The Last Shot: Crossing Paths with a Legend

Max Williams is not quite like anyone I’ve ever met before, and he has quite a story to tell from basketball courts to the Texas oilfields.

MAX WILLIAMS WAS the boy with a basketball under his arm, facing the harsh breath of unforgiving winds that sweep the whirling dervishes and dust devils along the barren landscape on the edge of downtown Avoca, which hung on, some say, to the edge of the earth, and there was nothing beyond but time and distance and a jumping off place.

I was a schoolboy lost amidst the bramble brush and blackberry vines of East Texas, adrift on the hot, blacktop roads that dared you to walk them barefoot when the sun bore down on my head and drove shafts of heat into my back as though the summer was using a sledgehammer.

He left his footprints in an Humble oilfield camp, in the little West Texas town of Avoca.

I left mine in the boomtown of Kilgore.

Back when I first heard the name of Max Williams, he was already a legend on the basketball court. He had won the state championship for a high school that had only twelve students in his graduating class. He held the state schoolboy scoring record with thirty-six hundred points. He was now the flashy, hotshot, ball-handling All-American guard who was turning the SMU Mustangs into a national powerhouse.

Adolph Rupp, coach at Kentucky wanted him.

Doc Hayes at SMU got him.

One sportswriter said, “Max is blessed with terrific speed, lightning reflexes, tremendous spring in his legs, and a deadly one-hand jump shot.” Another described him as “a slick-shooting worry wart guard.” A third pointed out, “SMU’s hopes hinge on Slapsie Maxie Williams, the half-pint guard whose wizardry at dribbling and passing sometimes buffaloes his teammates as much as his opponents.”

He was tough.

He was quick.

He did things with a basketball that no one had ever seen before.

Max Williams, kneeling left, and Wilbur Marsh, kneeling right, with legendary SMU ‘basketball coach Doc Hayes.

I played backyard basketball.

That’s all.

I worked at newspapers, both large and small.

I wrote about a lot of basketball games.

High School.

And college.

In time, I even coached a little basketball at a small school.

It is a game not unlike life.

You’ve never won.

You’ve never lost.

And then the clock runs out.

We both hung around a lot of basketball, Max Williams and I.

But our paths didn’t cross until he was in the oil business, fighting the odds on a harsh Giddings, Texas, landscape, betting that he could crack the code of the Austin chalk and find oil on peanut farms that were known as the field of broken dreams.

Oilmen had searched for decades but walked away from empty holes with empty pockets. Oil tempted them, then cursed them. A well would burst forth with a gusher but dry up within days. Oilmen left a lot of hard-earned money in the ground.

Max was drilling.

I was writing a book on Gamble in the Devil’s Chalk.

Max was a good man to know.

He had met the worthless, god-forsaken land on its own terms.

He had beaten it but not without a good fight.

I knew then that Max Williams needed his story told.

After all, he had quite a story to tell.

It is the stuff of fiction.

At long last, I’ve had the opportunity to tell it.

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