Everything changed for Jay Williams in June 2003, when the former Blue Devil point guard crashed his motorcycle in Chicago and sustained serious leg injuries that curtailed his NBA career. The Chronicle’s Ryan Hoerger spoke with Williams, now an ESPN college basketball analyst, about his new memoir, "Life Is Not An Accident." Their conversation has been condensed for clarity.
The Chronicle: There are so many different things that you touch on in this book, well beyond just the motorcycle crash. What was it like going through the process of putting it on paper?
Jay Williams: There were a lot of things in my past that I tried to compartmentalize to try to move on with my life. And I think we all do that to a certain extent, right? We try to push the negatives all the way to the back and just focus on the positives. For so long, I was climbing this mountain of frustration because I was trying to get back all the things that I felt that I had lost. It wasn’t until I finally forced myself to stop and reflect about how far I’d climbed until I realized ‘Wow—there’s so much here that I’ve done in the past 13 years, I feel like I’m a 65-year-old man, even though I’m only 34.’ Writing the book was cathartic and extremely difficult at the same time, because you often wonder, ‘How much do I want to share with the general public about my private life? Do I want to talk about issues with my parents, do I want to talk about my relationship with Coach K?' It finally got to the point where you realize that I’m just like everybody else—everybody has their demons that they struggle with. I was tired of being held captive to my own misery.
TC: This feels like a book that has the potential to help other people open up about their own issues. Do you agree?
JW: When I was writing the book, I had a lot of friends who were going through their own “accidents.” My girlfriend went through a divorce that was horrific. I went through friends that lost their jobs during the financial crisis and I watched them and their families go through their accidents. Losing a loved one—we’ve all experienced some of these, and we all handle them differently. I got to a certain point where I said ‘I hope my character isn’t defined by this accident, but how I pick myself up after the accident.’ You talk about the ways that Coach K has enabled me to be better prepared for life—that comes back to something he’s been saying to me since I was 17 years old. ‘I’m not going to ridicule you or chastise you for a turnover—I want to see what you do after that turnover. That shows me more about your character than turning the ball over. I want you to think next play’ and that’s a philosophy I had to incorporate into my life.
TC: The first chapter details everything that happened on that day in June 2003 leading up to the motorcycle accident. It’s pretty vivid and graphic, and lots of people would try to wipe that from their minds. Why start with it?
JW: It felt like I was having the accident all over again. We had the first idea to open up the book with the accident because I just wanted to get it out of the way. The point was to start with what people would consider one of the worst days of my life, but also show the perspective at the end of the book about how one of the worst days of my life became one of the best days. I think that’s the overall mantra of the book—How did I turn one of the worst days of my life into one of the best days of my life? My accident was painful, but it was also extremely meaningful, because it shifted the path of my life. I’m not saying the path I was going down was ultimately going to be destructive, but it could have been. People associate money and fame with success in life, and the two don’t necessarily go together. Just because you have millions of dollars doesn’t necessarily make you mature, or make you live a better life than someone who maybe doesn’t have the money.
TC: You make the point in the book about your accident not occurring during the social media age. How do you think things would have been different had the accident been subjected to today’s new cycle?
JW: I’m sure it would’ve been difficult, but one of the things that's a blessing in the way our times are changing is that the news cycle is so quick that it would be constantly discussed, but we’re quick to move on to the next topic as well. There’s always something that the media is throwing down your throat. It would’ve been more difficult and easy at the same time, whereas back then a lot of stuff came out in print. The news cycle was a lot slower, so there was more time to focus on the story, and there was a ton of follow-up that occurred with it. So it was give-and-take, different scenarios, but it was still difficult at that given moment because when the initial blurt of news comes out, everybody rushes to your attention. And that’s not when times are most difficult. The times become most difficult when everybody moves on to the next news cycle issue, and you’re left alone in your own misery. It’s easy to become a prisoner of your past.
TC: After all the rehab and recovery and the comeback attempt in the NBA, how did you make the transition to becoming a TV analyst?
JW: When you’re on the court, mentally you have to be into the game, but there were a lot of things physically that allowed me to impose my will. One of the biggest challenges I had was learning how to engage in intellectual warfare, not taking it personally. Now after doing it for [a while], there’s art that comes along with doing it that I understand now. But in my initial years, I wasn’t prepared as well as I am now. When you’re breaking down college basketball, you’re not breaking down the NBA, where there are 30 teams. You’re breaking down an industry where there’s over 350 Division I teams, and you don’t have the luxury of reading off a teleprompter. You’re supposed to know any given fact at any given time of the day, and then you’re doing TV. What camera am I speaking into—are we doing a three-shot, am I in a single shot? Oh by the way, my host is asking me a question. How is my co-analyst going to debate me? Oh by the way, I have a producer in my ear telling me this is what’s coming up next. There’s a lot to manage when you’re on air, not just talk hoops and have fun. There’s a lot that goes on and it’s very difficult to not seem robotic—that takes time to adjust. It’s similar to being a point guard for Coach K. What’s on the shot clock? What set are we in? Has Carlos Boozer gotten a touch? Has [Mike] Dunleavy gotten a touch? Maybe I need to run a play for myself. Hey, Coach K’s giving me a signal from the sideline for the play we need to run. What defense are we in after we score on this possession? There’s so much that comes into it that it doesn’t become second nature until you do it for a while.
TC: How does your body feel now, 13 years after the accident?
JW: Each day is a constant reminder of that June 2003 day. That’s okay, though. I feel like an old person—my joints still swell. When I’m in a heated environment, down in Florida, I feel amazing. When it rains, I feel crappy. When it’s cold and it’s stiff, my knee feels cold and stiff and crappy, same with my pelvis. There are different things that I have to take, different vitamins that help me with joint strength. The probability of me having to go through a knee replacement in the next 10-15 years is probably high. But the pain makes me recognize that I’m alive, and it makes me cherish the moments I have. I can still go outside and play basketball, I still do it. Am I in a lot more pain now than what I was before? 100 percent. It’s okay. I still have my left leg, I can still run, I can still have a family. So once again, this life is about mentality. The true character of who we are is not defined by that entity that brought us to our knees, but rather by how we decide to pick ourselves back up. That is everything.
TC: Looking back at everything you poured into this book, is there something that stands out to you—how do you define your career?
JW: It’s a scope, it’s a story. It’s somebody that was never deemed good enough in high school, but you get the attention, you make it. I had a rocky freshman year for Coach K and I decided to skip going home, stay [in Durham] and work my tail off to become a two-time National Player of the Year and score 2,079 points in three years. I always joke with J.J. [Redick] that he would have never had the record [if I’d stayed for four years]. And it’s a guy who gets drafted second overall and goes to the Bulls and then has an accident, and has picked himself back up. I think if I could describe my story and my career, I’m a fighter, man, I’m a competitor. I still am in every aspect of my life, and basketball was just a vehicle that brought that attribute out.
TC: Now that the Super Bowl is over, college football is over, people are coming around to college basketball. Is this your favorite time of the year?
JW: Finally, man, we have one month. You talk about how close we are to Selection Sunday, and it’s always been fascinating for me because my job starts in September, we start breaking these teams down. We’re in the February and all of a sudden people are like ‘Hey, I didn’t know Maryland was in the Big Ten.’ I’m like ‘We’ve been talking about that all year!’
TC: What are your thoughts on this year's Duke team, playing without Amile Jefferson right now, and where they might end up?
JW: I love how people blow things out of proportion. The question I get all the time is ‘What’s wrong with your Blue Devils?’ I’m like ‘What do you mean, what’s wrong with my Blue Devils?’ They’re right there in the upper tier of the ACC, they lost three top-25 picks in the draft, and by the way, they lost one of their best post defenders and the heart and soul of their team and they’re still finding ways to win games. You have to give a ton of credit to Coach K for having his team in a position to capitalize. And look, will they win the ACC regular season? No, I don’t think so. Could they win the ACC tournament? Yes. Could they get to a Final Four? Potentially. If there’s one thing that we’ve seen this year in college basketball, it’s the unexpected—expect the unexpected. Everybody has their warts, their issues, so if there’s anybody that can take a team that’s a little bit undermanned and get them to believe in themselves, it’s probably one of the best motivators of all time in Coach K.