A Mentor of Street Ball Dies

By Corey Kilgannon & Vincent M. Mallozzi
Updated: November 23, 2007
NEW YORK — A gleaming white Cadillac with a license plate reading “MISTERLU”, its engine off, was parked next to a basketball court in a Coney Island housing project last night.

The Cadillac belonged to Robert Williams, a manager at a Brooklyn nursing home. Of course, that job did not pay for the vehicle, a tricked-out car Mr. Williams had trouble figuring out how to operate. Mr. Williams did other work, on the basketball courts that were last night as quiet as his parked car.

For 36 years, Mr. Williams, known on and around those courts as Mr. Lou, coached and mentored hundreds of talented young basketball players from Coney Island. Stephon Marbury of the Knicks, who had given him the Cadillac, was one of them. Sebastian Telfair of the Minnesota Timberwolves was another. Mr. Williams died of a heart attack on November 14 in his apartment in the housing project. He was 64.

Marbury, who left the Knicks without public explanation on last Tuesday, spent at least several of his hours away from the team at the housing project, called Surfside Gardens.

“My dad passed away at 3 o’clock, and Stephon was here by dinnertime,” said Robert Williams Jr., 40, Mr. Williams’s son.

Dwayne Tiny Morton, the head basketball coach at Lincoln High School in Coney Island, where Marbury played ball, said, “I mean, there comes a time when you have to stop what you’re doing, even if it is playing professional basketball, and pay your respects.”

And so the death of a legendary street-ball mentor became for a brief time intertwined with the drama of the Knicks and their star point guard. Marbury, has been out of favor with his current coach, Isiah Thomas. He was one of the scores of Mr. Williams’s former players who showed up on the basketball court in Coney Island known in street basketball circles as the Garden.

“This is the Garden, Mr. Lou was the gardener, and we were all his flowers,” said Rodney Brown, who played for Mr. Williams and stood by the court with his father, Ray Brown.

Mr. Williams’s memorial services tomorrow in Coney Island promise to be part all-star reunion, part neighborhood gathering. Four of Marbury’s brothers played under Mr. Williams’s tutelage. Don was a leading scorer for Texas A & M. Eric teamed with the future NBA star Dominique Wilkins at Georgia in the early 1980s. Norman played at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. And Zack Marbury played at the University of Rhode Island.

But there were other great players: Quincy Douby, who played at Rutgers and is now with the Sacramento Kings: Chris Taft, who played for the University of Pittsburgh and then briefly for the Golden State Warriors; and Jamel Thomas, who played at Providence College and is now with a professional team in Italy. Last month, Mr. Thomas flew Mr. Williams and his wife, Sophia, to Italy to watch him play.

The Garden was all but adjacent to Mr. Williams’s building — in which his apartment, 11-F, was a virtual locker room for his many teams, and their dozens of championship trophies. At the modest basketball court outside, groups of residents and others would cling to the chain link fence on hot summer nights to watch some of the best street ball in the city.

Last night, candles were placed on the court at mid-court, the three-point line, and the foul line.

“He was the backbone of this whole community,” said Rodney Brown. “With talented kids, he taught them how not to be bought. With lesser players, he took them under his wing. And with kids who didn’t have money, he reached into his own pocket to buy them sneakers.”

Ray Brown said he grew up with Mr. Williams, whose nickname derived from a childhood sobriquet Lulu Boy, and who ran an annual tournament held in the memory of a local man shot years back by police officers.

“Some of us went to college, some went to jail and some wound up dead; Mr. Lou stayed here with the kids,” said Ray Brown.

Some of them were allowed up to Mr. Williams apartment to view his lifeless body laid out on his bed. One of them was Marbury.

Earl Smith, one of Mr. Williams’s former players who is now a personal assistant to Spike Lee, said Marbury was in the Williams apartment “crying like a baby.”

“We lost a coach, a mentor and a grandfather — Mr. Lou was all of those things,” he said.

Mr. Morton, who has won five city titles as a head coach at Lincoln, was aware of Marbury’s delicate situation with the Knicks but was not surprised that he would show his loyalty to his neighborhood and its pillars.

“How could you not show up to say one last goodbye?” he asked.