In 1985, the Memphis State basketball program was one of the nations elite. The centerpiece of that team stood as tall as the Tigers' ranking.
At 7-foot-1, former Melrose High School star William Bedford had it all. He had size, agility, instinct.
But it was that instinct that seemingly failed him.
Bedford's promise never materialized in the National Basketball Association and that led him into a downward spiral that included drug use and eventually prison time.
But today, Bedford is again a Memphian, a giant walking among us, hoping that you will understand that his past is just that. His past.
"So, you didn't like basketball when you were younger? You were forced to play?"
"I was forced to play. People in general. Because every where I used to go with my mom and dad, the grocery store, wherever we went, I would go places with my dad, people would always ask, 'Do you play basketball?' I told them 'no.' They'd be like, 'man you ought to play basketball! You'd be real good at it!' I was 6-8, almost 6-9 then, and I couldn't make a lay-up."
"You were 6-8 in the ninth grade?
"I was 6-9 in the ninth grade. Coach Dorsey Simms took up a lot of time with me - weekends, summer time, summer school … everything. He taught me a lot."
"You grew up here. Your pictures are all over the wall at Melrose High School. You were an idol. What was that like?"
"In those times, I really didn't know how good I was playing basketball. I just played the game. I played to run the floor, block shots and get dunks. I had no idea that people thought I was so large with basketball or that people thought of me as a role model or some type of star."
But it didn't take long for him to figure out that he was a star in the making.
He was the center piece for a Memphis State Tigers team that dominated the Metro Conference from 1984-86. He and the Tigers made it to the Final Four in 1985. Bedford, along with Keith Lee, Baskerville Holmes, and Andre Turner had become a household name.
"When you got to the University of Memphis, did the bright lights not clue you in that, 'hey, I'm pretty good at this?'"
"I kind of felt like I was pretty good at it. The first play of every game we used to start out with a dunk - an ally-oop to me. I kind of felt special because I was the first person we would go to the first part of every game."
"Most of my dunks, really all of my dunks, came off of Andre. It was unbelievable how high he could throw it. I think he would throw it that high just to see if I could go get it! He always told me it slipped out of his hand, but I didn't believe him."
All of that promise and potential was never fulfilled.
He was a lottery pick by the Phoenix Suns, but after two seasons there he bounced from team to team, including two very difficult years in Detroit.
"William, did you ever use drugs while in the NBA?"
"I think the only time I ever used drugs while in the NBA was my first year with the Pistons in 1988. I grew up here in Memphis and back in those times, we used to go to the parks, smoke a little weed, drink beer, get on the court and play. That's how I learned to play. I played with guys I know I didn't have any business on the court with! And that made me better."
What worked on the Memphis playgrounds, didn't work in the NBA. Bedford says he stopped after the Pistons started keeping an eye on him.
"You know, people found out because you are under more of a microscope then, than any other time. People were watching me, where would I go, is my car in different neighborhoods ... you know I didn't think I had a problem with it, because this is how I used to play all the time. It's how I grew up! After I got in that trouble, I stayed clean the rest of the time I was under contract in the NBA."
But that was the beginning of the end.
Detroit later traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, who sent him to the Washington Bullets (now Wizards), where he was eventually waived. The same story was repeated in San Antonio soon after.
A second knee surgery ended his NBA dreams.
"After that last knee surgery, I went into kind of a depression. I thought my career was over because I had bounced around from team to team. Nobody wanted me because they had to pick up 20 percent of my contract. I got to the point where I started asking myself, 'did I really want to play?'"
After a short stint in the CBA, Bedford did retire, but his idle hands did him no favors.
He was arrested for drug possession twice in 1996 and 1997. Then, in 2001, he was arrested in Michigan, found with more than 25 pounds of marijuana in the SUV he was driving. His next stop was rock bottom: 10 years in prison.
"What takes you there? How do you get to that point William? Because there were so many people here in Memphis who looked at you and said, 'this guy's got it all.'"
"It's not being comfortable being comfortable inside. It's like when you feel like you're done with basketball, you feel like you've failed your family. You feel like you've failed yourself because the things you wanted to do, the things you wanted to have and in order for me to have those things, I had to be successful in doing it. It was just a very hard situation for me. "
"Was there ever a point, say while you were in prison, was there a reawakening of William Bedford?"
"For me, it was just being in that environment. It's a whole other world. It's a whole other world. I went to six different institutions. Because of good behavior. You can move. I always held down a job. I stayed out of write ups. I took programs. I obtained my HVAC license while I was there. I stayed away from the gambling, I stayed away from the gangs, I stayed away from everything I possibly could because I didn't want anything to hold me there any longer."
William's homecoming was a quiet one.
He came back to Memphis in may of 2012 and reconnected with the game. He's the president of operations for the Bluff City Reign of the ABA, a developmental basketball league for players holding on to a dream. He also volunteers as a mentor for the Shelby County Juvenile Court. He calls it paying his due to the town that believed in him.
"Make me believe in you. Why should I believe that William Bedford is a better man than he was 12 to 15 years ago?"
"Well, number one, I've been clean for about 13 years now."
"Do you feel like you've come full circle now?"
"Not yet. No. I have a lot of things I want to accomplish. I want to have all of my kids with me sometime. I want to be successful and bring something back to the city and show, this is what I learned growing up."
WHBQ-TV | Fox 13
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