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.”
Williams pointed at the 1995 NBA lockout, the first of a series of labor disputes, as the main reason for the termination of his contract: “If not for the strike during the mid-nineties I would have signed in San Antonio who already offered me a contract”—he then added quickly, “but I don’t regret anything in my life.” He left the NBA for a European career. He played on the Italian team Forli for three years, then arrived in Israel in 1997 and signed with Hapoel Jerusalem. The fans in Malha, the Jerusalem home arena, fell in love with the former NBA star the moment he set foot in the gym. He led one of the team’s most exciting seasons ever, in which Jerusalem finished the regular season in first place for the first time in the club’s history. In the national finals, Jerusalem was swept 0-3 by Maccabi Tel Aviv, missing a historic opportunity to overturn the traditional league hierarchy.
From that moment on, Williams’ career went into a whirlwind. The following season was marred by what later became known as “Williams’ fake Czech passport affair,” when Williams was exposed for enlisting in the team as a European player rather than an American one, using a forged Czech passport. When asked how he ended up getting Czech citizenship he replied, “I had businesses in Europe and in the Czech Republic. I was told by the management in Jerusalem they could get me a passport if I prove I work there. I had nothing to do with any of this.” The incident terminated his contract at Hapoel Jerusalem and was a blow to his reputation.
The following three years saw Williams shift between lower-ranking teams in the first and second divisions of Israeli basketball. During these years he also managed to get married and later divorced, as well as have three children from two different Israeli women. One of them is Elinor Hamami, mother of two of his children, who lived with him for the past seven years in south Tel Aviv. “We met outside a club in 2006,” Hamami told me earlier this month. “Kenny is a romantic type with a smooth tongue. It was one of those relationships that started out casually and got serious over time. The kids were born and we continued on, up until today.” Since his return to the United States, they have spoken once a week, she said.
It was around 2009 that Williams’ immigration problems began. With his basketball career nearing an end, Williams was—according to Sabin Hadad, a spokesperson for Israel’s Population and Migration Authority—asked to sort out his visa, but he apparently never did. In August 2006 he returned to Israel on a three-month tourist visa. As of November he was considered an illegal alien. He was then released from Givon on bail and notified he had to clear things up with immigration. But again, he didn’t do it.
“As a player I never dealt with the citizenship issue,” Williams explained to me in our interview. “I always let other people handle it, and that was also the cause for the mess around the passport. Every time I came to the authorities trying to sort out this mess there was always a document missing or some technical issue. And all this time I believed things would work out in the end.” When I tried to ask him why he wasn’t taking care of it he replied in his usual obscure way: “It’s all bullshit. I’m an Israeli citizen. I chose to live here. I raised a family. My children are all Israeli. So, at the moment your authorities don’t recognize it, but it’s just a matter of time until they give me the green light and leave me alone.”
But the Israeli authorities wouldn’t leave it be. Neither would U.S. authorities. Williams, who had been ordered by United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina to pay his former wife child support of $3,700 a month since they got divorced in 1998, didn’t follow the court order, nor did he go to the court hearing. As a result, a federal court order for his arrest was issued against him in 2001, for his debt to his former wife, which then stood at $250,000. This fine was added to another quarter-of-a-million dollar fine doled out by the federal court in 2001, when Williams was convicted of failing to pay child support and failing to appear at his hearing, after which he was officially declared a fugitive.
Williams, who had since retired from basketball, was looking for the next big thing. He began writing an autobiography titled The Gift and the Curse, which he never published, and set up a players’ agency that failed to bring any overseas players to Israel. There was no sign of the big money he had earned at the NBA (more than $1.15 million, according basketball-reference.com estimates). “When he was asked why he wasn’t working he would get pissed off,” said Hamami. “He’d say ‘I’m fucking Kenny Williams, what am I gonna do? Wash dishes or sweep the streets?’ ”
Elinor Hamami clearly remembers the morning her partner was arrested last January: “I was taking my son to kindergarten and came back home to put the washing on,” she told me. “Suddenly five ‘heavy-duty’ men come in saying they have a court order to arrest Kenny. He went with them without any resistance; he believed it would all blow over pretty soon. I realized there was a serious thing going on.” As we spoke, I realized that Williams remained a mystery even for the woman who was his life partner for nearly 10 years: “Kenny is very mysterious and also very naïve, and this combination makes it very hard to understand what really goes on with him,” Hamami said. “Throughout the years I asked him many questions about his life in the States; he didn’t even tell me about his kid, I only found out about him on Facebook after Kenny was arrested.”
His former Israeli agent Nathan Amir wasn’t surprised by the news. “This is very typical Kenny behavior,” he explained. “Kenny had many tragedies happen to him but the common thing about them all is that they were all preventable. There’s not a bad bone in his body. On the contrary. He never looked for troubles, but they seem to always find him. His talent for getting into messy situations was even bigger than his talent for playing ball.”
Hadad, the spokesperson from the Population and Migration Authority, said Williams moved to Givon Prison, and then to Yahalom Prison, where illegal immigrants are taken before they are deported. Since Williams refused his deportation, his relocation to the United States was postponed until a permit to fly him with a chaperone against his will could be issued. Before his deportation Hamami came once with their 1-year-old daughter, Maayan. “He was very depressed,” she told me. “He said everyone in prison would say to him ‘You’re The Wizard, how on earth did you get here?’ With me he tried to act business as usual and never even mentioned the warrant awaiting him in the States. An hour after I had spoken with him, he rang back to say he was being deported.”
Williams was then taken on board an airplane to the United States against his will, according to officials at the Population and Migration Authority. Hadad told me he reportedly seemed very emotional: She said agents heard him say, “Something really bad will happen if I go back.” When I heard he was being flown out, I called him on his cell phone but his number was already disconnected.
The only news article I could find about it was from the North Carolina Daily Advance, dated March 29, 2013. It proved my fears were right: “Kenny Williams, a former Northeastern High School basketball star who played in Europe, Israel, and the NBA is being held at a federal prison in Virginia for failure to pay child support in a federal case that’s more than a decade old,” the article stated. I soon found another news report about him: “A federal court judge is expected to set sentencing for former NBA and Israeli basketball player next month on 13-year-old charges of failing to pay child support.”
I then approached the U.S. Prison Authority and the U.S. Marshal to understand what happened to Williams after he had landed. Officials gave the following information: “Kenny Williams was arrested upon landing at JFK, due to a warrant issued against him in 2001. He was directly transferred from the airport to a Brooklyn prison, where he was detained for six days. He was later moved to long-term detention centers in Philadelphia and Virginia. Today he’s kept in custody in North Carolina, awaiting his trial, which will begin on July 18.”
Elinor Hamami says Williams has been calling her once a week or so from prison: “It was his birthday few weeks ago,” she told me, “and Kenny rang and said, ‘Don’t I deserve a happy birthday wish?’ It’s very tough on the kids, especially on Yarin, my eldest. He was very close with his father, and for a long time he kept asking where his father was. It’s very tough on me too. It’s not how I imagined the father of my kids.”
K.J. Williams knows how his half-siblings in Israel must feel. “My mom’s lawyer rang up and told me he was arrested,” he told me over the phone. “I was shocked first, of course. But then I had another thought: I’d finally have a chance to meet my dad. I have so many questions I want to ask him. It’s just so weird that the first time I will see him after so long will be in court.”
I also made contact with Williams’ sister Lisa, who sounded terrified of the fact someone from Israel was calling her to ask about Kenny: “Kenny’s fine,” she insisted, though she sounded as if nothing was fine. “He has some procedural issues to work out here, but I have no doubt things will soon clear up.” When I explained to her that I’m one of many Israelis who worry about her brother and would like to know what’s happening with him, she calmed down a bit: “That’s nice of you to call and worry about him but really everything will soon work out. I’ll tell him you called. I could make sure he calls you back today. Is this your number?” I verified my number and told her I’d be very happy to hear from Kenny. “I promise you, I’m meeting him in a couple of hours and he will call you back.” Williams never called.
I knew that an American jail wasn’t exactly the future that Williams imagined for himself when he showed me around his neighborhood. “I want to make people happy,” he told me then. “And I want to be the best dad I could be. And I would also like to be mysterious and to keep people on their toes. Making them not to understand where I’m going. Being a real wizard. That’s what it’s all about,” he explained. “That’s the way I like it.”
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Tal Miller, a former speechwriter for the IDF’s chief of staff, is a writer for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper.
Tal Miller, a former speechwriter for the IDF’s chief of staff, is a writer for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper.