DURHAM Jay Williams had a dream.
On the night before his first college basketball game before he started for Duke at Madison Square Garden, before he became a national champion and the occupant of Michael Jordans old locker in Chicago Williams fell asleep in a hotel room. He saw himself spinning in the air, around and around, over and over, until a red fire hydrant came into view.
So weird, he thought when he woke up.
Williams forgot about the dream until nearly four years later, until June 2003, on a side street on the North Side of Chicago. He sat atop a red-and-black Yamaha R6, a sport bike that weighed about 400 pounds and boasted a 600-cubic-centimeter engine. He revved the engine once and heard it purr, the gear, he believed, in neutral.
He loved that sound, but he especially loved the way he felt those times when his bike shot forward. Like how I felt in transition, Williams said, like if I caught the ball with a full head of steam and knew I was going to score. Sometimes, he pushed the bike past 120 mph, faster, faster, until the landscape blurred.
On that afternoon in June, Williams again revved the engine, only this time, the motorcycle surged forward unexpectedly, shot like a bullet from a gun. The front wheel lifted off the ground for an accidental wheelie. Williams was not wearing a helmet, did not have a proper license, was in violation of his contract with the Chicago Bulls. He gripped the handlebars, which only seemed to make the bike go faster, which only made him lose control.
Im gone, Williams said. Im flying. Im going 50, 60 miles an hour. As I look up, I see a utility pole, and I couldnt turn the bike and get out of the way.
Williams clipped the pole with his left side, which sent him spinning, around and around, over and over. He could not feel his left side or anything from the waist down. He did not think about death, amputation or depression. He thought only about his career.
He lay there, numb, in shock, terrified but so full of adrenaline that his body blocked out most of the pain. He passed out and woke up in an ambulance, passed out again and woke up in a hospital. Even the doctors looked scared. They needed to contact his parents, needed to operate immediately. They worried about amputation, about death.
Williams remembered little but clung to an image from the scene, his first glance sideways as he spun.
There it was: a red fire hydrant.
He screamed: You threw it all away! You threw it all away!
AN INESCAPABLE MEMORY
Imagine the worst day of your life.
Then imagine confronting that day every single day thereafter.
Imagine lying in intensive care, watching television as your team drafts your replacement. Imagine lying on your back, for months at a time, unsure whether you will walk again, your leg held together by staples and various metal contraptions.
Imagine the taunts, the ridicule, the built-in comeback Go buy another motorcycle, Williams. Imagine walking through an airport Way to screw your life up, Williams. Imagine working for ESPN, analyzing games Should have stuck to motorcycles, Williams.
Imagine life as the Guy Who Threw It All Away.
Ive thought back to that moment a lot because people wont let me forget, Williams said. And this might sound crazy, but it was the worst decision I made and the best thing that ever happened to me.
He added, This isnt a pity story.
Williams, 31, can say that now, more than nine years removed from the accident that nearly ended his life and irrevocably altered it. It took him that long to come to terms with the entirety of his story high school all-American, national player of the year and national champion at Duke, No. 2 overall NBA draft selection, and all that before the accident, before the hospital, before the injury that ended his professional career after one season and made him a retiree at 21.
In a series of interviews over the past three months, Williams, for the first time, detailed all that he went through.
For years, Williams struggled with depression. He refused to wear shorts or show anyone his left leg. He asked the inevitable: Why me? He took too much pain medication, too much OxyContin in particular, for too long. He blew out the candles for his 22nd birthday in bed. He spent years in rehabilitation. He resented the teammates who lacked his drive but remained in the NBA, collecting paychecks, accolades, even championship rings. He cried himself to sleep. He went to therapy. He moved to New York City and tried to become an agent and drank alcohol frequently.
In those dark years, he would run into people who expected the image he had once projected to the world: that of the clean-cut Duke point guard who posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated in khakis and a lettermans jacket, flashing a thumbs up, the photograph that best seemed to embody the stereotype of Duke, so prim and pristine. In strangers eyes, where he once saw awe or jealousy, he now saw pity, and from people, normal people, who could never understand the gifts he held.
At his lowest point, Williams did more than consider suicide. I remember lying in my bed, he said. And Im just tired of being here. I didnt want to be here anymore. I was so afraid to face people. And I didnt really know who I was. And I didnt really want anybody to see me. And I didnt want to talk to anybody. I didnt want to talk about it.
Williams glanced at his mother, Althea Williams, as he recounted the story. He continued: I mean, to the point where I sat there, and I had this pair of scissors in my hand. I just kept going on my wrist. I wasnt trying to go sideways. I was going vertical. I didnt want to be here. At all.
His mother added: I came in. I saw it. I slept in the room every day after that.
That was the lowest point in my life, Williams said. And if I had more time, if the scissors werent dull, I think I would have followed through with it. I cant say for sure. But I was leaning toward that.
MEMENTOS AND SCARS
Williams still lives in Durham, near the site of his greatest triumphs, surrounded by magazine covers and mementos from the glory days. A framed letter from Mike Krzyzewski reads, in part, I loved coaching you. Pictures show Williams with Duke assistants, Duke teammates; on defense, clad in a Duke jersey. There is little from his lone season with the Bulls.
When Dukes archrival, North Carolina, won the national championship in 2009, someone rang Williams doorbell, and when he opened it, he saw toilet paper covering much of his property. He suspected the Tar Heels fan next door. By the next morning, the toilet paper had been removed.
Mostly, Williams lives in peace, with his mother and a Rottweiler named Heaven, who replaced a Rottweiler named Duke who died a few years back.
Upstairs, near the pool table, surrounded by his Duke memorabilia, Williams allowed pictures of his leg to be taken for the first time since the accident.
It looks pretty gnarly, dude, he said.
The leg resembled a map of Williams lost years: remnants of 10-plus operations; marks from 100 staples; a scar that ran from pelvis to ankle; smaller divots from knee scopes. Williams suffered a total knee dislocation in the accident. He tore every ligament. He dislocated his pelvis. He ripped through a nerve in his left foot that took a year to regenerate, the pain comparable to that of childbirth, so severe it would wake Williams in the middle of the night. He severed an artery. He tore the hamstring from the bone.
As he lay in the hospital, his leg atrophied. He lost muscle, then tone, until the leg withered away and looked to Williams like a pencil, or a toothpick. Doctors told Williams he might never again be able to get an erection, despite all the pictures of scantily clad, beautiful women his friends jokingly left during hospital visits.
It looked similar to wounds Ive seen from military men and women, coming back from battle, said Jason Gauvin, one of Williams physical therapists, who now owns and runs Athletic Advantage Physical Therapy in Durham. Like he had been hit by an IED, with multiple severe injuries at the hip, knee and ankle joints.
Krzyzewski dared Williams to be different, to stay and obtain his degree. He majored in sociology, graduated early and turned professional after his junior season. For his final thesis paper, he studied athletes who left college early, their backgrounds, why they failed or succeeded.
His mother threw a draft party for him in Manhattan on the night in 2002 when the Bulls selected him second overall, behind Yao Ming, the Chinese center taken by the Houston Rockets. Althea invited all of Williams former girlfriends. That was awkward. The family celebrated until sunrise, exes notwithstanding.
Williams left for Chicago the next morning, the world spread below him, ripe with promise.
UPS, DOWNS AND A DISASTER
On the North Side of Chicago, near the intersection of Fletcher and Honore streets, there are no reminders that Jay Williams threw it all away in this quiet neighborhood crowded with two-story homes and parallel-parked cars. There is, however, more than one bright red fire hydrant, along with Bulls fans who remember what could have been and what was not.
Williams wanted the Bulls to draft him, wanted to follow Jordan, whose locker had sat empty until Williams took it and ratcheted up already enormous expectations. Fans screamed his name while he walked the streets. He drove down Interstate 90, where his face filled a billboard. And he thought to himself, You made it.
Althea Williams moved into a house near the Bulls practice facility, where she often rebounded while her only son shot jumpers after midnight. They remained as close as ever. Duke players called her Mama Will. She called them dude and introduced herself as Jays sister and carried pompoms to the games. Even now, she often stays with her son and coaches the Durham Senior Divas, a cheerleading squad.
She watched her son struggle to adapt to the NBA, to the lifestyle, to all the losing after he accumulated a 95-13 record at Duke. Williams defended Allen Iverson one game, Jason Kidd the next, Steve Nash the game after that. He fought for playing time with Jamal Crawford. He went from regimented Duke, with every day planned to the minute, into a looser environment, with millions of dollars in his bank account and more free time than hobbies with which to fill it.
By the end of his first season, he started to feel more comfortable, more able, especially on the court. That June, he returned to Duke, where he spoke at a basketball camp. Duke assistant Chris Collins said Williams played pickup games that weekend at a level he had never previously reached, schooling his college counterparts, scoring at will, pulling his own Jordan. Just thinking about it gives me chills, Collins said.
Williams later told the campers that they could never predict the future, that they needed to stay in school as much as they needed to practice. You never know what will happen, he said.
He flew back to Chicago the next morning. His motorcycle sat in the garage. He had picked up the hobby after college, when it seemed normal, when Kobe Bryant arrived at a game on a bike and Jordan sponsored his own race team, Michael Jordan Motorsports, and Shaquille ONeal reportedly raved about his Harley-Davidson collection.
Williams first purchased a Yamaha R3 with a red and black frame, a nod to his new teams colors. His mother hated the idea of the bike. She put gum in the ignition and joked about throwing the motorcycle off a nearby cliff.
The day after he spoke to the campers, Williams went for that fateful ride, crashed into that pole, smashed his leg in pieces. The news spread fast. Collins thought back instantly to what Williams told the campers. Baluyot felt nauseated and went home sick. Williams parents, who were in New Jersey, sped toward Chicago. Krzyzewski flew there on a private plane from Colorado, worried about Jasons recovery and, at a higher level, about him not being able to use his gift.
Althea stepped into the intensive care unit and slapped her sons head.
She yelled, Boy, didnt I tell you not to ride that bike?
A TEAM AS A FAMILY
Williams spent five weeks on his back, in intensive care, his leg propped up, hopped up on pain medication. There were no windows in the unit, only darkness and artificial light. One night, a nearby roof collapsed during a party, and Williams sat there, high and scared, as he listened to the screams. He hallucinated regularly. He once saw his father hovering over the bed and his mother near the ceiling.
The Bulls front office helped Williams beyond its contractual obligations, with his medical bills and other expenses. It paid some of Williams second-year salary, too. But his teammates in Chicago? Never heard from them.
After the stint in intensive care, Williams flew back to Duke. He rented a house near the Krzyzewskis. The university surrounded her son like a cloaking device, Althea Williams said. Like something out of Star Trek.
Krzyzewski stopped by occasionally, even assessed the form on Williams jump shot once he got around to shooting again. Carlos Boozer flew back to hang out. Chris Duhon pushed Williams wheelchair around. Mike Dunleavy Jr. sent text messages. Here was everything Krzyzewski talked about in college, a basketball team that doubled as a family. Wow, Williams thought, everything he preached to us was real.
Williams did some type of physical therapy every day, often twice, for two years. His mother prayed at least that often. When he asked what if, she flipped the question. What if he had died? What if he had lost his leg? Gauvin, the physical therapist, took one look at that leg, all gnarled and scarred, and told Williams he was lucky the surgical team in Chicago had managed to save it below the knee.
While in therapy, Williams masked his depression, same as he did in public. He treated each session like a game, each repetition like a critical championship moment.
At first, Williams knee bent very little. He could not squat, or ride a bicycle, or sit down without pushing the knee at an angle awkwardly in front of him. He worked on bending, on squatting, on flexibility.
Gauvin and the rest of the therapists taught Williams how to walk again. They broke it down, step by excruciating step: developing the strength and balance to stand upright, then the ability to accept weight on the injured leg, then the mechanics of taking a step.
BEST JOB IN THE WORLD
Williams steered his black Mercedes S550 toward the office, which, on this Saturday in December, happened to be Dean Smith Center, in nearby Chapel Hill.
Good old Carolina, he said as he pulled onto campus, which sounded strange coming from Mr. Duke. I love this place. That old Carolina blue. Its so beautiful, man.
That Williams starred for North Carolinas rival was not lost on the locals. As he prepared for an ESPN broadcast, they chided his purple shirt, which matched the color of that days opponent, East Carolina. They asked for pictures and reminisced about old games, old plays, like the shot he swished from the Carolina logo near midcourt. One usher called him Jay Carolina Williams. He shook his head and smiled.
As the game drew near, sweat showed under the armpits of that purple shirt. Williams sat forward, as if ready to play, in the front row but no longer on the court. Best job in the world, man, he said.
It took about six years for Williams to arrive there, at his next vocation, comfortable with himself. Like most players, he identified with basketball before he lost it, same as Clark Kellogg, another player turned analyst who shed many a tear when I stopped playing. Unlike Kellogg, Williams retired at 21, before his career had really started.
At first, Williams tried to return to the NBA. He did not attempt a comeback for the money. The Guy Who Threw It All Away had put some savings in the bank. Most of his initial contract, in fact, more than $3 million. He lived off his endorsement income from Adidas and Chevrolet and others in that first season.
The Nets granted Williams a tryout. One owner hooked Williams up with a Zen-master type who taught him crazy dances and yoga poses. The moment Williams stepped back on the court in an NBA jersey, in training camp in 2006, provided what he called the happiest and saddest feeling of my life. Happiest because he made it back, from a wheelchair to the highest level, and there were moments when he felt and played and scored like his old, explosive self. Saddest because of how fleeting those flashes were.
Williams still processed the game in the same way. He saw an opponent with his right foot an inch higher than his left, and he knew to attack that right foot, to put his left shoulder into the defenders chest, knocking the defender off balance, clearing a path to the hoop. He could see that, but he could no longer react quickly enough to act out the visions in his head. He wore a bulky contraption on his left foot and a special shoe to keep his foot and toes from dragging.
He even joined the Austin Toros in the Development League, where his coach, Dennis Johnson, promised to get Williams back into the NBA. Then Williams tore his hamstring and ended up back in the hospital. While he was recovering, Johnson died of a heart attack.
Dude, Im done, Williams said of his mindset then. Im chasing a ghost. Its over.
Williams spoke again at a Duke basketball camp, told his story, even about how he considered suicide, as tears welled in Krzyzewskis eyes. Williams walked onto the floor, aided by crutches, at Cameron Indoor Stadium, his jersey already hanging in the rafters. He mentored younger players. He focused on the run and not the way it ended.
Its when he started to believe that there was more to Jason than his true love, Althea Williams said. And that was basketball. He doesnt want to be pigeonholed in his career now. He wants to do so many things. He doesnt realize he pigeonholed himself into basketball for all those years. He was so shallow in terms of who he really was.
Eventually, Williams latched on with ESPN and ESPNU. His credentials appealed to the network, as did his potential as an analyst.
FOCUS ON THE FUTURE
His physical pain lingers, and when it is cold or damp outside, the knee creaks like an old wooden door. Sometimes, he asks his girlfriend, ESPNs Charissa Thompson, to simply rub the knee, the action serves as a magic elixir that puts Williams right to sleep. He wears sandals indoors because of poor circulation. He takes longer to recover from workouts. He sometimes trips as he walks.
He will deal with the decision he made to ride that motorcycle, the physical repercussions, for the rest of his life, Gauvin said. He will not wake up one day and be recovered.