by Jay Williams, Special to ESPN.com
After just one season with the Chicago Bulls, a team starved for a new messiah since Michael Jordan’s retirement, Jay Williams destroyed his career when he suffered a horrific motorcycle accident. In an instant, the man with perhaps as fast a first step as any point guard in history could no longer do anything for himself, including walk.
In “Life Is Not An Accident,” Jay Williams shares his story — both heartbreaking and uplifting — of being a young man trying to wrest control of his life from his overinvolved parents, from the pleasures and perils of fame and money, and from the near-fatal mistake that threatened to define him.
After a decade spent recovering from his injuries — the rehabilitations, the comeback attempts, the professional forays into the seedy underside of sports agenting — Williams recounts with a rare honesty his hard-fought path to college basketball stardom and the painful lessons he has learned while reconstructing his fractured adulthood.
The following is an excerpt from “Life Is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention” by Jay Williams.
On the day I almost died, I remember waking from an afternoon nap to the full glory of the sun hanging over the lake like the tip of a sparkler. The master bedroom in my place in Chicago had floor-to-ceiling windows and a wraparound deck with a patio that connected to the living room. You could turn left and see the skyscrapers. Turn to the right and there was Lake Michigan, looking as limitless as an ocean. It was one of three modern-inspired units on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt on Michigan Avenue. I had been there just about a year, and every time I opened the front door, I would step into the foyer in shock at how my life had drastically changed. It was spectacular.
In places like Los Angeles or Miami, you take days like June 19, 2003, for granted. But in Chicago, where the winters are so cold, dark, and long that the locals call it Chiberia, days like these are treated like precious jewels. While standing in front of the window in my bedroom, I took a deep breath and gazed upon my new city of dreams. I reached out and pressed my hand against the window to feel the warmth of the light and thought to myself, Today is going to be an amazing day.
So many people look at what happened to me later that afternoon through the prism of a ruined NBA career, but that’s not how I think about it today, or at least that’s not the only way I think about it. The way I see it, it’s a reminder of how things can change in a flash. There’s a saying that a sense of immortality is a curse carried only by the young, but I disagree. We all do it — take the future for granted. That’s just human nature. Then one day you wake up in your perfect apartment on a perfect day, with your perfect job, leave for a meeting, and never see that perfect apartment again.
The day before, I had flown down to Durham, North Carolina, to talk to some students at a basketball camp at my alma mater, Duke. Afterwards, I played pickup ball with some of the Duke players while Chris Collins, who was still an assistant under Coach Mike Krzyzewski at the time, watched.
Ever since my rookie season with the Bulls wrapped in April — we were only 24 games out of playoff contention — I had headed to the gym to work my ass off for the following season. I hadn’t realized how much I had improved, but Chris Collins saw it right away. “Man, your game has gone to another level,” he said. “You are going to dominate the league next year if you keep playing like that.”
The next morning, I got up to take a crack-of-dawn flight home to Chicago. When I got to my condo downtown, I threw my bags down, got undressed, and fell right into bed to take the first of two power naps that day. When the alarm went off an hour later, I forced myself out of bed. I had committed to a workout at the Bulls practice facility with some of my teammates and was excited to test out Coach Collins’ prediction that I was going to dominate the league next season.
As usual, Jamal Crawford and I went at it. Only this time, something felt different … in a good way. My legs weren’t heavy like they’d been the entire year — the adjustment from playing 40 games in a college season to 82 as a pro had been gruesome. I left the workout thinking this was going to be my year. It was all starting to click.
I was running on fumes as I made the hour-long trip back to my place downtown. I finally got home, tossed the car keys on the counter, stripped down, and crashed.
I couldn’t sleep for long because I had scheduled a brainstorming session with my marketing agent Kevin Bradbury. When I woke up, I was even more drained than before. Within the past 24 hours, I’d been in Durham playing ball, partied that night into the wee hours of the morning, caught the first flight back to O’Hare, a nap, a training session, another nap — and here we are.
As much as I wanted to bail on the meeting with Kevin, my dad had raised me to keep my appointments; so I dragged myself out of bed, again, and started to get ready.
I had a deal with Chevrolet at the time. They gave me a Tahoe and a Corvette as part of the agreement. The SUV was perfect for the Chicago winters, but it wasn’t winter. It was summer. Finally. And a perfect day at that. The Corvette always made me feel like a 55-year-old man trying to recapture his youth, so I decided to take my motorcycle out instead. It was a black Yamaha R6 with red accents.
I can’t remember exactly how my obsession with bikes began.
I had seen photos of Michael Jordan riding all kinds of exotic motorcycles as a player and remember thinking how badass he looked.
I would be lying if I said no one warned me about motorcycles. They did. But the more everyone told me I shouldn’t be riding a bike, the more I wanted to ride. We all know how that works.
I had worked hard to become an NCAA champion, a two-time national player of the year, and the second pick of the draft, and yet I had this team of people around me always telling me what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I wanted — no, I needed — to make my own decisions, to have some control over my own life. The Yamaha R6 symbolized that for me.
But I was that prototypical young hotshot who thought he had all the answers. For starters, I had never taken a single riding class. Motorcycle license? What for? Money and arrogance were all I needed. I walked into the first and only bike shop I’d ever been in, saw the R6, and bought it on the spot. And that was that.
I started hanging around bike shops, buying gear. Eventually I met a group of guys who liked riding at high speeds late at night, when there were fewer cars on the road.
I kept riding with them until one night, one guy I barely knew lost control of his bike and crashed. He was ahead of me on the right going about 90 miles an hour. His front wheel started to wobble and he lost control. It was the scariest thing I had ever seen. The bike flipped, and his body flew for what seemed like forever. When he finally landed, he hit the highway like a rock being skipped across a pond. All of us stopped immediately to barricade the accident area from other vehicles. As I approached him, there was blood everywhere and his body looked torn apart. He ended up only suffering a few broken bones, but it was enough to scare me from ever riding at those speeds again, though not enough to give it up entirely. I couldn’t; it meant too much to me.
The meeting with Kevin was only a couple of miles away, so I instinctively grabbed the keys to the bike. I didn’t bother grabbing my helmet, since it was a gorgeous day out and I wanted to feel the sun on my face.
At the end of our session, Kevin asked me what else I had planned for the day, and I told him, “I have no clue. Just headed home and maybe another workout.” We walked out the front door and I climbed on my bike as we continued talking about this and that.
“You shouldn’t be riding that thing,” he said.
“Kevin, I shouldn’t be doing a lot of things,” I said. A few minutes later, I was bleeding to death.
There weren’t a lot of people around when I was driving away, but I revved my engine anyway. Kevin was still standing in the doorway watching, and I wanted to make sure that he heard my new exhaust. As I coasted down the street, I revved the bike twice — the second time louder than the first. Then, in the middle of my third rev, I heard a click-click sound and the bike popped up and shot off. My first thought was that the gears had slipped and I had to control the situation. If I had just let go of the motorcycle, chances are I would’ve walked away with some bumps and bruises. Maybe a broken arm. But I held on.
My hands were already on the handlebars; the front tire was in the air, and I was almost trying to wrestle it to the ground. My grip tightened as I tried to hold on, and maybe that even revved the throttle a little more. I must’ve accelerated by 20 miles an hour in a split second as the back wheel aggressively spun out of control, abruptly redirecting me to the right while forcing me to lean backwards, which was the last thing I wanted to do. I was terrified that I was going to slip off the back and have the bike fall directly on top of me. Looking back, that would’ve been a way better scenario. But I leaned forward, looking down, trying to use all my weight to get the front wheel back down…
And then I saw it … the pole.
It was too late. All I could do was tense up, prepare for the impact, and hope for the best.
I couldn’t tell you which pole I hit, but the crash sounded like two cars colliding head-on. I couldn’t turn my body completely out of the way, so I ended up clipping my entire left side, which flung me into a horizontal spinning motion parallel to the ground. In those seconds, everything seemed to slow down. While in the air, I remember thinking, You’ve seen this before. You lived this before.
And I had, incredibly, in a dream four years prior, a dream so strange it had stayed with me. …
It was the night before the first game I ever played for Duke — in Madison Square Garden, no less, at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic — and I was trying to sleep in my bedroom at the Marriott Marquis high above Times Square. In the hotel, my teammates and I were separated from the rest of the world: it was our safe haven, where we could focus on the mission at hand.
But I was too anxious to fall asleep. I was about to play Stanford in the Garden, the place I had dreamed of playing at since I was a little boy growing up in Plainfield, New Jersey, just 25 miles away. I was heading into my first game starting for a Hall of Fame coach who had just lost the national championship to UConn only seven months prior, in a game his team was expected to win. I was about to play the biggest game of my life in the shadows of all the Duke greats. Guys like Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley, Johnny Dawkins. And I’d be playing before the nation, on ESPN.
Finally, after hours and hours of tossing and turning, I dozed off. Soon I felt this magnificent, incredible breeze on my face. But I was getting dizzy. In the distance up ahead I saw something that I was going to crash into … and then I jerked awake. It was four fifteen in the morning. I sat up in my bed, thinking, What the hell was that?!
Was that, somehow, a sign, a warning, and I missed it?
The impact when I landed was immediate, like an anchor being dropped into water. I was face down. My chest was lying directly flat on the grassy area between the curb and the sidewalk; my legs lay outstretched on top of each other, almost disconnected from my body on the pavement at a 90-degree angle. My lower extremities were motionless as the curb pressed against my abdomen.
I began screaming Kevin’s name over and over again. I was in so much pain and unable to move, from my midsection down. I was certain that I was paralyzed. With my cheek flush against the grass, I could see Kevin running toward me. As he got closer, I remember his mouth opening wide in shock, almost in disbelief at what he was seeing. All the color left his face as he stood over me, horrified. It looked as if someone had reached into his body and yanked out his soul. His expression was all the confirmation I needed about what I had done. I started crying and pounding my right fist against the grass while screaming, “I threw it all away! I threw it all away! I threw it all away!”
Kevin yelled for help while pulling out his cell phone to dial 911. I started to feel the sensation of someone pouring a pitcher of scalding hot water from my pelvic area down to my feet. I went into shock as the pain began to override my senses. Kevin was holding my hand, telling me everything was going to be all right — ever again.
I had done this to myself. And the pain from that reality, as I would soon discover, would not be tempered by morphine, and would last long after my broken bones had healed. As I lay there on the ground, the lower half of my body now feeling like it was on a bed of burning embers, I couldn’t help but think that seeing that biker break his collarbone during one of my late-night rides was yet another sign I had ignored.
“It’s going to be OK, you’re going to be fine,” Kevin repeated, desperate to get me to calm down.
I was slowly bleeding to death internally. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to live.
Not long before, I had been lying in bed, gazing out my window at the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan as sunlight tickled the waves. I had a business meeting with one of my best friends in the world. I was going to hit the gym and maybe grab some lunch afterwards. Today was going to be amazing. Today was going to be perfect.