/

Former UCLA, Japan pro basketball player Billy Knight dies in suicide after abuse charges

by Ed Odeven

Staff Writer

The basketball world is mourning the passing of Billy Knight. The death of the former UCLA basketball shooting guard, whose long overseas career included stints with four pro teams in Japan, has sent shock waves throughout the sport.

The Los Angeles native, who was 39, was pronounced dead in Phoenix on Sunday. His body was found on a road near downtown Phoenix at 2:45 a.m., Phoenix police said, according to published reports. It was an apparent suicide. (But subsequent reporting has emerged painting a much fuller picture of the troubles — child sexual abuse charges — that Knight encountered before his death.)

Last weekend, Knight broadcast his intention to take his own life in a haunting 6-minute video entitled “Billy Knight ‘I am Sorry Lord’ ” that he posted on YouTube. The video surfaced shortly thereafter, with a barrage of social media messages from former teammates, UCLA alumni and Los Angeles-area basketball contacts seeking to contact him and offer encouragement and help.

But it was too late.

“I just feel like I didn’t belong here on earth, so my time is up,” Knight said in the video.

In the video, Knight looking straight ahead at the camera, also said, “I isolated myself from my family members. I isolated myself from my friends, and that’s not something you should do. If this happens, you probably have a mental illness. Mental illness is serious. I hear voices in my head constantly, and I don’t know where they come from. I just asked God for forgiveness for all the wrong I’ve done.”

On Wednesday, TMZ Sports released a bombshell report with this headline: “UCLA’s Billy Knight Allegedly Sexually Abused 9-Year-Old . . . Before Death.” In its online article, TMZ reported that Knight had been “arrested and charged with six felonies for sexual encounters involving a girl under the age of 15” in Phoenix.

The Maricopa County Superior Court’s case history, which is posted online, shows that Knight posted a $100,000 bond. He was arrested on June 13, documents show, and made an initial court appearance the next day. The disposition information lists the six aforementioned felonies as allegedly occurring on April 1, 2017.

If he had been convicted of all the sex crime charges, Knight faced at least 50 years in prison, TMZ reported. The initial pretrial conference was scheduled to begin Aug. 1.

TMZ also reported that Knight was wearing a tracking device at the time of his death.

Knight was the second former Bruins basketball player to pass away in recent days after 27-year-old Tyler Honeycutt shot himself during a long standoff with police on July 7 at his home in Sherman Oaks, California.

The Japan Times contacted UCLA chancellor Gene Block via email seeking comment about whether the UCLA athletics department would establish a program for former athletes to help them transition to life after their playing days and assist them with mental health issues. As of press time, no statement was issued.

Before the TMZ report was posted online, shock and sadness were common threads in interviews with Knight’s ex-teammates, coaches, fans and others within the basketball community here and in the United States.

Knight starred at Westchester High School in Los Angeles before heading to UCLA. He averaged 14.1 points per game as a fifth-year senior. In Japan, he suited up for the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix (2009-10, bj-league champion; the Phoenix were dubbed the “White-Knight Show” by this newspaper on opening night that season, highlighting the one-two punch of dynamic stars Wendell White and Knight, and the latter poured in 19.6 ppg, No. 3 in the circuit for the champs), Osaka Evessa (2010-11), Hyogo Storks (2011-15, JBL2 champs in 2012-13, their second season of existence) and Yamagata Wyverns (2015-16).

In January 2012, at age 33, he demonstrated his all-around skills in a banner performance for the Storks: 41 points, 18 rebounds. While with the Wyverns, the crafty 198-cm southpaw shooter delivered a 47-point, 14-board effort in December 2015 in his final season as a pro in the NBDL, the then-Japan Basketball Association’s second-flight league.

His pro career began in 2002 and included stops in Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, France, Cyprus, Venezuela and Qatar. He also competed for the Harlem Globetrotters and in the IBL and ABA, two North America-based minor circuits.

Knight, of course, couldn’t forget regular visits from the late John Wooden, the legendary Bruins bench boss.

“Wooden came to all my games and he gave tips on how to win, and even at his old age he still knew what was going on,” Knight told this newspaper in 2010. “To see him still focusing on the current team makes you appreciate the tradition.”

Knight was a well-known figure in Los Angeles hoop circles and regularly competed in the Drew League there. In 2013, Knight reflected on getting his summer ball start in the Drew League, then it its 40th year.

“(Future NBA star) Baron Davis was my college roommate at UCLA and he drove me down to the Drew League back at the old gym,” Knight said, according to drewleague.com. “Some small gym filled with a bunch of street ballers, some overseas guys and mostly neighborhood dudes.”

William Price Knight was born on Jan. 20, 1979, in Los Angeles. He is survived by his younger brother, Eric. (The Japan Times was unable to confirm if his parents, Peggy and Bill, are still alive.)

After leaving the Wyverns, Knight, a sociology major in college, worked as a basketball operations assistant for the NBA G League’s Northern Arizona Suns during the 2016-17 season.

Prior to the TMZ report surfaced, The Japan Times reached out to dozens of hoop contacts seeking comment about Knight, their remembrances of his career and how they want to remember him.

And those who knew Knight expressed shock and sadness about his passing.

“Our hearts are heavy after learning Billy Knight has passed away. We ask that the Bruin family keep Billy’s loved ones in their thoughts during this difficult time,” was the UCLA men’s basketball program statement on Twitter.

Longtime NBA guard Jamal Crawford tweeted, “Rest in Peace Billy Knight, just saw him within this last year, and of course he greeted me with his signature smile. Never know what someone is going thru. Prayers up.”

UCLA teammate J.R. Sakuragi (nee Henderson), a longtime fixture on the powerhouse Aisin SeaHorses in the JBL era who has continued his career in his early 40s with the B. League franchise now called the SeaHorses Mikawa, remembered Knight with mixed emotions.

“Can’t lie, he was in trouble,” Sakuragi told this newspaper. “Bothered by what he did apparently.”

Sakuragi added: “Billy always made me laugh. Always joking. We had a lot in common as far as basketball. Both were into nutrition and taking care of our bodies so we talked about that a lot. He informed me of any new health foods or training gadgets and I did the same. Billy, Isaac Butts and I talked as a group often, but when basketball ended for him we lost touch. He was part of our weekly Bible study here in Japan as well.”

Natalie Nakase, one of Knight’s closes friends with Japan-basketball ties, penned a heartfelt tribute to Nakase.

“Billy told me his purpose on earth was to love and serve others,” tweeted Nakase, a former UCLA women’s player, Saitama Broncos head coach and current assistant with the NBA G League’s Agua Caliente Clippers. “I was lucky enough to feel his passionate heart and beautiful soul. His love made me better in so many ways. I will miss you everyday and love you forever.”

Former Phoenix teammate Jermaine Green offered these remarks in an interview: “I’ll just say that he was a great friend, my brother, my teammate, who had a lot of good in his heart. People make mistakes and I’m still going to miss him regardless of what mistakes he made.”

A former NBL and B. League coach who requested anonymity said, “I believe the entire basketball community is shocked by the loss of Billy Knight. He was a fierce competitor, relentless hard worker and extremely humble.”

The coach went on: “Billy was always easy to talk to and connect with on a variety of subjects. He was an amazing soul. He was always focused on the right things, and wanted to give basketball as much as he could . . .”

Former Osaka Evessa president Motofumi Iguchi, who now serves as a basketball commentator, said Knight left a lasting impression on those who followed his career in Japan.

“This is a very sad moment for Japan basketball friends, especially Western Conference basketball people,” Iguchi wrote in an email. “I believe many Japanese players wished to play like him on the court and tried to act like him off the court as a true leader.”

Ryan Blackwell, the Evessa head coach from 2010-12, described Knight as a friend and a likable guy on the team.

“Billy was fun to coach and be around,” Blackwell told The Japan Times. “He got along well with everybody. On the court he had a good feel for the game, was a good shooter/scorer and was very unselfish. He was admired by the fans around Japan and respected by everyone he came in contact with.

“It’s unfortunate what has transpired in the last few days. Billy and I were in touch often and after having a nice conversation with him over the phone back in May I never would have suspected he was going through what we now are aware of. It’s extremely sad and disturbing to say the least…”

Ex-Storks general manager Masaki Kitamura remembered Knight as a player who led by example.

“He didn’t say much, but always showed us what professionalism is by his (attitude),” Kitamura recalled. “. . . He was always focused, playing hard and coached my Japanese players. Great personality and learned a lot from him. RIP.”

Retired star John “Helicopter” Humphrey, a high-scoring, high-flying fan favorite when he played for the Tokyo Apache, Saitama Broncos and Rizing Fukuoka, can’t forget Knight’s upbeat personality on and off the court.

“Billy was a great basketball player, but even better person,” Humphrey commented in an email. “He always had a smile on his face, trying to make others smile. Was truly a great guy and was willing to help with anything. He will be missed.”

Speaking before the child sex abuse allegations were revealed by TMZ, Akihiro Onaga, who began his five-year pro career with the Storks as a point guard in 2011, looked back on the positive role that Knight played in helping him adjust to the pro game.

“He was the hardest-training guy on the team,” Onaga said in a Wednesday phone interview. “Every day he’d call me and say, ‘Let’s go to the weight room after practice.’ He taught me and coached me how to treat my body as a basketball player and how to train as a professional basketball player.”

Onaga, who hails from Okinawa, truly respected Knight’s work ethic.

“He said, ‘Don’t be a regular man, you have to work the hardest on the team, and we have to have success as professional basketball players.’ . . . He taught me how I needed to work hard as a pro, and how I needed to treat my body as a pro,” recalled Onaga, who later competed for Daytrick Tsukuba, Tsukuba Robots, Fukushima Firebonds and Earthfriends Tokyo Z before retiring. He now works at Sports Intersection Basketball Academy in Saitama and as a girls basketball team coach at Soka Senior High School in Tokyo.

Before joining the Storks, Onaga had endured three back surgeries, and Knight insisted that his teammate needed to learn that “the body is the most important thing for a pro,” Onaga recalled. This involved daily visits to the jacuzzi after team practice, icing and stretching, as well as one-on-one games after practice and visits to the weight room, all prompted by Knight’s calls for more work.

“That’s why I spent five years as a pro,” Onaga insisted. “I think if I didn’t see him in my rookie season, I (wouldn’t) have played five years.”

Though the now-deceased Knight’s legal troubles greatly altered the narrative of his life and legacy, Onaga remembered a dedicated pro when he was asked about his ex-teammate and good friend.

“I want to say he’s a real pro,” Onaga offered. “I’ve seen a lot of professional basketball players, but he’s a real pro. He’s always a good leader. He took care of young kids, fans and rookies like me. He always brought people (together) in a good way — for team success.

“He didn’t talk a lot in front of the team because we had a coach, but he showed how we needed to practice and how we needed to act in front of people — yeah, basically at practice.”

BT Toews, the first head coach in Storks history, recalled with fondness Knight’s vital role in helping the upstart franchise build a winner from scratch during his two seasons at the helm.

“He was instrumental in winning the Hyogo Storks’ first JBL2 championship. He was a part of my family, a quality human being and spent many early morning hours teaching my son Kai how to (play) ball,” said Toews, who’s currently coaching the WJBL’s Fujitsu Red Wave.

After watching Knight’s heartbreaking video, Toews had this to say: “Billy’s troubles I suspect had nothing to do with adjusting to life apart from basketball. My feeling is that, as he said in his video, that he felt all along that he was faking things, and that he was having trouble coping with both realities of life and perhaps the ‘unrealistic’ pressures he felt as a Christian. I am just as bemused as everyone else.

“It’s an unbelievable loss. I didn’t see it coming.”

Keith Richardson, an assistant coach on all four Ryukyu Golden Kings title-winning teams during the bj-league era, expressed the sentiments shared by a plethora of basketball contacts.

“Billy was loved by so many and this is a tragic loss to his family, friends and the basketball world,” said Richardson, who stepped down from his Kings coaching position in 2017.

“I first met Billy (nearly) 10 years ago when he was playing with Hamamatsu and instantly became friends. . . . He was such a likable person with a caring personality.”

Before working in the G League, Knight revealed in an email exchange with this reporter that he was learning a lot in the preseason working in an unofficial role as an assistant with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, who were coached by ex-Bruin Earl Watson at the time. And he insisted he would be a good fit for a Japanese team looking for a mentor with solid credentials.

“Japan basketball needs help. I can come back and help,” Knight wrote in October 2016.

In a 2010 interview with The Japan Times, Knight reflected on the special feeling of being a Bruin, competing for a basketball program with an illustrious history.

“It feels great to come from UCLA, a big basketball school,” Knight said at the time. “Just the tradition alone, with all the NBA players and overseas players, and even J.R. Henderson (J.R. Sakuragi) and Charles O’Bannon playing here in Japan in the JBL, it’s like a brotherhood. . . . It’s cool, and if anyone needs some help, we help each other out.”