Israel-League Basketball Legend Kenny ‘The Wizard’ Williams Is in a Sea of Trouble
Where in the world is the American prep-school sensation who played for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers in the 1990s?
This past January, I met with Israel-league basketball legend Kenny Williams in a poor southern Tel Aviv neighborhood known as Schunat Hatikva. “You’re walking around with the Mayor,” Williams laughed as he hugged one of the workers in Beit Danny, the local community center. The fact that the 44-year-old, 6-foot-9 Williams—who is bald with a graying scruff and studded earring—was living in one of the city’s toughest areas, where according to one resident quoted in Haaretz “people are afraid to walk down the street” at night, didn’t seem to bother him; in his small piece of heaven, he is still considered a god. “I grew up in Brooklyn in a far worse neighborhood than this one,” Williams said when I asked him why he ended up living where he did in the south of Tel Aviv. “Brooklyn is a place where you go to play ball with a gun in your shoes. The chance you’ll end up using it is bigger than your chance of finding a basket with a net attached to it. So, you honestly think I’m worried about living in Schunat Hatikva?”
Our neighborhood tour and interview took about three hours. And although Williams answered every question I asked, I still couldn’t make sense of Williams’ story or what his life was like outside the basketball court.
A few weeks after our meeting, Williams, an American basketball prep-school sensation who played for the NBA’s Indiana Pacers in the early 1990s and then for Hapoel Jerusalem, Hapoel Tel Aviv, and a half dozen other Israeli and European teams, was arrested by the Israeli Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration for six years of illegal residency in Israel. Williams was remanded to the custody of Givon Prison in Ramle, and on March 10 Reggie Miller’s former Pacers running mate was taken handcuffed to Ben Gurion airport and put on the plane accompanied by security personnel, after refusing to leave the country on his own. Those who were with Williams in his final hours in Israel said he was under tremendous pressure. They heard him mumble things like, “Something really bad will happen if I get to the States. You are going to cause a disaster.”
Since one of the greatest power forwards—one of the most athletic players ever to play in Israel—landed at New York’s JFK airport on March 13, there has allegedly been no contact between him and the outside world. The man who was updating his Facebook status every couple of hours stopped answering his phone or messages, suggesting that there is a good chance he was moved from an Israeli prison to an American one and leaving the mystery of Kenny “The Wizard” Williams even less clear to me than it was before.
Shortly after our interview in Tel Aviv, I checked up with the Prison Services and also with the Williams family. They all said the same thing: Kenny Williams was born and raised in Elizabeth City, N.C. He never left his birthplace or resided in the state of New York. According to the accounts of his family, Elizabeth City is a calm and quaint city town where you can play ball at ease, without guns in your shoes. That was not the first thing in his biography that Williams was not clear about. A member of the management of Hapoel Jerusalem, one of Williams’ former teams in Israel, told me that in the end of 1998, Williams declared he was leaving Israel because his son and namesake, K.J. Williams, was in the hospital due to asthma and a complication of pneumonia. A few weeks later he notified them that unfortunately his son had died.
This week I phoned North Carolina and had a chat with the very much alive K.J. Williams, one of Williams and Krystal Bonner’s three children. K.J. is 21 today, and a father himself. He didn’t know anything about his own funeral: “Last time I saw my dad was when I was in third grade,” he told me. “He picked me up from school, and I stayed with him for three or four days. My friends always asked me about him, since he was the biggest ball player to ever come out of our town and everyone knew him. In recent years we stayed in touch mainly through Facebook. I always wanted to see him and he kept saying, ‘Soon, soon I’ll be coming back,’ but he never did.” Later on in the conversation K.J. started asking me questions about his father and his basketball career in Israel. He told me that even today he could get teary when speaking of his dad: “I could have had a completely different life if he was a part of it. I was angry with him as a child, but I still love him. I still think about him every day.”
If Williams constantly altered the truth about his own life, his achievements on the basketball court were plain for everyone to see. When Williams was 18 he was chosen as North Carolina’s Player of the Year and one of the top 10 Secondary School players in the United States, alongside Alonzo Mourning, Billy Owens, and Shawn Kemp. Known even back then as “The Wizard,” he was recruited by the University of North Carolina, but low grades kept him from a scholarship. In 1990, one year into his studies at Barton Community College in Kansas, he turned 21 and was drafted 46th overall by the Indiana Pacers.
Williams played for the Pacers for four years, during which he scored an average of 4.8 points per game. However, these numbers don’t show the magnitude of his potential—Kenny was considered one of the most athletic players in the league and was invited to the Slam-Dunk competition during the 1991 All-Star weekend. “As far as his abilities go, Williams could have been one of the top 15 players in the NBA,” said Danny Klein, former coach of Hapoel Jerusalem, “but he never had the discipline of a great player. When everyone was practicing, he was doing other things. The fact he stayed in Indiana for four years was a testimony to how talented he really was.”
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