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James "Shirt" Williams, '70s Gold Rush standout, dies

May 24, 2012

     NEW ORLEANS — James "Shirt" Williams, one of the top 20 scorers in the history of Xavier University of Louisiana men's basketball, died Tuesday (May 22, 2012) of heart failure in Baton Rouge, La. He was 59.
     A 6-foot-4 forward, a native of New Orleans and a graduate of Xavier (1975) and Booker T. Washington High School (1971), Williams played four seasons for the Gold Rush and averaged 13.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in 90 games. The Gold Rush were 71-30 during his tenure and won NAIA District 30 championships each of his first two seasons. Both those teams qualified for the NAIA National Championship, and the 1972-73 Gold Rush upset unbeaten and top-ranked Sam Houston State 67-60 to reach the quarterfinals.
     Williams ranks 18th at Xavier with 1,179 career points. He grabbed 600 rebounds in his XU career and shot 51.9 percent from the floor and 69.1 percent from the line.
     "Shirt was a warrior," said XU teammate Sammy Young. "He went full blast from the time he hit the court to the end of the game."
     Williams averaged 11.1 points as a sophomore on a team which featured two future NBA players, Don "Slick" Watts and Bruce Seals. Williams caught a full-court pass from Watts and scored a layup with 40 seconds remaining to give Xavier its final points in a 79-77 victory at Tulane on Feb. 1, 1973, in the first meeting between the schools.
     "That game meant a lot to us," Watts said. "We were small beans trying to get with the big boys."
     Though Watts and Seals played professionally the following season, Xavier defeated Tulane again. Williams scored 14 points against the Green Wave at The Barn, and his basket started a 13-4 run during the final 4:15 to rally the Rush to a 61-53 victory on Jan. 30, 1974.
     Williams is one of just two Gold Rush players of the past 39 seasons to lead the team in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage in the same season. Williams did it as a junior in 1973-74
   
James Williams

James "Shirt" Williams
Feb. 6, 1953-May 22, 2012
when he averaged 17.9 points and 6.4 rebounds and shot 52.8 percent from the floor and 74.8 percent from the line. As a senior Williams averaged 14.5 points and 9.9 rebounds, both team highs.
     At Booker T. Washington, Williams was a starter on basketball teams which were 53-2 his final two seasons. The Lions won a state championship in the Louisiana Interscholastic and Literary Organization when Williams was a junior in 1970, then lost in the semifinals of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association Class AAAA playoffs to Woodlawn of Shreveport (and future hall-of-famer Robert Parish) in 1971 after a 24-0 regular season.
     Although BTW did not win a state championship in '71, The Times-Picayune newspaper in 2003 ranked the team among the 10 best in New Orleans history. Williams' BTW teammates included Seals, Greg Berniard and Ames Growe, all of whom signed with Xavier for the 1971-72 season.
     "Shirt was every bit the All-American I was," Seals said. "Without him and everyone else on that team, I may not have become the player I was. Those teams were all for one and one for all, period.
     "He was a funny guy. He was tough as nails. Indestructible. His passing makes us realize how fragile life is."
     Watts called Williams invincible and, like Seals, expressed surprise at his death. "Shirt was like Wilt Chamberlain," Watts said. "I never thought either of them would go away so soon."
     Watts also called Williams one of his best teammates. "Shirt was always happy, always having fun. He always found a way to make you smile and make things all right. I never got tired of talking with him.
     "He was a tough man. He was Superman. If you got in a fight, you wanted him in your corner."
     Williams was a longtime employee of Camelot College in Baton Rouge, where he worked in student services.
     "Shirt never wanted anyone to hold a grudge," said Ronnie Owens, a BTW and Xavier classmate and longtime friend. "He always believed in moving on, moving forward. His final words in any conversation were, 'God bless you.'"
     Williams was known as Shirt the majority of his life. "He wore a white shirt to school every day," Owens said.
     "He was known as 'white shirt' until he got to high school," Seals said. "When he got to Booker T., the white got dropped."
     Survivors include his wife, Gloria Levy Williams; a daughter, Enjolee; a son, Jarrett; one sister and three brothers. Four brothers preceded Williams in death. His funeral will start at 11 a.m. Tuesday (May 29) at Second Baptist Church, 914 North Acadian Thruway West in Baton Rouge (zip code 70802, phone 225-344-8743).


 

 
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The Xavier Gold Rush and Gold Nuggets compete in Division I of the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) as a member of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC). Xavier fields men's teams in basketball, cross country and tennis and women's teams in basketball, cross country, tennis and volleyball.

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