He was unfairly maligned in the Tulane point shaving scandal. He was publicly embarrassed with the unauthorized release of an underwhelming academic transcript.
Instead, John ‘Hot Rod’ Williams chose to make the most of a 13-year NBA career spent mostly with the Cavaliers as a defensive specialist, a hustler and a solid teammate. Instead, Williams chose to look forward and not back at the injustices done to him to carve out a a life as a loving father, a solid citizen and a friend to virtually everyone that came in contact with him.
When the word came Friday that the 53-year-old Williams had died of cancer, snippets of memory came to mind. None more than a typical play in Game 4 of the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series between the Cavs and Celtics. The series was notable for being Larry Bird- last in his Hall of Fame career. The late game situation was typical in that Williams went diving onto the floor for a loose ball and called timeout before anyone from Boston could call a timeout. It was a key play in a win that would give the Cavs home-court advantage in the series that they would eventually win in seven games.
Williams was an integral part of some very good Cleveland teams coached by Lenny Wilkens that just weren’t good enough to go all the way because they played in the era of Michael Jordan. But it made for no less enjoyment in watching them.
Willliams overcame abandonment as a child and betrayal as a young man to make the most of a too-short life.
Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer covered Williams and the Cavs back in the day and poignantly shares his thoughts:
When Williams came to the Cavs, I had some basketball people telling me that he’d never learn the complex plays and defenses. That was when he a rookie.
Former Cavs coach Lenny Wilkens was not one of those. He soon discovered Williams was one of the smartest players on the team.
“Hot Rod knows where everyone is supposed to be on every play,” Wilkens once told me.
Williams loved “Coach Lenny,” as he called Wilkens. He played all three front court positions. He was willing to come off the bench, because Wilkens wanted a super-sub.
“Hot Rod was such a good player,” recalled Danny Ferry. “When I came to the Cavs, I knew all about Larry (Nance). But I had no clue how well Hot Rod could defend. He’d get right up on you and it was hard to get off a shot.”
The 6-foot-11 Williams was a defensive specialist. He averaged 12.9 points and 7.1 rebounds in his nine Cavs seasons (1986-95).
“He was so long and agile,” said former teammate Phil Hubbard. “He was an extremely underrated player. So unselfish and a great teammate.”
He signed a record-breaking $27 million deal in 1990. The front-loaded offer sheet from Miami (matched by the Cavs) paid him $9 million in the first 12 months.
“Hot Rod was so humble,” said Ferry. “He had such a good heart. He was so close to people. He’d bring us over to his house in Copley. It’s just so sad to lose him so soon.”