Henry Williams, the Charlotte 49ers’ all-time leading scorer who was once described as the “new king” of Italian basketball, died Tuesday. He was 47.
Williams, who was diagnosed in 2009 with kidney disease, played for the 49ers from 1989-92. A 6-foot-3 left-handed guard, Williams was an elegant yet tough player with a soft shooting touch. He averaged 20.2 points for the 49ers, setting a career scoring mark of 2,383, including 308 3-pointers. As a senior, he led the 49ers to the Metro Conference championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We have lost a fine young man,” said Jeff Mullins, who coached Williams at Charlotte. “It wasn’t just the way he shot and played. You had to look at him as a total person. He was a leader, well spoken and did everything around campus. He was everything you looked for in a young man, who also happened to be a very good basketball player.”
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Williams, who had an unfailingly upbeat and outgoing personality, also played for the United States in the 1990 Goodwill Games.
“Henry is an exceptional player,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said at the time. “I love Henry. If he was a little bit younger, I’d adopt him.”
Coming out of Indianapolis’ Ben Davis High, Williams made an immediate impact at Charlotte. He teamed in the backcourt as a freshman with senior Byron Dinkins, who is 10th on the program’s career scoring list.
“The first thing we noticed about Henry was how big his hands were,” said Dinkins, now the coach at Charlotte’s Carmel Christian. “He could pick the ball up with one hand and start dribbling it. And he just hung in the air. He had this thing that he’d jump really high, hang there and shoot it after you had already come down.”
Williams’ idol, Dinkins said, was Michael Jordan.
“He was a left-handed ‘MJ,’ that’s what we called him,” Dinkins said. “We teased him because everything he did was patterned after Jordan - the tongue, the shoes, the wrist band.”
Williams had a strong presence of his own.
“In addition to watching him nail countless long bombs from the corners, I was impressed with his strong leadership skills, on and off the court,” UNC Charlotte chancellor Phil Dubois said in a statement.
Although Williams was drafted in the second round by the San Antonio Spurs in 1992, he never played in the NBA. Instead, he went to Europe, where he starred for four Italian teams.
He averaged 20.2 points (exactly what he averaged at Charlotte) in a decade-long career. In 1996, his fourth year in Italy, he was the Italian League’s most valuable player for Treviso.
He was hailed in Italy as the country’s Jordan, whose years in the NBA paralleled Williams’ time in Italy. A magazine headline about Williams proclaimed: “Il Nuevo Ri” (The New King).
Williams retired from basketball after 10 seasons in Italy. He returned to the United States and Charlotte, where he invested in real estate, opened a now-defunct software company, operated a vending machine company and helped his wife Katrina run a family-owned shoe store. He also was a radio and television analyst for the then-Charlotte Bobcats from 2004-2009.
Williams also had been ordained in 1996. In 2004, he became minister at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in northwest Charlotte.
“When he came in, he was so filled with the spirit,” New Zion deacon Mike Robinson told the Observer in 2014. “You didn’t think of him as a former star. He brought the word so strong, that’s how we looked at it. He was a young man with a message.”
In 2009, Williams was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease, which occurs when kidneys are no longer able to function well enough to sustain life. He had been undergoing dialysis, although Mullins said Williams had also recently turned to more holistic treatment methods.
Dinkins said he talked to Williams occasionally in recent years. Williams called Dinkins last October after Dinkins’ mother died.
“I knew he was fighting (the disease),” Dinkins said. “It’s always sad and shocking when somebody close passes on.”
Outgoing Charlotte athletics director Judy Rose said Williams’ humility stood out.
“Henry Williams was one of the most talented athletes that ever played for the 49ers,” Rose said in a statement. “He accomplished a great deal in his life, but he was never boastful. He was a team player in all parts of his life.”
Said Dubois: “His enthusiasm for all he did, including his pro basketball career and his work in the ministry, was contagious. And his courage, in the face of a tough diagnosis, was inspiring.”
A native of Indianapolis, Williams is survived by his wife Katrina and children Kristen, Lauren and Brice.
David Scott: @davidscott14