DALLAS — Any fan who has ever attended a San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks or Houston Rockets game owes Max Williams a debt of gratitude.
He doesn’t carry the name recognition of an Hakeem Olajuwon, Dirk Nowitzki or Tim Duncan, but Williams is one of the forefathers of professional basketball in Texas.
The first pro basketball team in Texas didn’t wear the nickname Mavs or Rockets, but rather the Dallas Chaparrals. When the American Basketball Association launched in 1967 as a rival to the NBA, the Chaps were Dallas’ entry, and Williams its founding father.
Essentially, he was the team’s entire front office.
“I’m the league representative, the general manager, the coach, I sold tickets, everything,” Williams said, laughing.
In February, this Lone Star State hoops legend will take his place as one of 10 new inductees to the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
To say Williams, 71, has played a little basketball in his life would be like saying Frank Lloyd Wright has overseen a few construction projects. In tiny Avoca, a dusty hamlet 40 miles north of Abilene, kids played basketball because it was the only sport the school offered. The town was so small it didn’t even have a six-man football team.
The son of an oilman, Williams spent his second- and third-grade years in nearby Guthrie, an even more sparsely populated outpost, before moving back to Avoca his fourth-grade year.
“The school (at Guthrie) had no running water, and no indoor plumbing, of course,” Williams said. “We had outdoor toilets, about 100 yards south of the school. When I went back to Avoca, I felt like it was the big-time.”
When Max was 13, his father died, leaving his mother to care for him and his older sister. His father’s passing forced Williams to grow up in a hurry.
“When my dad died, the superintendent of schools came to my house,” Williams said. “He said, ‘I’m going to give you a key to the gym. You’ll be responsible for it, and if you let me down, no one will ever get to go back in there except during specified times.’ I don’t think there’s any doubt that me having that key was the key to my success in basketball. It was also the key to my success in school.”
When he wasn’t working odd jobs on local farms and ranches, Williams could be found at that gym. His basketball skills developed rapidly, so much so that he was ahead of his time in many ways.
At Avoca High, Williams employed a one-handed jump shot when the two-handed set shot was still the norm, and he is credited by several Texas basketball historians as being the first prep player in the state to routinely use the behind-the-back dribble.
“Basketball was everything,” Williams said. “We used to come to the Will Rogers Coliseum when I was about 12 or 13 years old, and we’d watch the Globetrotters. They had Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and all those dribblers, and they did all that stuff. That’s the first time I’d seen (the behind-the-back dribble). But I had a coach who would let me do that, and that’s a big part of it.”
Couldn’t make ball talk
As a 5-10 guard who could do “everything with a basketball except make it talk,” according to Abilene sportswriter Harless Wade, Williams became known as the Avoca Flash. He guided the school to a Class B state championship as a junior in 1955, and by the time he finished high school he was the state’s all-time leading scorer with 3,360 points.
Despite its remoteness, Avoca had managed to produce several college basketball players throughout the 1950s, so Williams was confident he’d get a chance to play collegiately, too. Recruited by the likes of Rice and Baylor, Williams instead signed with SMU because it “was the place to be for basketball” at the time, he said.
“I never thought much about where I would play. Hey, I just wanted to play,” Williams said. “When it was my time to come out for college, SMU had played in the Final Four the year before, in ‘56, and I had grown up in the Methodist church. It just made sense.”
Of course, moving from the dusty plains of Avoca to downtown Dallas proved to be eye-opening for Williams.
“I’d never been in a town where you had to know streets before,” he said. “If somebody in my town said, ‘How do you get to the Taylor place?’ I’d say, ‘Well, when you get on this gravel road, you go up there and turn right. That’s the McMurray house, and you go down past there to the Baptist Church, where they’ve got a big neon sign that says, ‘Jesus Saves.’ You go up there, cross the railroad tracks and turn right at the cotton gin.’ In Dallas, it was different.”
But Williams adapted. Playing for legendary SMU coach Doc Hayes, Williams continued the mad-dribbling, crowd-pleasing style that had made him a star in high school.
“The first time I ever saw Max Williams was in the fall of 1957 and he was playing for SMU,” said Terry Stembridge, Williams’ longtime friend and business partner, both with the Chaparrals and in the oil business. “There was this guy down there who just electrified the crowd. We said, ‘Where did he come from?’ He would just do things I’d never seen on the basketball court. I said, ‘He must have been in the Army or Navy or something,’ because he looked so old.”
With no pro baseball, basketball or hockey to entertain Dallas sports fans at the time, SMU games were a major draw, and Williams was the toast of the town.
“Max and Don (Meredith) were the two biggest sports stars in the whole city,” said Gene Wilson, a former sports writer for the Dallas Times-Herald. “He could go out and people would recognize him everywhere he went.”
With Williams at the helm, the Mustangs produced several successful teams, even beating defending NCAA champion Kentucky and legendary coach Adolph Rupp one year.
Creating the Chaparrals
“Max was playing against Kentucky, and he was having one of those kinds of nights,” Stembridge said. “He made a dive out of bounds, knocked the ball back in for SMU. Mr. Rupp looked down at him, sprawled all over the floor, and said, ‘Boy, what chili parlor did they get you out of?’ ”
But after college, Williams assumed his basketball days were finished. The NBA consisted of just eight teams back then, and “they didn’t need a 5-10 guard,” he said.
Williams worked in the insurance business until an interesting opportunity arose in 1967. Through a friend, he learned about plans for the creation a new basketball league, which sought to include a team in Dallas. The buy-in was $300,000, and in two days Williams managed to round up 30 investors around Dallas to put up $10,000 apiece as an ownership group.
Things came together haphazardly at times, but a team was nevertheless born. The Chaparral name originated when the group held a meeting at the Chaparral room at the Dallas Sheraton, and the team’s first draft class was selected almost accidentally.
A man named Roland Speth, the brother of one of the ABA’s founders, was running the Chaps at the start, and he mentioned to Williams that the league meetings and draft were approaching. So Williams put together a prospect list of college players.
“It was incomplete, but I handed it to Roland and said, ‘Here’s a list,’ ” Williams said. “It had Matthew Aitch, Jim Burns, I don’t remember who all. He called me later and said, ‘We had the draft today, and we got four of the top five players on your list!’ I said, ‘What do you mean? You don’t know who the top five were!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you gave me that list.’ And I said, ‘That was an alphabetical list!’ So we had nobody.”
But that was kind of the way the ABA came together. As one of the Chaparrals’ four employees, Williams did a bit of everything, even helping paint the 3-point line before games.
Filling in as coach
After serving as GM for two-plus seasons, Williams took over as head coach in the middle of the third year because the Chaps’ player-coach Cliff Hagan, a notorious brawler, kept getting suspended for fighting.
Though the Chaps usually made the playoffs, crowds were slim, and the team was sold to a San Antonio ownership group led by Red McCombs and Angelo Drossos after the 1972-73 season. They became the Spurs, and three years later were absorbed by the NBA along with three other franchises.
Williams didn’t follow the team to San Antonio, instead entering the real estate and later the oil business, which he continues to work in today. But his pioneering contributions were remembered by the Spurs after they won their second NBA championship in 2003, as the team crafted a special championship ring for Williams.
“You’ll never know how much Max has done for people in business, in sports,” Stembridge said. “Right now, every day, he goes out to the airport and meets these soldiers coming back (from the war).”
Though he lives in a plush Dallas home with his “dream girl,” Carolyn, his wife of 49 years, Williams hasn’t forgotten his hardscrabble beginnings. For a kid from Avoca to reach the Texas Sports Hall of Fame is almost beyond belief, he said.
“I can’t imagine being in there,” Williams said. “I don’t know of anything that pleases me more than being included with that bunch. Let me tell you, that’s a fabulous bunch of heroes. They were my heroes. . . . My life has been blessed.”