“It’s amazing to watch Jay basically say no matter what the worst moment of your life is, you never want to be defined by it. No matter what it is. The fact that Jay will not allow one bad moment to alter the course of his life in any way, other than how he sees fit, is probably the quality about him that impresses me the most.”
~Zubin Mehenti, ESPN and former WOI-TV sports anchor, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
Jason David “Jay” Williams was one of the most prolific players in college basketball history. His speed and skill were elite. His instincts, peerless. His basketball IQ? Off the charts. Jay possessed every trait a basketball coach at any level would treasure, until a life-threatening motorcycle accident abruptly ended a promising professional career following his rookie season with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Today, he serves as a radio show co-host and NBA analyst for ESPN.
Jay and I first met at the ESPYS Golf Classic in July 2012. We both had to skip the awards reception due to prior commitments, and ESPN graciously provided a car and driver to get us downtown. After introducing ourselves to each other, the conversation turned quickly to a common acquaintance of ours: Fred Hoiberg. Jay and Fred had played together on the 2002-03 Chicago Bulls team, and Fred was at the time coaching his alma mater, Iowa State. Jay spoke sincerely and glowingly about what a great role model, leader and teammate Fred was to him and others on that Bulls team.
As we sat in the SUV’s captain’s chairs together, I began to recall Jay’s deeply personal story of a playing career that ended in a flash. Jay was a phenom at St. Joseph’s High School in Metuchen, NJ. He was named to the Parade magazine, USA Today and McDonald’s All-American teams. At Duke University where he played for legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, Jay averaged double figures as a freshman, and was named ACC rookie of the year. In his sophomore season, he started all 39 games and led the Blue Devils to the 2001 NCAA national championship while averaging 25.7 points/game during the post-season tournament. Jay was a consensus All-American and the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) player of the year. In his junior season, Duke lost by one point in an Elite 8 game to the eventual national champion, Indiana. Jay was a consensus All-American and NABC player of the year for the second time, and winner of the prestigious Naismith and Wooden awards. He opted to turn pro with a year of eligibility remaining, but in doing so became the first athlete in the long history of Duke University to earn his undergraduate degree in just three years! Jay was selected by the Chicago Bulls as the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft behind only Yao Ming who was chosen first by the Houston Rockets.
Dressed in golf shorts and only inches away from mine, Jay’s leg served as an unavoidable reminder of a promising professional career cut short by his accident. It reflected the scars of 10+ operations, indentations from the 100 staples that helped hold his leg together afterwards, and marks from an untold number of scopes. The injuries he sustained included a total knee dislocation, dislocated pelvis, and severed nerve in his left foot that would take a year to regenerate with pain comparable to that of childbirth. You read or hear all the time about athletes having a ligament or hamstring injury. In Jay’s case, he tore every single ligament and his entire hamstring was ripped completely away from the bone. I left this chance encounter with Jay impressed with his genuineness, and in awe of the manner in which he fought through the physical and mental challenges imposed on him. This was a guy who was determined to not let one near-fatal mistake define him.
“Following my accident, I was at an intersection,” Jay would later tell me. “I could have chosen to stop, put my head down and just stay there. Or I could choose to see the adversity as an opportunity to learn, grow and move forward — all the while understanding that playing professional basketball was no longer in my path and part of my journey. The latter mindset has been one that has propelled me in my life. … It is instructive for so many people with the everyday decisions where they have a choice to make. It’s relatable to everything that we feel maybe didn’t go our way. When those inevitable setbacks occur, it’s our choice to choose to learn from such experiences so we can find ways to navigate them differently the next time. But too often people get fixated and become so myopic on what they may have lost, that they don’t pay attention to what they could have gained.”
It has been my distinct pleasure to meet up with Jay at events like the ESPYS, Upfronts and various charity dinners over the past several years. In January 2017, he accepted my invitation to deliver the keynote at the Variety – The Children’s Charity of Iowa (see their WINNER profile) black tie dinner. The trip included a private tour of Blank Children’s Hospital, an important beneficiary of Variety’s fundraising efforts. Jay could not have been more gracious during the visit, and his message was incredibly well received by the record crowd that night. It was a privilege to introduce Jay before he spoke. After sharing key points from his basketball and ESPN resumes, I related this quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” In my view, King’s words embody the substance and spirit of Jay’s life story.
Winning can be traced by statistics, highlights and championships. Jay’s path is detailed via “body art” in the form of tattoos. They help to define him, but only scratch the surface and hint at the warm spirit and much deeper wisdom that lies within. “My tattoos like the one that says, ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity,’ are constant reminders of the positive mantra that I want to push into the world, Jay told me. “And then there is the one saying, ‘Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from indomitable will.’ I got that as a 20-year-old while thinking about strength. The aesthetic of strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from indomitable will … and I’ve lived that every single day since my accident. … The tattoos serve as the road map of my journey.”
It has been, and continues to be, the journey of a truly special person and WINNER.
Life is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention by Jay Williams (HarperCollins Publishers 2016)
Bishop, Greg (February 9, 2013) “A Leg Rebuilt, a Life Renewed for Jay Williams” The New York Times
“Jay Williams” Retrieved from www.espnmediazone.com
Norlander, Matt (March 9, 2017) “Loaded Hall of Fame class includes Tim Duncan, Jay Williams, John Stockton” Retrieved from www.cbssports.com
Last Updated: October 30, 2022