Amid the pulsating music, thunderous applause and pyrotechnic displays befitting opening night in the Heat’s defense of its NBA championship Tuesday night at AmericanAirlines Arena, a quiet and touching reunion will take place.
Art “Hambone” Williams, 73, who won an NBA title of his own with the 1973-74 Boston Celtics and has since fallen on hard times, will be sitting courtside courtesy of someone he once showed kindness to 42 years ago.
Philip Levine, 50, now a successful real estate developer and cruise ship entrepreneur who had lost track of his old friend for four decades, flew Williams in for the game — first class — and put the former NBA player up at The Four Seasons Hotel, where the Celtics are staying.
Williams, who played seven years in the NBA and currently lives on social security and the league’s retirement checks, said Tuesday night’s game will be secondary.
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“The game I’d love to see,” said Williams, who lives in San Diego. “But I’m really looking forward to seeing Philip.”
Levine was 8 years old and living in Brookline, Mass., when he first met Williams, a speedy 6-1 guard. Levine, who lived with his single mother and his sister, was Williams’ neighbor.
“I didn’t know he was a basketball player,” Levine said. “I just knew he was tall, and when I was outside playing stickball, he would throw me the ball. He was just a nice guy.”
Williams, who has six sisters and four brothers, said he has always loved kids and invited Levine to a Celtics game. Williams picked Levine up two hours before game time, and they drove to the Boston Garden.
Levine went to the locker room, where he met Celtics stars such as John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, both of whom are now in the Hall of Fame.
“I turned Philip loose and said: ‘Go ahead and say something to the guys,’” Williams said. “His eyes got real big.”
When it was time for the opening tip, Williams had a courtside seat reserved for Levine.
A few years later, Levine wrote a school report about his experience, calling it “the best day of my life.”
Williams, who got his nickname when someone yelled “hambone” in junior high and he happened to turn around, has had some great days of his own.
He played one year at Cal State Poly and averaged 16 points, but he quit the team when his wife got pregnant. He worked in factories for several years before the owner of the NBA San Diego Rockets, who remembered Williams from his high school exploits, gave him a tryout.
Williams made the team — the Rockets were a first-year expansion club — and averaged 8.1 points as a 28-year-old rookie. That turned out to be his career high in scoring, but he also averaged 6.6 assists in his second season. One of his teammates that year was future Hall of famer Elvin Hayes.
After three years in San Diego, Williams was traded to the Celtics for a fifth-round pick. And in 1974 — his last year in the NBA — he helped the Celtics win an NBA title.
Havlicek, Cowens and JoJo White were the top Celtics scorers that year, and Paul Silas was the leading rebounder. The rest of the rotation included Don Nelson, Don Chaney and Paul Westphal, stellar names who later became NBA coaches, and Williams averaged 2.6 points and 2.4 assists as a backup guard.
“I was faster than Havlicek, and he was fast,” Williams said. “They gave me a role to play, and I played it. We were like a family.”
Once a Celtic, always a Celtic, Williams said, which is why he will be rooting for Boston on Tuesday. But he’s also a huge Dwyane Wade fan, and he likes LeBron James, too.
Williams, who had knee replacement surgery a year ago and suffers from arthritis, is excited to see NBA stars up close.
“I never thought,” Williams said, “that anything like this would ever happen to me.”
Neither did Levine when he was 8, which is why he is so thrilled to “pay it forward” and allow Williams to enjoy Tuesday’s game as his guest.
Levine, who got an “A” on his school report on Williams, has never forgotten his friend’s kind gesture and set out to find him recently. Once he did, he sent Williams a 60-inch flat screen TV so he can watch NBA games in style from his home.
“What Art did for me 42 years ago was great because he wasn’t looking for publicity,” Levine said. “He was just doing something nice for a poor kid with a single mom.
“I hope more of today’s NBA players see that and can follow Art’s example.”