If you want a no-holds-barred, warts and all look at college basketball stardom in the early 1970s, Fly 35 is the book for you. Dave Link, a beat reporter who spent part of his career covering Austin Peay State University basketball, logged quality time with the legendary James “Fly” Williams and got the straight story of a promising basketball career gone seriously awry.
A Brooklyn native, Fly wrote his ticket out of the ghetto with a quick, athletic hoops game. First he went to a small prep school in upstate New York, where he was discovered by then-Austin Peay assistant Leonard Hamilton. Hamilton gained Fly’s services by sheer bloody-minded persistence, waiting his target out through a missed meeting and a long night of carousing. He’s one of several people in Fly’s life who tried, and failed, to curb the charismatic kid’s self-destructive instincts.
Link has the guts to allow his main character to be an anti-hero. Fly is downright unlikable quite often in the book, and we know it’s realistic, because Link went straight to the source for his background information. Fly laid his life bare for Link, fessing up to theft, drug use, infidelity and me-first blowups on and off the court. Link doesn’t spare our tender ears the real locker-room talk, either, which gives the book the real ring of authenticity that so many sanitized biographies miss out on.
There are several reasons a crazy hoop-head should read this book. It’s a true inside look into the days of giant afros, shaggy sideburns and abbreviated gym shorts, and it’s loaded with cameos from sports legends like Marvin Barnes, Adrian Dantley, Digger Phelps and even Bob Costas. There are also relatively obscure people from Fly’s life who really resonate, like Peay coach Lake Kelly, late-night crony Smuffy Ray, and rock-solid friend and teammate Howard Jackson. As much as we bat about notions like amateur purity, program discipline and early entry into the pros, nothing makes it so immediate as reading the true story of someone who lived the life, fell off the wagon several times, and nearly died in the process. No spoilers here, but I will say that Fly’s life story is like a roller coaster, and you don’t know until the last chapter whether he’s going to make it into the final stretch safely, or fly off the track at its highest point.
From what I can tell, Link self-published this book, which is loaded with vintage photos of Fly’s glory days. I bought my copy off of the website TheFly35.com. If you’re looking to increase your knowledge of hoops history before the season starts, and you want the straight story, check this book out for yourself.
Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.
Photo courtesy TheFly35.com