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  • Budd Bailey

Brave New World: Bill Willoughby

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Bill Willoughby is something of a footnote in the history of the Buffalo Braves. He only played one season with the team, and usually came off the bench. Willoughby made his mark on the sport before he came to Buffalo, as he represents something of a cautionary tale about the issues involved in rushing players to pro basketball.


William Wesley Willoughby Jr. was born on May 20, 1957, in Englewood, New Jersey. It’s a city that is right along the Hudson River, west of the northern tip of Manhattan. His parents were named Bill and Burnette. Willoughby went to Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood. The list of graduates from that school ranges from astronaut Wally Schirra to actor John Travolta.


It is fair to say Englewood has never seen a basketball player like Willoughby pass through its halls. He arrived on the varsity for the 1972-73 season, and was a dominating force. Bill averaged 22.8 points and 17 rebounds per game. And then he got better. As a junior, Willoughby’s scoring and rebounding numbers were 30.5 and 17.8. He stayed at that level as a senior, as the 6-foot-8 big man went for 31.6 and 17.3 respectively.


Willoughby must have been essentially impossible to guard. There were claims that he had a 47-inch vertical jump, which seems a bit unlikely but certainly helped intimidate other teams. Willoughby could dominate the boards and handle the ball at that level. Opponents tried to slow games down in order to prevent him from dominating in that pre-shot clock era, but it didn’t help. Bill still averaged about a point a minute. He exited the school as its all-time scoring leader with 2,370 points, and a state championship banner. He also carried the unique nickname of “Poodle” with him, thanks to his curly hair that was cut quite short.


Willoughby was a consensus All-American and one of the top prospects in the country by the time he was a senior. That meant 200 colleges tried to convince him to play basketball there. Marquette assistant coach Rick Majerus put it this way: “(Head coach) Al McGuire likes big, strong forwards who also are quick. Willoughby fits that description.”


On April 3, 1975, Willoughby formally picked the University of Kentucky as his college destination, although he had made that decision earlier. Bill once described Lexington this way: “Big arena, beautiful women, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken, watching horse races.” The Wildcats already had future pros such as Jack Givens, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips on their roster, and they had a national champion in their future (1978). It must have been easy for coach Joe B. Hall to think that Willoughby would be part of a dynasty in Lexington.


But before Hall could start to clean the trophy case, his dreams were derailed. The American Basketball Association had allowed Moses Malone in 1974 to jump directly from high school basketball to the pros. The rule that forced high schoolers to wait four years after graduation was thrown out in the Spencer Haywood case in 1971. Malone became a star for the Utah Jazz right away, giving some in the sport the idea that others could follow Malone’s example. Willoughby once had seen Malone working on a summer construction job at Maryland, and realized that Moses was now rich. The idea nagged at Willoughby, and he asked his high school coach to talk to pro scouts. 


“I was real surprised about Willoughby because we had talked it over with his parents and they were happy that he was not going to turn pro,” Hall said. “They didn’t feel he was ready. Not basketball-wise, but just socially mature to handle it.


On May 8, the NBA published its list of “hardship cases” – players who wanted to leave college early and play pro ball because of financial issues. At the time it was a necessary step for players who wanted to become professional early. Adrian Dantley of Notre Dame was the biggest name on the list, and Larry Fogle of Canisius – at one point the nation’s leading scorer – was on it too. However, he was overshadowed by the appearance of two high school graduates who could be drafted immediately: Darryl Dawkins and Willoughby. NBA teams had never selected a high school player before in the draft.


Dawkins went fifth in the selection process and signed with the Philadelphia 76ers. Willoughby had a longer wait, but he was picked with the first choice in the second round by the Atlanta Hawks. The New Orleans Jazz had given up a boatload of talent to Atlanta in a trade for Pete Maravich; the pick used on Willoughby was part of it. Denver of the ABA also took him in the second round. The young man signed with the Hawks for $1.1 million over five years; the first installment was $650,000. That looked like all the money in the world to the Willoughby family; his father was a mechanic and his mother worked in a factory.


“Well, when I was 18, I didn’t have nothing,” he told ESPN years later. “You know, most kids don’t have anything - your mother’s paying for everything for you - your clothes. So if you go to college, you’re like everybody else. You don’t turn down $1 million coming out of high school when you’re 18 years old and you don’t have no money. You don’t do that.”


The Hawks were coming off a 31-win season when they arrived at training camp that fall. Willoughby showed up in his first automobile, a new Lincoln Town Car. Cotton Fitzsimmons was the coach of the team, and his top players were veterans Tom Van Arsdale and Lou Hudson along with developing players such as Tom Henderson, Dwight Jones and John Drew. There weren’t many players in their prime though. The Hawks took a small step back to 29 wins in 1975-76. Fitzsimmons didn’t see all of them; he was replaced by Gene Tormohlen with eight games left on the schedule.


As for Willoughby, Fitzsimmons put him at small forward as soon as he showed up for training camp. While that probably would have been his position eventually, Bill had never played there before. That made him a defensive liability, and his age and contract also made him something of a target from the veterans in the league. Willoughby averaged 14 minutes a game in his 62 games. Bill averaged 4.7 points and 4.6 rebounds in those games. He displayed some athleticism, but looked like he needed time to develop as he made a jump from playing against boys to facing men almost overnight.


Willoughby’s numbers were virtually the same in 1976-77, except for the fact that he only played in 39 games – none after February 5, due to an ankle injury. “I don’t even know what happened there,” Bill told the New York Times about 10 years later. Hubie Brown had taken over the team as coach, but even he couldn’t get the Hawks past 31 wins. Truck Robinson, Drew and Henderson led the team in points, but there wasn’t much help behind them. Brown was a taskmaster as coaches go, and he might not have had the patience to try to help Willoughby develop.


Still, the Hawks tried. Assistant coach Hal Wissel had Willoughby show up early at practice for some special drills on fundamentals for a while. Then Bill’s agent called the team to complain that Willoughby was forced to arrive before the rest of the team. Brown, it was said, had two basic rules for his players: be on time, and do the job. “He didn’t do that,” Wissel told author Jonathan P.D. Abrams. “These are pros. These are men. And he wasn’t ready for that.”


The Hawks’ rebuilding program continued in 1977-78, but Willoughby wasn’t a part of it. Atlanta dealt him to the Buffalo Braves on Sept. 9 for a second-round draft choice in 1978. The Braves had collapsed the previous year, in part because of what was essentially the sale of superstar Bob McAdoo to the New York Knicks. Braves management went on a whirlwind ride of trades that September, including the acquisition of Billy Knight and Nate Archibald. Willoughby was the fifth and final swap in that frenzy.


Hopes were high for the Braves for a short period of time. Then Archibald tore his Achilles tendon in a preseason game in Buffalo and was lost for the season. The Braves weren’t going anywhere if Archibald wasn’t on the floor. Considering there were rumors that the team might move if it didn’t improve in 1977-78, the injury prevented the Braves from having any chance at reaching the playoffs.


The Braves were coached by Fitzsimmons, and those two already had shown signs of being a bad fit together. Buffalo went through 18 players that season in a desperate attempt to find the right combination, never found it. Buffalo finished 27-55. Willoughby suffered from a lack of playing time. Bill missed almost three weeks with a broken nose in last January. Late in the season, he was on the floor more often as injuries to players such as Knight opened up a little space. Willoughby had his best game of the year statistically on March 1, 20 points, in a win over the Rockets. Still, he averaged 6.7 points per game in 19 minutes of play for the season. “I gave him two chances, but I wouldn’t give him a third.” said Fitzsimmons, who earlier had described Willoughby as “an exciting young player with unlimited potential.”


The drama surrounding Buffalo’s NBA franchise came to an end that summer. It was complicated, as the Braves’ owners took over the Celtics and Boston’s owners received the Buffalo team – which then moved to San Diego. Willoughby went with it … at least for a while. The new Clippers waived the forward in training camp, and he couldn’t find a job with any other team for the rest of the season. It looked like Willoughby’s NBA days were just about over.


But he received a tryout with the Cleveland Cavaliers, coached by Stan Albeck, in the fall of 1979, and made the team. Willoughby averaged 6.9 points in 18.6 minutes with the Cavs while having the chance to reteam with former Braves’ guard Randy Smith. In the fall of 1980, Bill signed as a free agent with the Houston Rockets, and had similar minutes and production. The team, though, did better. Willoughby got to play with a winner, as the Rockets went all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to the Celtics.


Along the way, Willoughby had his most famous moment as a player. In the playoff series against the Lakers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tried a short skyhook that Willoughby blocked. You probably can count the number of Kareem’s shots over the years that were blocked on one hand. Check it out on YouTube sometime. "After I got his stuff, then everybody started jumping around trying to get Kareem,” Willoughby told Sports Illustrated.


Willoughby stayed in Houston for another season before signing with San Antonio as a free agent on October 18, 1982. Albeck was the coach of the Spurs at the time. Bill came off the bench a while but was cut on February 10, 1983. He signed with the New Jersey Nets on March 23; the general manager of the team was Bob MacKinnon. When the 1983-84 season arrived, Willoughby once again was reunited with Albeck. Bill returned to his reserve role, playing 14 minutes a game. The bouncing around took a toll. “Everyday life in the NBA, you know, was hard,” Willoughby told ESPN.


Willoughby’s last association with the NBA came in a summer camp at Princeton University in 1985 with other long-shot hopefuls. Bill said he was worried about rough play in the game because of some concussions he had suffered earlier in this life. MacKinnon tried to put Willoughby back in the game, but Bill replied, “I don’t want to.” So MacKinnon said, “Then go home.” Bill cleaned out his locker and left.


That, essentially, was it for Willoughby’s basketball career. He played eight seasons, and scored 2,930 points … but he was done at the age of 28. His career was a big splash of cold water for NBA teams, who became wary of drafting high school players after that. Bill was done with the NBA – the only job he’d ever had since finishing high school. That sounds like a recipe for personal problems, and it was. Some unscrupulous business advisors grabbed the remaining dollars left over from his NBA contracts – more than $1 million. Willoughby sold his house and moved back in with his parents in New Jersey, and took a $10 per hour job at a recreation center. He is said to have suffered from depression.


By 1995, high school players again were drawing interest from NBA teams, and what’s more, they started having success. The list includes Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James. The league slowly learned how to develop such young talent. Willoughby made a deal with the NBA Retired Players Association. If he’d work with the kids trying to make the jump from the high school to the pros, the association would pay for his education. That’s the only time the group made such an offer. “When I walked into my first college class, I had no idea what to expect. It had been so long - 20 long years,” he told ESPN. “But I knew one thing - I wasn't going to give up, no matter how hard it got.”


Happily, Willoughby received his college degree in communications from Farleigh Dickenson in 2001.  He even gave a commencement address at the Continental Airlines Arena – the site of his last NBA game. Bill talked about taking responsibility for your own life, and then held up his diploma to prove he had done so. Willoughby received a standing ovation. Meanwhile, in 2005 the NBA made a rule that forced high school players to wait a year after high school before turning pro.


It certainly wasn’t the life that Willoughby envisioned. But if he could go back to the time when he graduated from high school, he wouldn’t change that crucial decision to skip college basketball and go straight to the pros.


“They look at me and say, oh, yeah, well, he should have went to college because he didn't have a career like Kobe Bryant or, you know, Kevin Garnett,” Willoughby said to ESPN. “But you take the ball away from them, not let them shoot. You know, it would be the same thing that happened to me. When I started, I played well, but I never got to stay with the same team and the same coach.”

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB)

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