Jay Williams: Finding the drive inside
Presented with the opportunity to do it all over again, Jay Williams wouldn’t change a thing.
He’d still get on that bike.
“I don’t know if I would give my younger self advice as much as I would talk to him about what I learned,” explains Williams, college basketball and NBA analyst for ESPN, and host of the ESPN+ sports business platform “The Boardroom.”
“I would just say that there are going to be times that you are going to lose control of your ego. I would tell myself to be ready for a lot of pain, for a lot of frustration, for a lot of confusion, and be ready to be lost because you’re going to need to go through all these things to find yourself. But I wouldn’t tell myself not to get back on the bike. … I think I would be doing myself a disservice.”
The former Duke star, now 38 — who helped the Blue Devils win the 2001 national championship and became the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft with the Chicago Bulls — has lived a life of more highs, lows and pain than any one individual should.
That horrific motorcycle accident, which happened on June 19, 2003, on the North Side of Chicago, took everything the Plainfield, N.J., native had worked a lifetime to achieve: the three-year, $16.14 million contract (which the Bulls no longer had to honor because motorcycle riding violated his contract), and the ability to truly take care of his family.
But when Williams crashed his motorcycle into a light pole — fracturing his pelvis, tearing knee ligaments and suffering nerve damage in his left leg, damage so bad doctors thought they might have to amputate his leg — also gone was any realistic opportunity for a comeback.
His NBA rap sheet for his lone season in the league was short enough to fill a single Post-It: 75 games played, 9.5 points and 4.7 assists per game.
His new reality drove him to drink — and to depression.
“I’m not going to lie to you. … I mean I had a conversation with my mom today, and she was, like, ‘Have you ever thought about what you would’ve been if you never got hurt and you played in the league?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, there’s some times I do. I miss it.’ I came out to the same music Michael [Jordan] came out to and I’ve seen guards like Derrick Rose and I was like, ‘Oh man, I feel like I had a little bit of Derrick Rose in me,’ … but if I were to spend all my life thinking about what was and not paying attention to what’s right in front of my face. …”
Williams slows his cadence, before finishing his thought: “I’m like, ‘Mom, I still got you.’ I got a kid, I got a wife who maybe I’d never meet if I had gone down a different path. I don’t know what that path would’ve made me become.”
Finding His Purpose
This sounds nothing like the Jay Williams who was Shane Battier’s teammate for one epic season at Duke.
“Obviously he’s grown tremendously,” says Battier, who formed a deadly one-two punch with the 6-foot-2 Williams on Mike Krzyzewski’s 2001 title team, each scoring over 700 points that season. “He’s a father now and has a huge responsibility in the media world.”
While the Worldwide Leader has a number of prominent voices on the rise — including Maria Taylor, Marcus Spears and Katie Nolan — Williams is carving out his own niche, bringing a perspective to basketball, and to sports, that few in media can boast.
And while the daily hot take makes ratings and grows wings on social, Williams’ style (“I approach conversations with empathy”) resonates with today’s athletes in an authentic way that TJ Adeshola, head of sports at Twitter, appreciates.
“Jay was an early adopter of social media,” explains Adeshola, who worked at ESPN in digital sales and marketing before joining Twitter in 2012.
“It’s been nice to watch — this dude’s been on Twitter for 11 years [@RealJayWilliams], and he still presents as a sports fan [and] not just a person who gets paid to talk about it. Remember, Jay Williams is one of the best collegiate players to ever pick up a basketball; it’s as easy as a click on a YouTube link to see that he was great. That speaks to credibility and validity.”
Continued Adeshola, a University of Maryland hoops fan whose memory is still fresh with highlights of Williams punishing his Terps: “Not to mention that this dude has gone through it — the peaks and the valleys — and he’s come through on the other side as a champion.”
While Williams has cemented his place in the starting lineup of talent at ESPN — the network signed him to a multiyear extension with ESPN/ABC to work on “NBA Countdown,” “The Jump,” and the morning show “Get Up,” while continuing to host the Kevin Durant-produced series “The Boardroom” — he almost didn’t get here.
When he was encouraged to venture into sports media by a friend in the business, Williams thought little of calling games on ESPN’s fledgling collegiate sports network, ESPNU. And even as he pursued the opportunity, in the back of his mind he was thinking he could resurrect a basketball career almost everyone around him felt was over.
Jordan's LockerJay Williams and Michael Jordan go way back. “I had the opportunity to play against Michael and spend time with him when he was with the Washington Wizards,” said Williams, who also worked with the Michael Jordan Flight School in Southern California for 2 1/2 years while in college at Duke.
“It was very challenging to be 23, 24 years old talking about the greatness in other players that I was seeing on the collegiate level when I still felt like there was a lot of greatness in myself to play,” Williams explains. “It was also difficult for me to make $45,000 a year for three or four years. It was humbling.”
Battier, who retired in 2014 after a 13-year NBA career that ended with back-to-back titles alongside LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami, understands the pain that comes with making the transition, especially with lingering pain from Chapter 1.
“For Jay, basketball came so easy,” explains Battier, the Heat’s vice president of basketball development and analytics. “From a purpose standpoint, this was the first [time] that he probably faced a challenge where he realized that, ‘Wow, this takes work.’ Athletes have to redefine what success is after their playing days are done [and] redefine the metrics that shape that. With basketball, you have a scoreboard every single night. You win, you lose, you had 20 points — the feedback is immediate. Media is way different. I spent one painful year in media, and I couldn’t get past the metrics that I had with basketball, and that’s the biggest reason why it didn’t speak to me.”
The work didn’t speak to Williams either — or rather, he wasn’t open to even having the conversation.
He recalls trips to Oxford, Miss., passing people he knew in first class on his way to his last-row seat while his knees ached.
His boss at the time, Dan Steir, provided counsel, and constructive criticism.
“Dan was honestly my guiding light throughout that whole thing, and I went through it multiple times,” Williams says. “I wanted to quit. Dan was just a model of consistency; he stayed on my tail all the time. I started to see that, ‘Oh, in order for me to be great at this I need to make this my life.’”
Says Steir, who left ESPN in 2012 and is now senior vice president of production and senior coordinating producer for NBC Sports Group: “It was evident that he was bright, talented and had smart things to say, and it became clear once he applied himself.”
John Skipper, ESPN’s former president, can attest, finding Williams to be “extraordinarily curious about how the business worked.”
“He always wanted to do more [and] to be in business for himself. He wasn’t happy just taking a check and making appearances,” says Skipper, executive chairman of DAZN, the over-the-top subscription streaming service. “He wanted to distinguish himself.”
Focusing on the Next Play
Williams is all grown up. His 19-month-old daughter, Amelia Brooklyn-Rose, keeps him and his wife, Nikki, on their toes. In 2016, he released his memoir, “Life Is Not An Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention.”
As a minority stakeholder in The Cabin NYC, a restaurant and bar in the Alphabet City section of Manhattan’s East Village, Williams has to think about other people’s livelihoods, particularly during this coronavirus pandemic.
As the host of “The Boardroom,” his focus is less on his delivery, and how he comes off, and more on the content produced.
When “The Boardroom” showrunner Amani Martin hears stories of a younger Williams who was less than diligent, it’s hard for him to fathom.
“I can’t even imagine that person because that’s so completely different from the Jay Williams that I know,” says Martin, who joined “The Boardroom” last spring for Season 2 of the six-episode series.
“He’s so hard-working, so intense, so focused; he’s really tough on himself about his performances. Even after he’s done a really solid interview, all he thinks about are the one or two things he feels he might’ve missed.”
Adds Martin, formerly a senior producer for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel: “When I think about the Jay of old, he’s a guy who, based on the accident, was negligent; he had this golden path in front of him, and I think he owned the responsibility for screwing that up; he has worked really hard and feels like he’s been given a second chance; and he’s worked like crazy to redeem himself. That’s the Jay I know.”
The converted point guard (Williams was a small and power forward at St. Joseph’s High in Metuchen, N.J.) has more immediate concerns, namely for his mom, whom he reveals “almost died this year from diverticulitis and had her second kidney transplant.”
What further drives Williams now, or rather keeps him on track, are lessons gleaned from screams of “Next play! Next play!” from his Hall of Fame college coach.
“There were so many times my freshman year at the beginning of the season that I would have a really bad turnover and you would just see me put my head down. Then I would come back down the court, and I would make [another] sloppy play,” Williams explains.
“I would come back to the huddle, and Coach K would say: ‘God dammit, why do you drag one bad play into the next? That is so selfish! The way you get outside of you is [by] automatically going into the next play.’ If I didn’t have those types of teachings for those three years, I’d never be able to recover after my accident. I’d never be able to get lost in doing something else.”
Mark W. Wright is a writer in North Carolina.