best 40 points -- in 30 minutes off the bench -- a mark that hasn’t been exceeded by any rookie reserve in the 28 years since.

“He had a terrific rookie year, and I remember early in the year, we thought he could be Magic Johnson-good,” Reynolds said. “He was really gifted. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do. He had [17] points in his first game against the Lakers down in the Forum around that time, and got even better from there.”

Williams could always put the ball in the hoop, but he credits tutelage from Richmond, the Hall of Famer who took on the challenge of both scoring on and slowing down opposing guards, for helping him learn how to conduct himself in the NBA.

“I had a lot of respect for Mitch and I learned a lot from him,” Williams said. “When I saw him early on -- just destroying guys like Reggie Miller, performing against Michael Jordan, all of the stars -- I gravitated to what he was doing. How he prepared before games, how he approached practices and the work he put in after games, I sort of took on that [approach]. Those results were showing in my game very quickly.”

Among more than a dozen other former teammates, whose names he rattles off as if he’s reading from a media guide -- from Anthony Bonner to Spud Webb -- was the late Wayman Tisdale. With a friendly face, insight on a variety of subjects outside of basketball and a genuine personality, “Tizzy” made an immediate, deep-rooted impression on Williams.

“Wayman wasn’t a guy who would party or drink or anything like that ... He was almost like a father figure, especially in my rookie year,” Williams said. “Sometimes after practice, he would ask me, ‘What are you doing this evening? Come on over and get a home-cooked meal.’

“He was extremely talented. I remember the first time he took me into his studio, pulled out the guitar and started playing for me. I was just amazed because he was a for-real musician; not somebody who was just good for an NBA player. He was unbelievable! It was just amazing to see someone so good at something else and be that caliber of an NBA player. It was times like that that I’ll never forget.”

Those types of relationships are why a trade to Miami half-way through his fourth season with the Kings was so bittersweet for Williams. Despite joining a Heat team in the thick of the playoff race, he was leaving behind friends that had become as close as family members.

In Sacramento’s first game after the deal, on Feb. 23, 1996, his former teammates all wore high socks as a tributary fashion statement.

“That meant a lot to me,” Williams said. “That team was family to me. It was the beginning and it’s where my life changed. I came from humble beginnings, and those guys, they really took care of me.”

Williams played seven more years in the NBA, with the Raptors, Mavericks and Rockets, before retiring at age 33 with an 11.8-point scoring average and three seasons ranked inside the top-20 in three-point percentage.

Toward the end of his career it was becoming increasingly more difficult to juggle his professional calendar with his family obligations. When his youngest son, Bryce, was born prematurely at 24 weeks, weighing less than two pounds and with a mild case of cerebral palsy, Williams could no longer focus on basketball.

“The game was starting to not be as fun … and [that is] what pushed me over the edge,” Williams said, holding back tears. “Bryce occupied my every thought for the next few years. I was scared out of my mind, so I retired.”

Along with being an advocate for children's health care, Williams established a scholarship fund at Maryland in memory of his late father, Walter A. Williams Sr., who passed away in November 1992 and never saw his son play in the NBA.

“It’s tough to talk about it even now,” Williams said. “It impacts me to this day. He meant so much to my desire to be a beast on that court. I just wanted to show him I was the best all the time … I was heartbroken the whole time I played in the NBA. When my career was over, I think what came out of it was, I felt I could do anything, no matter what, [because I went] through those circumstances and was able to perform at the level that I performed at, in the state that I was constantly in.”

After retiring from the league, Williams returned to Maryland, where, until the onset of the pandemic, he coached in high school and youth basketball programs.

Whenever he laces up his sneakers, whether it’s to shoot around in the yard with his sons or teach kids in the community about setting proper screens and staying mentally ready, he still reaches into his sock drawer and pulls out a pair of those comfortable knee-highs.

More often though, Williams, 51, opts for dark dress socks, resting comfortably above the ankle but below the knee, to match his tailored suits and loafers.

A few years after stepping away from the game he loves, he found a new passion and a second career. Instead of counting points per game, he now calculates returns on equity for business owners, executives and pro athletes as a financial adviser at UBS Wealth Management.

He’s also stayed connected to his alma mater, not only as a Terps radio broadcaster and analyst for NBC Sports Washington, but by co-writing a book, “Lessons From Lenny,” with former Maryland teammate Tony Massenburg. The narrative details the influence and enduring impact that Bias, their childhood hero, had on their lives and careers, as well as the university and local neighborhood.

“We felt like it was an opportunity to be able to let the world know what he meant to us,” Williams said. “It’s not just a basketball book. We felt like so many heard about the circumstances surrounding Len’s death, but few understood the impact he had on the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area. There was a negative vibe associated with the University of Maryland at the time, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as a place where I could become a superhero, like Len Bias was to me.”

The youngster who imitated Bias’ picture-perfect jump shot on the asphalt streets and followed in the late legend’s basketball footsteps up the street to College Park, is now proud to be a role model himself to the next generation of hoopers in his hometown; a reminder of what’s possible with a strong work ethic and ironclad will.

“One of the biggest reasons I came to the University of Maryland was the impact Len Bias had in the community, and I wanted to have that same type of impact on my community, too,” Williams said.

“It’s so much fun being able to teach kids. I want to be part of that experience for them, give back and help those kids grow, on and off the court. It means a lot to me to be able to inspire them.”

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