After a distinguished college career playing under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and just one season with the Chicago Bulls, a team starved for a new messiah since Michael Jordan's retirement, Jay Williams destroyed his career when he suffered a horrific motorcycle accident. In an instant, the man with perhaps as fast a first step as any point guard in history could no longer do anything for himself, including walk.
In "Life Is Not An Accident," Jay Williams shares his story -- both heartbreaking and uplifting -- of being a young man trying to wrest control of his life from his overinvolved parents, from the pleasures and perils of fame and money, and from the near-fatal mistake that threatened to define him.
After a decade spent recovering from his injuries -- the rehabilitations, the comeback attempts, the professional forays into the seedy underside of sports agenting -- Williams recounts with a rare honesty his hard-fought path to college basketball stardom and the painful lessons he has learned while reconstructing his fractured adulthood.
The following is an excerpt from "Life Is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention" by Jay Williams.
I still don't know how many surgeries I had after the accident. My left knee was totally dislocated, every ligament torn. I'd completely ripped my hamstring off the bone. My pelvis was dislocated. I'd severed the peroneal nerve in my left leg. There is a scar that runs from my ankle all the way up to my mid-thigh on the outside of that same leg, courtesy of the fasciectomy the doctors performed in order to save my leg. I also split a major artery causing displaced blood to begin to fill the leg. To relieve the pressure, surgeons made a series of deep incisions in my leg, essentially filleting it, to release the blood. I needed more than 100 staples to patch the muscle and skin back together.
On my second night in ICU hell at Illinois Masonic Hospital, I was in bed, unable to recognize myself as I drifted in and out of consciousness, just staring at the tiles of a popcorn ceiling above. The morphine drips couldn't trickle down fast enough. I would open my eyes, take one look at what I'd done to myself the night before, and pass out again.
The next day -- don't ask me what time -- a figure emerged from the doorway of my room, walking toward me. At first I just assumed it was a doctor or someone else who worked there. But all it took was a couple of steps and I knew exactly who it was.
Three years earlier, around the time I committed to Duke, Coach K had undergone joint replacement surgery for his left hip. Ever since, his gait would favor one side over the other. It was a walk I knew all too well. We locked eyes, as we had so many times before; tears streamed down both of my cheeks as he clutched my right hand. I was overwhelmed with emotion -- my second father had arrived. I blacked out once again.
I was groggy when I came to, which was when I looked to my right at K, still holding my hand.
"I'm never going to play again." I began to sob.
I had been mourning all that I had thrown away, and now I was overcome with guilt, ashamed that I had let him down.
He let go of his firm grasp, reached into his pocket and took out a pendant. He told me it was his mother's rosary as he put it in my hand. "Give this back to me when you play again, because you are going to play again."
I looked directly at him, but that wasn't good enough for him. He demanded that I hear him and feel what he was saying.
"Look at me," he said with conviction. "You're going to play again."
I am certain he was distraught seeing one of his many surrogate sons in such a horrifying condition, but he refused to show sadness or disappointment. Instead he stood by my side, not allowing me the option of giving up.
As much as I respected and loved Coach K, there were times when I was angry with him because I didn't understand his thinking. During games, his intensity knew no bounds, and whenever he yelled that my best wasn't good enough, it took every ounce of me not to respond to him with what was really on my mind. I knew better than to shoot my mouth off, but I had to do something to release the frustration and prevent my head from exploding, so I took it out on my opponents. The more Coach K got in my face to challenge me, the more I would try to kill the guy who guarded me on the court.
Looking back, I get it: K pushed my buttons because he knew I played better when I was angry. I don't know when he figured that out -- maybe from watching me in high school or from observing how I responded to his various motivational efforts during my freshman year. Who knows? What I do know is we won a national championship, and I became a two-time national player of the year.
I needed anger. And Coach K almost always did a masterful job of pushing me to the edge without going too far.
It's no accident that Coach uses military metaphors when he talks about a team; attending West Point and coaching there had a huge influence on his life. He would often say to us, "Either you're in the trenches with me and we're going to fight, or if you're not willing to fight, I want to make room for people who want to be in the hole with me." I've watched him extend his arm to somebody and say: "Do you need help getting in the trenches with me? Let me pull you in. Here's a branch, here's your end -- grab it." And if you don't grab it, "Okay, well, I'm going to put my hand out for somebody who wants to grab my hand and who wants to be in here with me." I've seen people get lost in the mix because they didn't want to buy in completely, or they didn't find a way to express themselves to the point that he knew they were fighting with him instead of against him.
But one time, in my junior year, he went too far.
We were in Charlottesville facing Virginia late in the season. Our record was 25-2 going into that game. We were near the end, and despite my atrocious performance, K designed a play for me to drive the ball to the basket.
My stat line at that point was: 4-for-13 from the field, 1-for-7 from downtown, 8 turnovers, 6 assists.
We had been here before, where K would put his faith in me late in games regardless of how I was playing, but this wasn't the right call in my book. Carlos Boozer had 33 points and had missed only one shot, while Mike Dunleavy really started to heat up at the end. So when the time came for me to run the play he designed, I ignored his call and deferred to someone else. We ended up losing the game by three points.
I will never forget that walk back to the locker room. It was brutal enough to have fallen short, but knowing that the onus was square on my shoulders after deliberately disobeying our coach was intolerable.
UVA had these tight, confined spaces for the visitor's locker room. I was sitting next to Chris Duhon, who was even more distraught than I was. The loss clinched the ACC championship for Maryland, but I knew we could bounce back and still win the NCAAs.
I put my arm around Chris, trying to take responsibility for my actions. Trying to be a leader.
"It's my fault," I told him. "I messed up, not you. I was dog s---."
That was when I heard Coach K chime in.
"Get your arm off of him. You're not thinking about him. You're not thinking about us. All you're thinking about is the NBA draft and leaving. You're not committed to this team. I can't believe you would do that. The play was designed for you and you didn't care. You just did whatever you wanted to do."
I'd defied our coach, and to make matters worse, I handled the situation immaturely.
"This is a bunch of s---!" I yelled as I got up from my seat. "You're always on my case!" I then took a few steps in his direction while punching my fist into the palm of my other hand. "You're always on me about leaving for the NBA. If I wanted to leave Duke, I would have left last year!"
I caught myself then and there, frozen in my tracks, as I saw the look of disappointment in his eyes. Not knowing what else to say, I started to backpedal and make my way back to my seat. I could only imagine what everyone else was thinking after witnessing my outburst.
"Never have I ever, ever had a player talk to me the way you just did. Ever. I'm so disappointed in you."
After that night, there was a little distance between Coach K and me. He didn't say anything directly to me about the incident, but for the next couple of practices, he put me on the blue team. Starters were on the white team. That was all he needed to say. Once again, I was angry, so I channeled that rage to punish whoever tried to guard me. It didn't matter that I was on the blue team; we were winning every scrimmage. I had challenged Coach K, and it was the wrong thing to do, but I benefitted in the end. It was yet another valuable lesson in a long process of figuring out who I wanted to be.