Jason Williams enshrined in Duke Athletics Hall of Fame
Standing under his No. 22 hanging in the rafters, it was only fitting that one of the seven newest Duke Hall of Famers opened his speech by recounting how he made his decision to be a Blue Devil.
"The first time I set foot in here I was 16 years old, and unfortunately there was somebody who happened to win National Player of the Year who had worn my favorite number in high school. My favorite number was 32," said Williams, referring to Christian Laettner's No. 32 that hangs beside his. "My father and I were in the gym, and my father asked me a question, and this is by no means a disrespect to the other school. He asked me, 'Would you rather be a king among the poor, or would you rather be a king among kings?' And he looked up at the rafters, and he saw that 11, 33 and 44 were all retired, and he said 'You know what son? The missing link is No. 22.' And every time I come into this room and I see that number hanging from the rafters it lets me know that I did something great."
For Williams, enshrinement in his school's Hall of Fame was less of a coronation, and more of an affirmation that the 32-year-old continues to be deeply woven into the fabric of one of college basketball's most storied programs.
Williams received a similar honor 11 years ago when he had his number retired just before his final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, capping off a career in which the Plainfield, N.J., native averaged 19.3 points per game in three seasons, twice being named a first team All-American.
Just months later, Williams graduated with a sociology degree from Duke after three years of school. Six weeks after graduation, he was selected with the second overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. And one year after his NBA career began, it came to an abrupt and untimely end.
A motorcycle accident June 19, 2003 nearly cost Williams the use of his left leg and required nearly a year of extensive rehabilitation. As Williams lay in a hospital bed, he considered—and later attempted—suicide. More than a decade later, the Duke Hall of Famer said it was the support from his parents that ultimately led him through his darkest days.
"Getting hurt said a lot about some of the people I had around me when it happened," Williams said. "Look, we all go through dark moments, right? My dark moment came when I was a 21-year old kid and I got hurt, spent months in a hospital, spent almost a year in bed in North Carolina. I thought about... suicide, and those were the two constants in my life who were always there to tell me to keep fighting."
More than a decade later, Williams can reflect on the success of his Blue Devil teammates in the NBA. Most of Williams' fellow starters on Duke's 2001 national championship team have since become reliable NBA veterans, leaving the public to wonder what role the Blue Devils' star could have thrived in at the next level.
"Now seeing all of my teammates, Dunleavy, Boozer play for Chicago, seeing Shane accomplish what he's been able to accomplish down in Miami—we had a really special team, and there is no way I am in this position without those guys," Williams said. "They continue to prove that more and more each day."
Since recovering from his injury, Williams has found a new role off the hardwood—working as a college basketball analyst for ESPN alongside many of the pundits who once touted him as the nation's top player. Among Williams' new colleagues is former Blue Devil Jay Bilas, who served as master of ceremonies for the Hall of Fame Induction and Williams refers to as one of his closest friends and mentors.
Williams said there is not a day that goes by where he does not think about his time with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who instilled in him the confidence to succeeded in a career off the basketball court.
"Each and every day of my life that I am removed away from this program, it continues to show me how impressive of a coach he is," Williams said. "A lot of the values that we learned on the court are life lessons that we continue to use every single day. And it continues to reflect and show you not only why he's successful on the court, but if you're able to take these values and actually install them in your everyday life you can be successful off the court."
As Williams recounted the ups and downs of his career and his favorite Duke memories on the stage, it gave his friends and teammates a glimpse of the 21-year-old kid who stood in a similar spot 11 years ago—standing at center stage smiling, laughing and back on top of the world.
"A lot of people come up to me and they say 'I'm sorry you're not playing anymore.'" Williams said. "And I say, 'There's nothing to be sorry about. Basketball wasn't my default plan. What I did here—that's my main plan.'"