Jason David “Jay” Williams was one of the most prolific players in college basketball history. In fact, he had what was arguably as fast a first step as any point guard in the history of the game. In June 2003 he suffered traumatic, life-threatening injuries in a motorcycle accident following his rookie season with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. Today, he is a full-time game and studio analyst for ESPN.
Jay and I first met at the ESPYs Golf Classic in July 2012. We both had to skip the awards reception following golf, as Jay was scheduled to appear on a radio show for ESPN at their LA Live studios while I had a previous commitment to host a group representing the Iowa State football team at a taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live! (see Jimmy Kimmel’s WINNER profile for more). ESPN graciously provided a car and driver to get the two of us back 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 Chicago Bulls’ 2002-03 team, and Fred had since returned home to coach 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. (Fred Hoiberg stepped down from his position at Iowa State in 2015 and returned to the NBA as coach of the Chicago Bulls – Ed.)
As Jay and I sat in the SUV’s captain’s chairs in our golf shorts, our knees all but knocked into each other along the way. My mind raced to the point of being flooded with the incredible facts involving 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. He was named ACC rookie of the year and Sporting News’ national freshman of the year. In his sophomore season, Jay started all 39 games and led the Blue Devils to the 2001 NCAA national championship, averaging 25.7 points/game during the post-season tournament. He 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 once again a consensus All-American and NABC player of the year, 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 glorious 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.
As we approached downtown LA, his left leg was inches away from me where it served as an unavoidable reminder of a promising professional career cut short. 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 sustained in the accident 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 meeting 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 in the aftermath of the horrific motorcycle accident. This was a guy who was determined to not let a near-fatal mistake define him.
Jay first joined ESPN as a commentator in 2003. He became a full-time game and studio analyst in 2008, and joined the popular College GameDay crew with Rece Davis, Seth Greenberg, and Jay Bilas beginning with the 2014-15 season. Unlike the college football program produced under the same name, the basketball version always appears at the ESPN Saturday Primetime game location. It was ironic that College GameDay came to Ames, IA during Jay’s first season on Saturday, January 17, 2015 where he and Iowa State Coach Fred Hoiberg were reunited. “It is really exciting to have GameDay here for the first time in school history,” Fred said. “Everyone that is a fan of college basketball is tuned into ESPN all day. They are watching the show to see how great of an atmosphere you have, and that’s just in the morning leading up to the game. I know our fans will probably fill Hilton Coliseum in the morning and hopefully we’ll go out and have a great game that night.” Sure enough, the 11th ranked Cyclones upset the 9th ranked Kansas Jayhawks 86-81 that night in an exciting Saturday Primetime game on ESPN.
It has been my great pleasure to occasionally 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 keynote the Variety Children’s Charity (see Variety’s WINNER profile for more) annual black tie dinner in Des Moines. The trip included a special tour of Blank Children’s Hospital, an important beneficiary of Variety’s fundraising efforts. Jay could not have been more gracious and considerate throughout his stay. His message was incredibly well received by the record crowd that evening. It was my privilege to introduce Jay beforehand. After sharing key points from his basketball and ESPN bio, 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 the Jay Williams’ story.
At the final game during his junior season at Duke University, Jay’s No. 22 jersey was retired at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But the degree to which Jay Williams is a WINNER extends far beyond his basketball accomplishments. While many athletes work their way back from an injury to compete in another game, Jay’s recovery and fight was all about living life itself. The saying “Let your past make you better, not bitter” was one Jay learned to embrace. Jay’s story is told with remarkable honesty in his book, Life Is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016). I was deeply touched when Jay presented me with a copy of the book which contained the following personal note on the inside cover: “Dear Ray, Thank you so much for allowing me to be a part of your team. You inspire me, my friend. And remember, ‘Strength does not come from physical capacity; it comes from indomitable will.'” The latter is a Gandhi quote that Jay had tattooed on his body while at Duke.
Jay is a WINNER who has truly inspired me and many others. Beyond his work for ESPN, Jay is the CEO and National Director of Special Events for Rising Stars Youth Foundation which uses basketball as a vehicle to promote education and provide academic and financial assistance to students within the program. In March 2017, the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Jay would be inducted later that year along with the other members of the Class of 2017: Coach Bo Ryan (Wisconsin) and standout players Tim Duncan (Wake Forest), Cleo Hill (Winston-Salem State), Scott May (Indiana), Rick Mount (Purdue), Paul Silas (Creighton), and John Stockton (Gonzaga).
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.wikipedia.org
“Jay Williams” Retrieved from www.espnmediazone.com
“College GameDay (Basketball)” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
(January 6, 2015) “Iowa State to Host ESPN College GameDay Jan. 17” retrieved from www.cyclones.com
Norlander, Matt (March 9, 2017) “Loaded Hall of Fame class includes Tim Duncan, Jay Williams, John Stockton” Retrieved from www.cbssports.com
SI.com Staff (May 16, 2017). “ESPN Upfront: Network announces new shows, lineup for 2018” Retrieved from www.sports.yahoo.com