|During his rookie season in 2002-03, Williams led all first-year players with 4.7 assists per game and was ninth in scoring with a 9.5 average.|
Over three years ago, the former second overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls was involved in a devastating motorcycle accident that not only nearly ended his basketball career, but his life.
On June 19, 2003, Williams was heading to a friend’s house for dinner in Chicago when he lost control of his high-powered motorcycle and crashed into utility poll. The impact of the crash severed a main nerve in his left leg, fractured his pelvis and tore three of the four ligaments in his left knee.
“I was in the hospital from June to about July or August,” Williams remembers. “I couldn’t get up and walk until September or October. I was on my back for three or four months. There were a lot of low points.
“You go from one day dunking on Yao Ming to the next day having a lady helping you wash yourself.”
After spending the initial weeks after the accident in a Chicago hospital, Williams was moved to the Duke University Medical Center – near the site of many of his triumphs as a member of the Duke Blue Devils basketball team.
After about a half-dozen surgeries and extensive rehabilitation at Duke, Williams was finally able to perform every day chores without the help of his parents, who had moved in to help cook and clean.
At that point, basketball was the furthest thing from his mind.
That all changed a year after the accident. Still struggling to walk and with a brace on his leg, Williams decided to help coach a basketball camp at his alma mater.
“Some little kid said, ‘you’re my favorite player, are you going to play again?’ I looked at him and said, ‘I don’t think it is going to happen. It’s time to move on and maybe get into coaching or something else,” Williams said. “The kid started crying, like balling. He looked at me and said, ‘you’ve got to play.’
“That’s when it clicked. I wanted to do this for everybody else too not just me. I wanted to do it for everybody who was ever told they can’t do something.”
Not completely confident he could get his body back into basketball shape, the former Duke All-American started working out with Tim Glover, Michael Jordan’s longtime trainer. Williams initially attempted a comeback for the 2005-06 season but felt the timing wasn’t right.
“I thought I was ready at first and then towards the end of the summer I kind of got tired,” he said. “So I thought I should get more training and keep getting stronger throughout the year.
“Now I feel my legs are strong. I’ve been going everyday for a year and a half and I feel good. Now I can go every single day and feel like a regular person.”
Since July, Williams has been working out every day at the Nets practice facility. His routine includes a mixture of martial arts training and running exercises to improve his speed and movement in the morning. The afternoon is spent with Head Coach Lawrence Frank and his coaching staff on shooting and basketball drills.
“He has an unbelievable drive, determination and will to succeed,” Coach Frank said about Williams. “Guys like that you want to see succeed because they deserve it. Physically and mentally, he can still play in the NBA.”
Bill Cartwright, Williams’ former head coach in Chicago and current Nets assistant coach, has seen major improvements in his game since his rookie season.
“We had him when he first came out of college and he was still learning the subtleties of changing speeds and playing against bigger and faster guys,” Cartwright said. “Where he has really improved is his shooting. His shooting is much better, his decision-making is better. He is a smarter player now.”
When training camp opens for the Nets on October 3rd, Williams is expected to be one of handful of non-roster invitees. With New Jersey already having 15 players under contract – the maximum number allowed by the NBA – Williams faces an uphill battle.
“I’m not worried about that. That’s going to play itself out,” Williams said. “I feel like if I keep getting better, I’ll find somewhere to play.”
“The league is always about survival of the fittest,” Coach Frank said. “Things always have a way of working out.”
And just when the memories of the accident began to fade, Williams’ name was once again thrust into the headlines when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger crashed his motorcycle months after winning the Super Bowl.
Williams, of course, had empathy for Roethlisberger but thinks the media puts too much emphasis on the lives of professional athletes and celebrities.
“I was on the 405 (Freeway) in L.A. working out about seven or eight months ago and I saw someone pass away in a motorcycle accident,” Williams said. “The one thing I want everybody to understand is whether it’s a bike or driving really fast in a car or drinking and driving, just know there is a bigger picture out there. It’s not worth it.
“Now I get in my car and cruise at 55 (mph). There’s no rush.”
The experience has clearly matured the 24-year-old Williams. Despite the litany of surgeries and the hours of rehab he had to endure over the past three years, he said he would not change one thing because it has given him a new outlook on life.
“The biggest lesson I learned is that nothing in life is guaranteed,” Williams said. “Not many people get a second chance. I have to sit back sometimes and remember where I came from. Remembering the first time I sat up in bed and passed out (from the pain). It puts everything in perspective.”
His second chance at basketball may come courtesy of the Nets, the team he rooted for growing up in Plainfield, N.J.
“This was the one place I wanted to get drafted but obviously it didn’t work out,” Williams said. “Chicago was unbelievable, I loved Chicago. Now I have an opportunity to play here. I’m here to fight for something and to work as hard as I can.”
After what he has been through, we would expect nothing less from Jay Williams.