John “Hot Rod” Williams, one of the NBA’s best sixth men in the 1980s and ’90s, has died of cancer at his home near Sorrento, Louisiana. He was 53.
Williams’ agent Mark Bartelstein confirmed his death Friday.
Williams, a 6-11 power forward, played 13 seasons in the NBA but was best known for being a standout with the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1986 to 1995.
“The entire Cavaliers family is deeply saddened with the news of John “Hot Rod” Williams’ passing,” a statement from the Cavaliers read. “Hot Rod was, first and foremost, a great teammate, and also the kind of dependable person and player that made the Cavaliers organization proud during his almost decade-long time with the team. Hot Rod was the guy that willingly and pridefully drew the toughest defensive assignment. He was the kind of talented, unselfish and versatile player and person that earned the respect of everyone around him, including his teammates and opponents, and those who knew and worked with him off the court as well. In many respects, he was the humble embodiment and unsung hero of one of the most memorable and successful eras of Cavaliers basketball.
“Hot Rod will be greatly missed and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
The news stunned former teammates and executives who had been encouraged when Williams came through an earlier cancer diagnosis this year.
“It’s devastating,” said Wayne Embry, the Cavs’ general manager from 1986 to 1999. “He was a hard worker and a great player, but I liked him more as a person than a basketball player.”
“Hot Rod was a great, caring and unselfish teammate,” said Danny Ferry, who was a teammate for six seasons. “He was a team-first guy. He was also a valuable, intelligent and very underrated player. He could defend anyone. We were all lucky to have him as a teammate and friend.”
Williams was known for two seminal moments in his life that had wide-ranging implications in the world of basketball. In 1985 he was arrested and charged with five counts related to a point-shaving scandal at Tulane University that eventually forced the school to disband the program for three years.
He went through two trials. The first was declared a mistrial because the prosecution didn’t turn over evidence. He was acquitted in the second trail despite several teammates who had cut plea bargains testifying against him. He was facing 17 years in prison had he been convicted.
Then-Cavs owner Gordon Gund, who drafted him in the second round in 1985, couldn’t sign him to a contract during the legal process but paid his legal bills as Williams spent a year playing in the United States Basketball League, earning $15,000.
He turned into a force for the Cavs, acting as a backup to All-Stars Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance as the team put together a string of playoff seasons. In the 1989-90 season, he averaged 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds as a reserve.
“As a player, Hot Rod was one of those freak of nature guys who was 6-10, who could shoot the basketball, could put the basketball down on the floor, a very good defensive guy,” former teammate Ron Harper said. “He commanded a lot of respect on the basketball court. He had a lot of game. We used to always tease him because we always said, ‘He’s going the same way. He’s going right all the time.’ He went right all the time and you could sit on that right hand of his and he’s still going right. He was going right. He didn’t care what you did, he was going right all the time.”
After the 1989-90 season Williams signed what is still regarded as one of the landmark contracts in NBA history. The Miami Heat signed him to a seven-year, $26.5 million offer sheet. The front-loaded deal was to pay him $5 million in his first season, making him the highest-paid player in NBA history and paying twice the salary of Michael Jordan. It was a league-shattering number for any non-All-Star, much less a nonstarter.
While the Cavs had two weeks to match, Williams uttered a quote that would become famous: “Right now, I’m a Heat.”
“When we made the decision to match I went to him and said “Hot Rod, you’re not a Heat; we’re matching’,” Embry said. “It was an exciting moment.”
“We used to have this bet between me, Hot Rod and Larry as to who would lead the team in blocks by the All-Star break,” Daugherty remembered. “The year after he signed I think I was leading after 15 games and oh was I talking trash. I said, ‘We’re paying you $30 million and you have less blocks than me? I can’t even jump.’ Well, within about five days he passed me for good.”
Williams was a part of three Cavs teams that won 50-plus games but all three lost to Jordan and the Bulls in the playoffs.
“It saddens me to see him go at such a young age. He was a good person,” Daugherty said. “A lot of players come from humble beginnings, but where he came from was very humble. I was proud of him for what he accomplished.”
Information from ESPN’s Dave McMenamin was used in this report.